“What people want to know is,’ do I have a better opportunity to have my views reflected in the legislature with the system today or with a different system?’” John Horgan Premier of BC
Canadians value fairness yet we tolerate a basically unfair system to elect our representatives. In BC this autumn we have an opportunity to correct that problem. Between Oct 22 and Nov. 30 there will be a referendum conducted by mail in ballot in which the question is asked, ‘Do you want to change the present past the post electoral system –yes or no?’ If you do want to change it, you have three choices for proportional representation voting systems and you can decide on the one you want.
There is lots of information available as to why you should vote for changing the system and explanations as to how the three pro rep options would work. What I want to discuss in this column is the opposition, those who are fighting the change to a more fair system. I’d taking this approach because I recently had a discussion with a friend who said at this point they would vote for the status quo, first past the post. His reasoning was that he did not trust the Greens and felt pro rep would give the Green Party even more power in the future.
I was surprised at this for a number of reasons but mainly I wondered if my friend realized who he was allying himself with. The BC Liberal Party, assorted right wing business types and fuzzy old federal politicians are leading the charge to maintain the old system. BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson has stated that defeating pro rep is the Liberals’ number one priority. His tweet on Jan. 24th of this year explains why. “If this rigged referendum on proportional representation succeeds it could signal the end of free enterprise in BC.” The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association have gone to court to stop the referendum. Jim Shepard, former CEO of Canfor and a big Liberal Party funder, has taken out full page ads in BC newspapers opposing pro rep. The official anti pro rep organization is fronted by former Socred bureaucrat Bob Plecas, NDP lobbyist Bill Tielman and former BC Liberal cabinet minister Susan Anton. Their website is liberally sprinkled by testimonies from Liberal politicians and displaced Liberal bureaucrats.
They are opposed to pro rep for a very specific reason. They will not be able to control the political life of this province any longer. One of their primary arguments is that, in the “winner take all” system, political parties supposedly have to take in all political views and these political ideas are somehow blended to create a homogenous world view that makes everyone happy. This is the big tent theory. Thus the Liberals are a “big tent” political party taking in all the “free enterprise” supporters and their fear is that big tent will collapse if conservative voters feel they have a realistic alternative to the Liberals.
I assume in Tielman’s mind the NDP is the big tent for progressive folks and his worry is that the Greens and potentially other progressive parties could take votes away from the NDP. If so he is one of a minority of NDPers who do not support pro rep. The Federal NDP fought hard to bring in pro rep and obviously the provincial wing, now that they are in power, have pushed forward this referendum.
In reality, big tent party politics rarely reflect what is happening with the grassroots. Many viewpoints are stifled and new ideas are marginalized. It leads to strictly binary choices; in too many voters’ minds this becomes a choice between the lesser of two evils which in turn leads to cynicism and lower voter participation in the political debate. Increasing that participation is the raison d’etre of pro rep.
If you look at voter turnout in various OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, most countries with some form of pro rep have better turnouts. Having a pro rep system is not the only reason of course but the numbers are pretty clear. In the three nations without a pro rep system the numbers for voter turnout are: United Kingdom 63%, Canada 62 % and the US 55%. In the nations often cited by the No to Pro Rep side: Israel 76%, New Zealand 75% and Italy 65%. That is just the quantity aspect of the participation; the quality is also often improved.
Too often under the present system the pendulum merely swings back and forth between two parties, and the motivation to vote is just to “throw the bums out”. Under proportional representative voting you actually vote for policies you want and for politicians you like. Under this system you are not only motivated to go to the polls but also more likely to pay attention to a party’s policies. It is positive change.
That affects not just the voter but the parties too. As Nathan Cullen said in a recent speech in favour of switching to a pro rep system in BC, it will make the Legislature a more cooperative place for conducting politics as politicians will have to be more respectful and work with each other instead of acting like a bunch of frat boys out to score political points. The present cooperation agreement between the NDP and the Greens demonstrates the kind of productive governance we would get with pro rep. Maybe that is another reason the Liberals are so opposed to voters changing our antiquated system.
Of course adopting one of the forms listed on the ballot is not an instant cure-all for the crisis in our democracy. There still needs to be some reform of how the media, including social media, covers elections in particular and politics in general. However, with the campaign finance reforms passed earlier, and if citizens of BC adopt pro rep this fall, we will be miles ahead of the rest of Canada in bringing some honesty and some sanity to the political landscape.