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Editorial: Is anyone still undecided about the referendum? UPDATED

As pointed out by Dermod Travis of Integrity BC, there’s been lot written recently, both for and against proportional representation.  For those having trouble deciding how to vote, try the link provided at the bottom of this piece.

Some of what we've all seen has been outright false.  Claims that rural residents will “lose representation” with proportional representation are false; each of the three systems offered ensures that there will be no loss of local representation, in rural as well as urban areas.

Claims that proportional representation will “enable extremists” are not borne out by evidence in other countries; extremists have just as much chance to get power in first-past-the-post, and when they get power under FPTP, they generally have all the power and can be checked only by the judiciary, if at all. In a proportional representation system, any extremists elected will be checked by the other elected representatives, who will outnumber them.

Many people will vote for FPTP because they are afraid of change – any  kind of change.  They will disregard the fact that if voters choose proportional representation, we get to “try before we buy” – two election cycles later, we would get to vote in another referendum on whether to keep proportional representation, or change back to FPTP.  We get protection from “buyer’s remorse.”

Among the many things that have been published in the mainstream press was an article by Gordon Gibson, who was given the job of designing a process for choosing a system of proportional representation to be voted upon by BC.  He designed the “Citizens’ Assembly” – a group of 160 voters, who studied voting systems and took a year to recommend Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the province.  When they voted, 58% of British Columbians voted in favour of the change to STV at that time. But the government of the day had set a bar of 60%, so the vote was deemed to have failed.

This time around, the government sent out questionnaires designed to elicit information about what voters want in a voting system.  Rather than being based on the opinions of 160 people, the three voting systems offered now are a result of gathering input from as many individuals and groups in BC as possible. 

Ninety-one thousand, seven hundred and twenty-five individuals completed a questionnaire, and the responses were analyzed.  With the complexity of the input, it seemed best to offer a choice of systems.

To qualify as one of the systems offered, a system had to meet four criteria–it had to:

·       Retain local representation;

·       Be simple enough for voters to understand;

·       Be proportional – that is, the number of a party’s MLAs will closely reflect that party’s share of the popular vote;

·       Not require the addition of more than eight MLAs to the Legislature to ensure proportionality.

One issue with the STV system chosen by Gordon Gibson’s Citizens’ Assembly is that it would not have worked as well for the large, rural ridings.  That’s why it was not offered this time, except as the urban component of the Rural-Urban PR system.

Gibson is understandably attached to his own creation; that doesn’t mean that it produced the best result. Nor does it mean that his attacks on the current referendum process have any basis in reality.

Even if this referendum process is less than perfect, I don’t see that as a reason to stick with a much-more-flawed  electoral system. 

One criticism of proportional representation that may be true is that, in some cases, it may take more time to decide how the parties will agree to govern.  However, even that may be an advantage; there will be less likelihood of a party that has suddenly gained power immediately doing everything it can to dismantle the previous government’s work, as we've seen  lately in Ontario under Doug Ford (elected with a minority of votes under FPTP) and in the United States under Donald Trump (also elected under  a form of FPTP, with a minority of the popular vote).

A little breathing space after the election may save a lot of time and taxpayer money in the long term, by avoiding expensive “policy lurches.”

Another criticism frequently heard about proportional representation for BC is that it will result in “perpetual minority governments” --  which seems particularly ironic, given that most of our governments have been supported by only a minority of the voters.  The advantage of proportional representation over FPTP with regard to “minority” governments is that with proportional representation, each party gets to exercise the share of power accorded to it by the voters. No one or two parties can be guaranteed tenure in power by proportional representation:  power will still shift, but not abruptly.

Besides, there is absolutely nothing to prevent any party from obtaining a true majority, with a majority of the popular vote.  It has happened with FPTP and it could just as well happen with proportional representation.

One critic, Liberal Kevin Falcon, has claimed in an opinion piece for PostMedia that the current NDP/Green alliance does “not enjoy the mandate necessary to implement such far-reaching changes to our democracy. In contrast, when our government put forward the 2005 referendum in our first term, we had received the largest electoral victory in B.C. history.”   Whoa!  Back up here.  The present NDP/Green alliance represents 57.12% of the voters, because that’s how many voted either NDP or Green. 

That  57.12% is very close to the percentage of  votes that won “largest electoral victory in BC history”  -- when the BC Liberals got  57.69% of the vote in 2005.  Yes, that’s more than the current NDP/Green alliance, but it’s only slightly  over one-half of one percent more.  I have to take Falcon’s contempt for the current government’s “mandate” with several grains of salt.

How is it that the Liberals got over 97% of the seats with only 57.69% of the vote in 2005? Well, that’s just one of the hallmarks of the FPTP system:  a very weak relationship between the votes cast and the power gained (or not gained).

Another criticism of proportional representation focuses (again, falsely) on the “party list.”   “Party insiders will choose your MLA!” trumpets the “no” side.  But wait – who chooses your MLA candidates now?  Their parties elect them.  Maybe even those dreaded “party insiders” – in other words, those who are most involved with their political party.  Often, all that most voters have ever known about a candidate is which party she or he represents.  MLAs under proportional representation would still be elected by the voters, as well as by their parties.

Now we’re hearing that not many people have voted in the referendum yet, and that low voter turnout “threatens the credibility” of the referendum. 

Municipal elections in BC often have low voter turn-out.  When did you last hear of a municipal council, or any other elected body,  being de-elected because of low voter turn-out? 

Failure to vote is deplorable, but decisions are made by those who care enough to vote.  I think it will be a very sad commentary on the state of our society if few people take advantage of our ability to decide things by voting on them, but  if people don’t vote,  they are agreeing to be bound by whatever decision is made by people who do vote.  

For those struggling with the decision, there is an on-line tool to help:  try this link.