By GARY HOLMAN
Attorney General David Eby, after extensive public consultation, has just released details on the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. There will be two questions. The first is whether voters support changing our current first past the post (FPTP) system to one based on proportional representation (PR). The second question will provide direction to government on which one of three specific PR options to implement.
Critics have complained that the 50 per cent approval threshold for the referendum is too low — ironic given that the current system gives single parties 100 per cent of the power with much less than 50 per cent of voter support. Eby’s announcement, coming six months before the mail-in ballot deadline of Nov. 30, provides plenty of time for voters to understand and consider the merits of the proposed PR options. Elections BC, an independent office of the legislature, will provide voters with objective information on these options.
Regardless of the specific PR system chosen, voter preferences will be better reflected in the legislature. Many votes are essentially wasted now, such as in 2017 when the Greens and Conservatives together won over 20 per cent of the vote but elected only three per cent of MLAs. In fact, most elections in B.C. under the current system mean that 55 to 60 per cent of voters are represented by parties with zero power in the legislature. I can attest as a former opposition MLA that this is not a pretty sight. This “winner take all” nature of our current FPTP system, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of votes do not result in the election of an MLA, have contributed to sharp declines in voter turnouts.
The PR options proposed for B.C.’s referendum ensure that every vote for a particular party will count towards election of MLAs if the party receives at least five per cent of the provincial vote. The five per cent threshold has been adopted in a number of countries with PR systems to mitigate the influence of extreme or fringe parties. Under PR, collaboration among parties is usually necessary to form government. As Christy Clark’s 2017 post-election “clone speech” demonstrated, this creates a powerful incentive to see the value of other political perspectives, and would force greater cooperation in the legislature. All of these features of PR will help reduce voter disaffection and increase participation. Independents could still be elected directly, as under our current system.
It is often incorrectly claimed that PR systems eliminate the direct election of local MLAs. All of the three PR systems recommended by Attorney General Eby include direct elections and ensure that no region in B.C. would have fewer MLAs than currently. Although not part of the upcoming referendum, Eby has also proposed that part of the electoral reform agenda will include ensuring First Nations representation in the legislature, as seen in New Zealand.
Over the next six months, please take the time to consider the merits of PR voting systems that better ensure every vote counts, and where parties must collaborate to form government and make laws. To help with your deliberations, the Salt Spring Island NDP Club, in cooperation with local Greens and Fair Voting BC, will hold a public forum on electoral reform on Saturday, June 16 at Meaden Hall at the Legion, with more details to come. All are welcome, regardless of their views on politics and voting systems.
The writer is the former NDP Opposition Critic for Democratic Reform and was Saanich North and the Islands MLA from 2013 to 2017.