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Politicians Behaving Badly

The Brenzinger debacle took B.C.'s political culture to a new low just as the Citizens Assembly ponders a new way of voting.

Tom Barrett 19 May
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In the past, when B.C. voters got fed up with their politicians' legendary shenanigans, their only recourse was to vote the bastards out and vote another gang of bastards in.Next year, however, there's a good chance they'll get to vote for a new voting system - one that would produce a Legislature made up of three or four different gangs of bastards.This, in B.C. politics, is what you call progress.On May 3, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform began to tour the province, asking British Columbians what sort of electoral system theywant. The assembly, which is made up of 160 randomly selected individuals, hasn't made any decisions yet. But it's clearly leaning toward someform of proportional representation, a system that would likely result in Legislatures containing several parties and the frequent possibilityof minority governments.In other words, it's a system that would ensure we never get another legislature like the one we elected in 2001, where the Liberals won 98 percent of the seats in the house with 58 per cent of the popular vote.Corrosive climateB.C. has had a feisty political climate for decades, but things have become particularly corrosive since the Liberals won that massive majority.It's almost as if events have conspired to push the Citizens' Assembly into recommending a change.In its Preliminary Statement to the People of British Columbia, the assembly talked about how proportional representation could be the answer.While the statement stresses that the assembly wants to hear from British Columbians before it makes up its mind, it also states that "it wantsto hear if they agree with it that a more proportional system would better reflect the basic values of our province's population."The current system, the assembly says, "fosters an adversarial style of two-party politics in which government domination of the legislaturebecomes standard practice. With strong party discipline this ensures centralized decision-making with no effective opportunity for thelegislature to hold the government accountable between elections."A proportional system, the assembly says, would likely "end the dominance of one-party majority governments and lead to a more consensual, or atleast coalitional, style of politics in which opposition and small-party MLAs have the opportunity to play a greater role in the government ofthe province."The assembly says it believes that "a move away from the highly charged adversarial politics that have characterized the province in recentdecades might foster politics more in keeping with the values of contemporary British Columbians."Culture of cheap shotsNo question that we have long suffered from "highly charged adversarial politics." Often it's the politicians themselves who are being charged -by a special prosecutor. Cheap shots - even cheaper than that last joke - are the lingua franca of our political debate. Our elected officialsshow the same respect for the Legislature that prison inmates show their guards.For years, the media - and many voters - celebrated our brand of Xtreme Politics as just another example of B.C.'s distinctive lifestyle.Welcome to B.C., where the mountains are bigger, the bud is stronger, and the politicians are completely unhinged.But things got even weirder after the 2001 Liberal landslide, starting with the Liberals' refusal to recognize the two-member New DemocraticParty as the official Opposition, thereby denying the NDP money for support staff and research.It's been downhill from there. Norman Ruff, the University of Victoria political scientist, believes that the size of the current governmentmajority has heightened the antagonistic traits that have long characterized B.C.'s political culture. That trend peaked with the Liberalcabinet's boycott of question period in March."That's unprecedented anywhere in the British parliamentary system," said Ruff. "It's just the height of arrogance."The weirdness got really thick in the past few months, just as the Citizens' Assembly started to get serious about its mandate to decide whetherB.C. needs a new electoral system.There were the police raids on the legislature. New Democrat Joy MacPhail's refusal to apologize for making charges she couldn't prove againstLiberal backbencher Richard Stewart. MacPhail's eventual apology, once the cabinet walked out of question period. Liberal Elayne Brenzinger'scharges that Stewart grabbed her bum, which, it turns out, she couldn't prove either. Other stories about unnamed Liberals being thrown out ofcaucus at some unstated time in the past for some unstated transgressions."Highly charged adversarial politics" indeed.Some second thoughtsNow that the electoral reform process is underway, some Liberals appear to be having second thoughts. Assembly chair Jack Blaney has assuredthem that the process will be fair. But, as observers have pointed out, there's nothing the politicians can do about it in any case. As theLiberals are discovering, the Citizens' Assembly is - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - out of control. Under the process laid downby the government, the assembly is autonomous.After it holds hearings around the province, the assembly will sit down in the fall and decide whether B.C. needs a new electoral system. If theanswer is yes, the assembly draws up a referendum question recommending a new system. That question would be on the ballot for the May 17, 2005election.To pass, the referendum would require the support of 60 per cent of the voters overall as well as the support of a majority of voters in atleast 60 per cent of B.C.'s electoral districts. The government has said that, if the referendum passes, the new system will be in place for the2009 election.That still gives the government some wiggle room, of course. New electoral systems are more complicated than an Aeroplan rewards contract andall sorts of devils could be let loose in the details. Whoever is elected in 2005 could always refuse to implement the new system, although thepolitical price would likely be pretty high.A close vote would make it easier for a new government to mess with any recommendation the assembly makes. But Gordon Gibson, who drew up theblueprint for the creation of the Citizens' Assembly, doesn't expect that a vote - if there is one - would be close."In my opinion, if the citizens' assembly recommends any reasonable change at all, that change will have no trouble getting far more than therequired majority because people are distressed with the operation of the political process and want to see some change," Gibson said.Looking for better balanceAll this raises the question of whether a change to the electoral system is the answer to our hair-pulling, eye-gouging political culture.As the 2001 result shows, our current first-past-the-post electoral system doesn't do a very good job of matching a party's share of the popularvote to the number of seats it gets in the legislature. Sometimes, as in 1996, a party can lose in the popular vote but still win the largestnumber of seats.Critics of the current system point out that it can lead to unbalanced legislatures, like the one we have now in B.C. The first-past-the-postsystem also tends to shut out smaller parties, such as the Greens, who won no seats in 2001 despite receiving 12 per cent of the vote.Proportional systems try through various means to ensure that the popular vote is reflected more closely in the final tally of seats. There area number of different proportional systems and they raise plenty of questions. Some systems involve reserving seats in the legislature forcandidates drawn from lists submitted by the parties. This raises questions of party control and whether it is truly democratic to have MLAs whonobody voted for directly.In B.C., a more proportional system would definitely make minority governments more likely. The Liberal landslide of 2001 was the first time aparty received more than 50 per cent of the vote in a B.C. general election since the coalition government of 1949. (It should be noted that,under Bill Bennett, Social Credit formed a new coalition in the 1970s that had a remarkable knack of forming solid majority governments withjust below 50 per cent of the popular vote. The Socreds took 49.25 per cent in 1975; 48.23 per cent in 1979; 49.76 per cent in 1983; and, underBill Vander Zalm, 49.32 per cent in 1986.)Proportional systems also favour small parties. Any kind of proportional system would have resulted in at least some Greens in the B.C.legislature after the 2001 vote. And getting a foothold in the house would likely increase the profile of small parties, leading to greatersuccess in following elections.Send in more clowns?Which raises the question: if a legislature with two parties produces this sort of simmering weirdness, what happens when you get three or fourparties going at each other?One possibility is that you'd end up with the kind of cage-match legislature you see in places like Taiwan. But there's also a possibility thata more proportional system would force politicians to get along.B.C.'s electoral history suggests that parties would have to form coalitions, either formal or informal, to get anything done, says UVic's Ruff.And that, he says, might be good: "It moderates the politics so you get more consensus building.. You have to listen to the other side."Politicians in New Zealand, which has a mixed proportional system similar to what the Citizens' Assembly seems to be favouring, discovered thatchanging the electoral system made a big difference in the way parliament works, Ruff said.Anyone expecting a new electoral system to produce a panacea or an overnight change in B.C.'s fractious political culture is going to bedisappointed. But that culture has become so dysfunctional that most British Columbians will probably welcome any change, no matter howexperimental, limited or slow.Nobody planned it this way, but the excesses brought on by the Liberals' massive majority of 2001 are on the verge of destroying the system thatproduced that majority.[Tomorrow: NDP advisor Bill Tieleman and Green party school trustee Andrea Reimer debate whether proportional representation would be good forBritish Columbians.]Tom Barrett has covered B.C. politics for decades, and is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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