More people voted for STV than for anything else in the history of British Columbia. But despite nearly a million ‘yes’ votes, the initiative still failed and polls have electoral reform trailing far behind health care, education, and the environment as a priority for BC voters.
Call it the conundrum of the losing majority. Which raises a big question: What next for electoral reform?
The consensus seems to be that Gordon Campbell has three broad options:
He can take the 58 percent and the majority in 77 ridings and go ahead with STV anyway, either after further consultations with the public and the Assembly, or a legislative vote.
He could also drop the issue entirely, either overtly, or – more likely – by shunting it off to die in a legislative committee.
Or, he could run another referendum. Either an exact replay of the last vote, after more public education, or a new, two step process, that has voters choosing from among more than two options.
The problem with playing guessing games is that there is no real precedent for this situation. The most comparable referendums, in Italy, Ireland and New Zealand all only needed 50 percent to pass. Same story with major referendums in Canada.
If anyone outside the Premier’s inner circle has an idea of what happens next, it could be Gordon Gibson, the former Liberal leadership candidate who helped assemble the Assembly. But Gibson won’t say whether he’s met with the Premier, let alone what might have been said if such a conversation took place.
But he is very clear on what he wants to see next. “In my opinion, the voters expressed their opinion very clearly,” he told The Tyee, “more clearly than the French rejected the EU constitution, more clearly than Quebec leaving the country and more clearly than the Charlottetown Accord – a much more important constitutional change than this one.”
STV beat the 2001 Liberals
STV also got more votes than Campbell’s 2001 Liberals, a majority the Premier called at the time “an unprecedented opportunity to affect dramatic change” in British Columbia. That might make it hard for Campbell to deny that he has a mandate to implement the system.
Julian West certainly thinks so. As one of the leaders of the pro-STV movement, West denies that coming up short of 60 percent means that the referendum failed.
When the Referendum Act was amended to include the 60 percent threshold, the language made clear that the result would be binding if “at least 60% of the validly cast ballots vote the same way on the question.” Because neither side breached that threshold, the government is not legally required to implement STV, but neither are they prohibited from doing so, according to West.
Not surprisingly, the names aligned against STV say that changing the rules after the vote is a no go.
Uber-pundit Norman Spector, who was deputy minister to Socred Premier Bill Bennett and chief of staff to Tory PM Brian Mulroney, called the pro-STV camp “sore losers” in a Globe and Mail column. And in an interview with The Tyee, he compared the “close enough” campaign to Jacques Parizeau’s post referendum complaint that money and the ethnic vote cost the “oui” side a victory. “He tried to delegitimize the vote,” Spector said. “In a sense they’re trying to do the same.”
But that doesn’t sit well with Julian West. He actually sputtered with anger at the comparison in a telephone interview. “Only people like Norman Spector can’t tell that 58 beats 42,” he said. “This is a guy who needs to look in the mirror, he needs to fess up, they did not have the votes, they lost.”
How deep the support?
West and Spector do agree on one thing: At this point it’s largely Campbell’s call. But despite STV winning majorities in 77 ridings, there’s no guarantee the Premier will take a political hit if he lets it die.
Electoral reform was a non-issue for most British Columbians leading up to the vote. In fact, so few people cited it as a concern that it never once warranted a separate category in issue tracking done by Vancouver’s Mustel Group.
Another sign of STV’s relative importance is that less than a third of voters knew a lot about the proposal before election day, according to both Ipsos-Reid and Mustel group polls. BC Liberal voters were also the least likely to support STV according to pre-election polling done by Ipsos-Reid. So of all the political leaders, Campbell stands to gain the least in internal party support by backing STV.
“He’s in a tough spot,” said former NDP MLA and current political analyst David Schreck. “No matter what way he plays it, he risks antagonizing a part of his core support.”
Campbell also may not be as free to decide the way forward as he was four years ago, according to Spector. “Campbell, in his own riding, got a kick in the ass,” Spector said. “His idiosyncratic approach is going to be under a lot more scrutiny now.” So even if Campbell wanted to carry through with his pet assembly’s recommendation, he might not have the support in his own party to do so.
Did wording inflate yes votes?
One of the big questions after the referendum is why, if so few people understood STV, did so many people vote for it? The disconnect has some people charging that the referendum question – which asked voters to choose between endorsing or rejecting the recommendation of the Citizens’ assembly - may have inflated support.
“I think the question was a bit biased,” said David Schreck. “It turned into a confidence vote on the Assembly” rather than a judgment on the actual system.
Vancouver pollster Angus McAllister agrees that the question was unusual. “My clients probably wouldn’t be happy if I asked a question like that,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the standard way of getting a true measure of opinion.”
There are two problems with the poll according to McAllister. One is the endorsement of the public body, the Citizens’ Assembly, which McAllister thinks might be fair game, even if it is prejudicial. The other, however, is the phrasing of the yes-no question.
“It would be better to have two alternatives,” McAllister said. In other words, rather than asking “do you want to implement STV, yes or no,” the referendum question should have asked: Would you like to change the electoral system to STV, or would you like to keep our current First Past the Post System?”
Gordon Gibson dismisses those concerns. “I think the people are smarter than the pollsters give them credit for.”
Regardless of questions about questions, a huge number of voters endorsed STV on election night and Campbell might be hard pressed to overtly dump STV. But there is more than one way to trash the system, according to David Schreck. He told The Tyee that if change doesn’t happen soon, it probably won’t happen before the next election.
Legally, the government has to get the ball rolling on electoral redistribution in the first session of the Legislature after the election. That process, complicated already by having to balance big urban populations with rural representation, can’t conceivably happen twice in four years.
The Liberals could amend the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act to delay redistribution. But even then a new system probably needs at least two years lead time according to Schreck. So any committee would have, at most, two years to be proposed, composed, given a mandate, hold public consultations, make a recommendation and be approved, either in a referendum or the Legislature.
“Politicians tend to seek refuge in process,” Schreck said. “So the next step would be a Legislative Committee to look at the issue. If that happens, consider it to be a stalling tactic.”
Reading the ‘mandate’
If a committee gets formed, or if the issue gets tossed back to the Citizens’ Assembly, what they consider will depend on how they interpret the first referendum vote. And there really aren’t that many possible interpretations according to Mark Crawford.
“It clearly can’t be read as an endorsement of the current system,” said the University of Northern British Columbia political scientist. “Is it just a general endorsement of electoral reform? A desire for a less radical version of STV? The response should take all of those into account.”
Crawford’s preferred solution would see two more referendums. The first would ask whether or not the electorate was hungry for electoral change. If that passed, a second referendum would allow voters to pick from among three choices: the current system, STV and some form of MMP (Mixed Member Proportional).
That’s roughly similar to how New Zealanders changed their electoral system in the 1990s. The first New Zealand referendum asked voters to pick between variations on the three main systems. They overwhelmingly endorsed the MMP system. In the second round they were asked to choose between MMP and the system they then had in place. A much smaller majority – just over 53 percent – opted for MMP and it was adopted.
But the leaders of the Citizens’ Assembly Alumni say there is no mandate to explore other systems. The Assembly considered and dismissed MMP, according to Alumnus David Wills. “It would be difficult to go back now and disagree,” said Wills. “Why on Earth would they have had the assembly if that’s the case?”
But not everyone from the Assembly agrees. Though the group was nearly unanimous in their choice, there was some dissent. And alumnus Rick Dignard doesn’t think the pros and cons of STV got a proper airing in the Assembly.
“I didn’t hear a lot of negative things about STV,” Dignard said. “We didn’t debate a lot of the things that came up in the public debate.”
Dignard also thinks the unanimity of the group has been exaggerated. “You’ve got a fairly small group that is pushing STV within the group,” Dignard said. “The lion’s share of the Assembly was just hopping on board and trying to look united.”
It’s Gordo’s ballgame
The Citizens’ Assembly was designed to take decisions about political elections away from politicians. So it’s ironic that after a majority vote the ball is now squarely back in the politicians’ court.
“Our job was to educate the voters on our recommendations,” said Citizens’ Assembly Alumni co-chair David Wills. “Now the people we have to explain it to are 79 MLAs.”
Richard Warnica is on staff at The Tyee.