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BC Politics

Parties Taking Hard Lines on Electoral Reform

NDP, BC Liberals stayed relatively neutral in past referendums on proportional representation.

Andrew MacLeod 27 Nov

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

With many BC Liberals already saying “no” to changing British Columbia’s voting system, Attorney General David Eby has launched the public consultation process seeking input on next year’s referendum.

“Really I’m hopeful that the parties weigh in on this, that their voices are heard both in the consultation process and the referendum itself,” Eby said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing that parties might have different perspectives on this.”

Enabling legislation debated last week provides for a referendum on electoral reform to be conducted by the chief electoral officer and held via a mail-in ballot in the fall of 2018.

All of the main candidates running to lead the BC Liberals have condemned the referendum process.

The BC Liberals’ designated speaker on the Electoral Reform Referendum 2018 Act, John Rustad, said during debate Thursday, “It’s a grasp for power by the groups that are in power, because it’s certainly not to improve democracy.”

Jordan Sturdy, the Liberal MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, criticized the process the bill includes for setting the question, saying it compares badly to how the independent Citizens’ Assembly, which included two randomly chosen citizens from each constituency, did similar work ahead of the 2005 referendum on electoral reform.

“It is the manipulation of political power, no reflection on the whole provincial interest,” Sturdy said. “It enables the government through order-in-council to make up the rules.... They can fix the issue as far as they are concerned, behind closed doors, in a secret cabinet cabal. It is cynical beyond belief.”

Green and NDP support

Eby said there will be recommendations in the report that comes out of the public consultation and the government can be held accountable based on how well the decisions it makes reflect what’s in that report. The consultation includes questions about voting system options, the design of the ballot, and public funding for groups advocating during the campaign period.

Holding a referendum on proportional representation was a key condition in the agreement that the three Green MLAs would support the NDP in the legislature, enabling the NDP to form a minority government.

Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at York University in Toronto and the author of The Politics of Voting, said, “There is a very obvious partisan dimension this time around.”

Ahead of previous referenda in 2005 and 2009 on changing the voting system in B.C., the major parties either declined to take positions or decided not to campaign strongly for or against a change. Pilon said more involvement from the parties would have helped many voters make up their minds. “They had no partisan cues to tell them what to do.”

It’s positive the parties are getting involved in the debate this time, he said. “Not all voters will follow what their party says, but a considerable number will.”

With the NDP and Greens saying this time they will campaign in favour of proportional representation, the Liberals have been forced to take a position as well, Pilon said. Noting that the criticisms from many Liberals use the same set of talking points, he said they are clearly already campaigning against change.

“The Liberals are terrified they’re going to pay the price if this referendum goes through, that it will electorally hurt them,” he said. They are arguing from a place of partisan interest, not principle, he said. “I’m hoping people will see through it.”

There’s nothing anti-democratic, as Liberals have alleged, in allowing British Columbians to vote on whether to change the electoral system, Pilon said.

Human right to fair representation

Antony Hodgson, the president of the advocacy group Fair Voting BC, said that if the BC Liberals don’t contribute meaningfully to the conversation, they can’t expect to have their interests heard.

“I would call on the Liberal party, their leadership candidates, and the existing MLAs to participate seriously in this debate,” he said. “All British Columbians have an interest in a fair and democratic voting system.”

Fair Voting BC has conservative roots, Hodgson said, noting it formed after the 1996 election when Liberals won the popular vote but the NDP formed a majority government, which many viewed as unfair.

Hodgson said he has little sympathy for arguments, as at least one BC Liberal leadership candidate has made, about how changing the system will prevent a party from forming a majority government without winning a majority of the votes.

“This is fundamentally a matter of human rights,” he said. “They need to step up with some basic human decency and recognize their fellow citizens are entitled to be represented equally with themselves.”

He pointed out that roughly half of voters, including some 300,000 Liberals, aren’t represented in the legislature by someone they voted for. “Personally, I would like to see the NDP, and maybe the Green Party to a lesser extent, to step up more and make the case why this needs to change.”

While supportive of the consultation process, Hodgson said he was disappointed the government’s materials didn’t include two of the models that address many of the concerns that get raised in B.C.: local proportional representation and rural-urban proportional representation.

Partisan lenses

Eby said he hopes the parties will help people understand what the issues are, regardless of which side they are on.

“I have no doubt that each political party that looks at this is going to be using their own political lens to decide how they’re going to be advocating during the referendum,” Eby said. “It will be a partisan issue for these parties, and that’s why as best as possible we have tried to ensure that the referendum process itself will be neutral and independent from this campaigning that’s going to be going on.”

The BC Liberal position appears to have changed since former premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark expressed support for changing the voting system, Eby said. “I can’t explain the Liberal Party’s shifting perspectives on this,” he said.

“Whatever their political position is on this issue, there will be a vote. They won’t be deciding this, the government won’t be deciding this, the premier won’t be deciding, it will be British Columbians.”

In the May election, the BC Liberals and NDP each received just under 800,000 votes, and the BC Greens won 332,000.

Eby said he thinks it’s unlikely that the vote in the referendum will follow partisan lines. “In the NDP world at least it’s not a one-to-one, in terms of being an NDP supporter and being in favour of either proportional representation or first-past-the-post. I imagine that’s the case in many other parties, so I look forward to each individual British Columbian having their vote.”

The referendum will be held by the end of next November and will require 50 per cent plus one of the provincewide vote to pass. Consultations will be open until Feb. 28.  [Tyee]

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