This fall’s referendum on B.C.’s voting system should first ask whether voters want to switch from the current first-past-the-post system, then allow them to rank three possible proportional systems to replace it, Attorney General David Eby is recommending to cabinet.
If people opt for change, Eby is recommending a second referendum be held after two general elections so voters can decide whether to keep the new system or switch back.
“I have every confidence in the people of B.C. being able to make their own decisions about how to send people to this place,” Eby told reporters. “It’s the people’s voice that matters most. They have the final say.”
The recommendation is for a mail-in vote to take place between Oct. 22 and Nov. 30. The official campaign period would start July 1.
The recommendations included in the 114-page report released today on the referendum were rooted in a successful public engagement process, Eby said. More than 91,000 people completed questionaires and 46 organizations provided written submissions.
“This process has provided us with a firm footing for the recommendations I’m bringing forward today,” he said. “These systems are recommended to be on the ballot because they line up with what we heard.”
The three alternative systems on the ballot will be Dual Member Proportional, Mixed Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but they were chosen because they provide proportional results, allow for regional accountability and are simple to understand, Eby said.
The recommendations also include a provision that no political party receiving less than five per cent of the provincial vote should get a seat in the legislature, a condition that Eby said should address concerns that representatives with extreme views or from fringe parties will be elected.
There will be grants of $500,000 for a group to advocate for the current system and for a group promoting making a change. Elections BC will administer the funds and have a role providing neutral information to voters on the process and the different systems on the ballot.
A committee will be tasked to look for ways to improve the representation of Indigenous people in the legislature.
“The recommendations of this report are absolutely mine,” Eby said. “They are based on the feedback of British Columbians.”
Shortly after the report was released, BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson said it confirmed suspicions the NDP is rigging the process in favour of changing the system.
“Today’s announcement just continues Premier John Horgan’s campaign to stack the deck in a rigged game to favour his desired outcome of this NDP referendum,” he said in a statement. “Attorney General David Eby has created a confusing series of questions in an intentional effort to rig the results of the referendum.”
He accused the government of acting in “crass, political self-interest.”
Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau, who represents Cowichan Valley, said her party supports the recommendations.
“The BC Greens support proportional representation because it leads to more democratic outcomes,” she said in a statement. “Too many people feel they have to vote strategically against whichever party they don’t want. Proportional representation gives voters the chance to vote for what they actually want, so they can vote out of hope, not fear.”
It’s important that voters receive good quality, factual information so that there can be a healthy, vibrant debate about the electoral process, she said.
Maria Dobrinskaya, the spokesperson for Vote PR BC, said, “We’re excited to have the questions and the process unveiled today.”
The suggested proportional systems find a balance between maintaining local representation and options that put people first, she said. “We think all three of the systems are an improvement on the system we have.”
She said there’s a lot of support for changing the system and welcomed the recommendation to hold a second vote after a new system has been in place for two elections. “It gives people some reassurance that there’s an opportunity to go back.”
Bill Tieleman, a spokesperson for the No BC Proportional Representation Society, said there’s no reason to have another referendum. “Proportional representation was overwhelmingly defeated in 2009 when the Single Transferable Vote was defeated. Sixty-one percent voted against it and in favour of our First Past The Post system.”
If there’s going to be a referendum, the government should have proposed a single alternative instead of three, he said. “What the government announced today is confusing, it’s complicated.”
None of the proposed systems will improve B.C.’s democracy, Tieleman added. “It guarantees all sorts of problems, including a loss of regional representation, particularly in rural areas. It guarantees perpetual minority governments if any of the three proportional representation systems are implemented.”
In comparison, the current system is simple, stable and successful, he said. “It allows majority governments to do their business and when they fail, they get stale dated, it allows voters to very easily take them out of the equation and replace them with an alternative party or parties.”
University of B.C. political scientist Maxwell Cameron wrote on Twitter that he was impressed with the report after a quick read. “It distills a lot of feedback and provides reasonable information on the referendum options,” he said. “We have a big job to explain these to the public, but frankly any of them would be better than the status quo.”
This story was updated on May 30, 2018 at 3:45 p.m.
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