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Memo to Horgan: Follow Notley's Lead, Drop Proportional Representation

Reform would have sunk Alberta's NDP majority.

Bill Tieleman 26 May

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at [email protected] or visit his blog.

"The first-past-the-post system is not serving the people of B.C." -- BC NDP leader John Horgan, July 2013

The Alberta New Democratic Party did a very smart thing in drawing up its 2015 provincial election platform -- it dropped a promise to impose a proportional representation electoral system.

On Sunday, Alberta's new NDP premier Rachel Notley was sworn in with her majority government and a mandate to change the province for the better after 44 years of increasingly decrepit Progressive Conservative rule.

But if proportional representation had been Alberta's electoral system, the province would almost certainly have seen another Conservative government under Premier Jim Prentice -- with Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean becoming a senior cabinet minister and his party supporting a new rightwing coalition government.

And Notley would be out in the cold as official opposition leader, not premier.

So you have to wonder exactly why BC's New Democrats are promising to introduce proportional representation after the 2017 provincial election when odds are it will likely throw them back out of government.

What Notley knows

Our first-past-the-post electoral system is simple: the candidate with the most votes in each local riding wins. Whichever party wins a majority of the province's seats forms the government; the next biggest party is the official opposition.

And FPTP has served Canada well -- as it has the United Kingdom, United States, India and other countries representing almost half of the world's democratic voters.

That's why voters in B.C., Ontario and Prince Edward Island have all rejected changing electoral systems and kept FPTP in democratic referenda in the past few years.

Under proportional representation Alberta's Notley would likely not be premier, because the number of seats each party gets is not based simply on who wins each of Alberta's 87 ridings but on what percentage of votes the parties get across the whole province.

The NDP's 40.5 per cent vote would have meant only 35 seats instead of the 54 it won; the Conservatives' 28 per cent would get 24 seats instead of the 10 they won; and Wildrose's 24 per cent would hold the same 21 seats but go from opposition to junior government partner, while the Liberals and other parties would share six seats.

For progressive voters who want change, the current first-past-the-post system delivered it effectively in Alberta. And for right-wing voters who won't like the NDP government, the 2019 election could equally reverse those results.

Majorities rule

The BC NDP has won power three times with about 40 per cent of the popular vote but a majority of seats -- in 1972, 1991 and 1996 -- and ironically lost several times with a higher percentage vote.

In fact, under proportional representation, only a few B.C. governments would have won an outright majority -- most recently under Gordon Campbell in 2001.

So if a future BC NDP government introduces proportional representation, it could mark the last time the party holds a majority in the B.C. Legislature and can introduce the progressive changes many NDP voters want and expect.

Those who adamantly support proportional representation either don't care or argue that some kind of alliance could be cobbled together with NDP, Green and new parties agreeing to an environmental-labour-progressive agenda.

But the BC Green Party is not left or progressive on all issues and other new parties may be far right or far left.

Fringe benefits

Certainly the scary history of the results from proportional representation in Europe should be of concern and a warning.

In 2014's European Parliament elections, the far right, anti-immigrant Front National led by Marie Le Pen won 25 per cent of the vote in France and 24 seats, up from just three in 2009.

And two "more or less openly neo-Nazi parties -- the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and the Greek Golden Dawn (XA) -- for the first time entered the European Parliament" the Washington Post reported.

None of this is to say it would happen in B.C.; but proportional representation systems certainly allow fringe parties a great chance to elect candidates and the odds they will have a disproportionate say in government. That's because proportional representation almost guarantees minority governments dependent on multiple parties for support.

So a fringe party can make outlandish demands and often get their way because they hold the balance of power and sell it to the highest bidder.

By comparison FPTP generally encourages parties to moderate their views to attract middle of the road voters while maintaining significant differences on some key issues. And it mostly delivers majority, stable governments that can focus on implementing their policies instead of making backroom deals with other parties on every issue.

Of course, any criticism of proportional representation and its many defects bring predictable howls of protest from its ardent advocates, like Fair Vote Canada, which is already denouncing the Alberta results.

But for progressives, the marvelous Alberta NDP victory should give pause to BC's NDP before it makes an ironclad commitment to implement proportional representation here.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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