Opinion

Electoral Reform and BC LNG: Bold Predictions on Two Big Issues

Expect Petronas to approve Lelu Island project before May election, and Liberals to bail on voting change.

By Bill Tieleman 27 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

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 weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

“The average expert was found to be only slight more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” — Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Two very controversial issues in both B.C. and Canadian politics will be decided one way or another in 2017 — but what will happen?

Don’t trust pundits to be right — or apologize if wrong — but here’s what’s likely to happen with the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas project and the federal Liberals’ promise to change our national electoral system before the next election in 2019.

The Pacific NorthWest LNG project near Prince Rupert will get a positive final investment decision from its owner, Malaysia’s Petronas, just in time for the BC Liberals to boast about it before the May provincial election.

But don’t count on the final investment decision to mean everything is A-OK.

Petronas’ plan to locate a giant $11.4-billion terminal on Lelu Island is beset with challenges — First Nations’ objections it would damage eelgrass beds that are habitat for juvenile salmon; low world prices for LNG; and environmental groups opposed to the use of more fossil fuels despite Premier Christy Clark’s claim LNG will replace dirtier energy sources in Asia.

But Pacific NorthWest LNG will announce it’s going ahead before the May 9 election for good and bad reasons.

First, the BC Liberals signed a giveaway agreement with Petronas, cutting the tax rate and providing lots of favourable terms, and the giant multinational wants them to be re-elected rather than the NDP. The New Democrats say they support LNG with conditions but oppose the Lelu Island location and the extra greenhouse gas emissions it would produce.

Second, Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government has already conditionally approved the project.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, LNG prices are now at their highest level in 2016 after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia agreed in late November to cut oil production. It’s a simple equation: lower supply means more expensive oil — now over $50 a barrel — and that makes LNG more attractive as a fuel. Bingo.

Electoral reform promise about to be broken

The electoral “reform” promised by the federal Liberals to change voting systems before the 2019 election will either not happen at all or certainly not happen in the way advocates for a new system hope.

Trudeau’s rash promise that the 2015 election would be “the last held under First Past The Post” — our system for over a century — has turned into a nightmare for the Liberals, who benefitted greatly from the existing system in the last election, ousting the Tories and consigning the NDP to third place.

“We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” Liberal platform reads.

Of course, this being politics, every party has its own selfish interests at heart, no matter what they say about how altruistic they are.

The New Democrats and Greens want proportional representation because it would give them more seats and they could then negotiate their way into government as junior partners — likely to the Liberals. Or at least get their pet issues addressed in exchange for propping up another party in power.

If a proportional representation electoral system had been used in 2015 the Liberals would have won just 134 seats and been in a minority situation instead of the 184 seats they won under FPTP; the Conservatives would have taken 109 seats — up 10 from the actual results; the NDP would have 67 seats instead of their current 44; the Bloc Québécois would have won 16 seats instead of 10; and the Green Party would get the biggest advantage — 12 seats instead of just one.

The Conservatives want to keep the existing system because they can win enough seats to form majority governments without a majority of the popular vote.

As the sole right-wing party, they know that under proportional representation they would mostly be stuck in opposition, while centre-left coalitions formed governments.

The Conservatives do make one excellent point — that no electoral system change should happen unless voters approve it through a national referendum.

So far the Liberals have tried to avoid that possibility, but the NDP and Greens have overcome their opposition to a referendum, likely seeing it as the only way to get a change.

The Liberals — not to be outdone at “what’s in it for me?” — want a preferential ballot where voters rank candidate preferences from first to last choice. If no candidate receives a majority, the lowest polling candidate is dropped and his or her supporters second-choice votes are counted. The process continues until one candidate has a majority. The Liberals know a lot of NDP, Green and even Conservative voters will make them their second choice over the other parties.

That would pretty much guarantee that the Liberals win most future elections, and with large majorities. Political polling expert Eric Grenier estimates that Trudeau would have won a whopping 224 seats instead of 184 under the system; the Conservatives would drop to 61 MPs from 99; the NDP would capture 50 seats instead of 44; the Bloc would fall to just two from 10 and the Greens would still be at only one seat.

So you can see how attractive preferential ballots are to the Liberals. That system is the only one Trudeau has spoken highly of in the past, while he also dismissed proportional representation because it “increases partisanship” and “polarization.”

At a 2013 federal Liberal Party leadership debate in Halifax, Trudeau made perhaps his most detailed comments about electoral systems.

“The problem with proportional representation is every different model of proportional representation actually increases partisanship, not reduces it,” he said. “What we need is a preferential ballot that causes politicians to have to reach out to be the second choice and even the third choice of different political parties.”

“We need people who represent broader voices not narrower interests. And I understand people want proportional representation, but too many people don’t understand the polarization and the micro issues that come through proportional representation.”

So where is Trudeau at now on electoral system change? It’s not clear, but this statement is probably the most candid the prime minister has made since a parliamentary committee on reform got under way and held sparsely attended hearings across the country.

“Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like.’ But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling,” he said/ in an October 2016 interview.

And while Trudeau later said under more media questioning that he was still “excited” about electoral reform, everything his government has said and done indicates otherwise.

Perhaps most telling, the Liberal MPs on the parliamentary electoral reform committee dissented from the majority view of the Conservatives, NDP, Bloc and Greens that a referendum should be held on electoral reform.

“We contend that the recommendations posed in the majority report regarding alternative electoral systems are rushed, and are too radical to impose at this time as Canadians must be more engaged,” the Liberal MPs wrote.

“Our position is that the timeline on electoral reform as proposed in the [majority report] is unnecessarily hasty and runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the process by racing toward a predetermined deadline.”

Ouch, if you are an electoral change advocate!

So what will happen? Look for the Liberal government to do one of three things.

1) Break its promise and do nothing, saying there is no consensus or public demand — as of late August, less than 20 per cent of Canadians were even aware an electoral system change process was under way, according to an IPSOS national poll. They would promise — wait for it — more consultation with the public, but nothing would happen. It’s tough love for the minority who really want change, the NDP and the Greens, but most Canadians don’t actually care.

2) Reluctantly agree to hold a referendum, but only with a choice of the Liberals’ desired preferential ballot or the current FPTP system, excluding proportional representation altogether. That gives the Liberals three chances to win — they either get preferential ballots passed or they stick with FPTP, which they can live with, and they can claim to have kept their promise.

As a bonus, this jams the NDP and Greens into either agreeing to support the preferential ballot system that will hurt their interests, but brings some change, or backing FPTP, which they oppose, to avoid an even worse system likely to advantage the Liberals for decades.

3) Agree to opposition demands and hold a referendum with FPTP versus proportional representation, then not campaign in favour of proportional representation. The Liberals might make it a free vote for MPs, meaning some could campaign against pro-rep and some in favour, but with the promise of more consultation with the public. This seems the least likely option.

So two tough issues that will split voters, angering some and pleasing others — but how many and to who’s political advantage the most?

That’s what politicians think about all year long — and give pundits lots to predict all through 2017. Happy New Year to all our readers!  [Tyee]

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