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Opinion

Greens, NDP Would Sacrifice Legitimacy By Imposing Proportional Representation

Changing voting system without a referendum ‘illegitimate and insulting.’

By Bill Tieleman 23 May 2017 | 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. Email him at weststar@telus.net see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves.” — Thomas Jefferson, U.S. president, 1801-1809

There must not be any change to British Columbia’s electoral system without a democratic referendum.

You can never improve democracy by denying voters a ballot while changing the very way in which governments are elected — never.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver’s demands that some undefined form of proportional representation be imposed as a condition for the support of his three-member caucus are undemocratic and must be rejected.

The reason is simple: changing electoral systems without voters’ approval is illegitimate, impractical and insulting.

Voters twice rejected a proposed Single Transferable Vote electoral system, in referenda in 2009 and 2005. To impose a new system now without a referendum would be a stunning affront.

And Elections BC takes between 18 months and two years just to consult and then change electoral boundaries in our current system. Bringing in a new, unknown and untested electoral system and new boundaries in less time is impossible, and a minority government — the likely outcome of recounts and negotiations — could easily fall before the system was ready.

What’s more, Weaver’s position threatens the formation of a Green-backed progressive New Democrat-led government which would advance positions both parties and most British Columbians strongly want.

Everything both parties support is being put at risk by the Green demand for electoral change without a referendum, from ending corporate and union political donations to improving disability benefits to acting on housing affordability to more public transit to universal child care.

Yet Weaver said in March “Rather than say we will have a referendum before we implement electoral reform, we will just do it.”

And Weaver continues to say it now: “Our position had been that we would bring in proportional representation without a referendum... but we would be open to discussing a referendum afterwards.”

But that position can at best be said to have the support of the 16 per cent per cent of electors who voted Green.

And holding a referendum after changing the electoral system is an absurd idea that takes the old adage of putting the cart before the horse to a whole new level.

Both NDP leader John Horgan and Liberal Premier Christy Clark should tell Weaver that changing electoral systems without a democratic referendum is non-negotiable, period.

Horgan’s position was clear in the election campaign. An NDP government would consult British Columbians, hold hearings, decide on a form of proportional representation, develop a referendum question and then hold a vote, with the support more than 50 per cent of voters needed to proceed.

“I want to make sure we have a specific question that we put to the public,” Horgan said.

“This is important, because some people have said to me, ‘you should just do it,’ but I don’t think something as fundamental as changing our election system should be done arbitrarily,” Horgan told Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group for change.

Clark position was equally clear. The Liberals didn’t even hint at electoral system change before the election.

British Columbia has a proud history of consulting voters on public policy through democratic referenda and plebiscites — and on issues far less important than the electoral system that determines how we are governed.

Back in 1873, BC held its first plebiscite, on pay for Members of the Legislative Assembly. (Voters rejected an increase from $5 to $7 a day; MLAs accepted the verdict.) Since 1898 there have been at least 15 referenda and plebiscites on issues large — giving women the vote in 1916 — and small — whether to sell beer by the glass in 1924.

And British Columbia has held five referenda since 1991 alone, voting to eliminate the Harmonized Sales Tax in 2011, to defeat the Single Transferable Vote electoral system in 2009 and 2005, to advise the government on First Nation treaty negotiations in 2002 and and to support Initiative and Recall legislation in 1991.

Full disclosure: I played a leading role in both STV ballots as president of NO BC STV, the group opposing that electoral system. And I was strategist for Fight HST, the grassroots group led by former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm that achieved the first successful citizens’ initiative petition in 2010 and then won the referendum.

I believe in referenda on important issues and that voters have the democratic right to decide, not a small group of politicians. And nothing is more important than how we elect representatives to run our province.

Quickly imposing a proportional representation system without a referendum would not only be illegitimate and insulting to voters, but it is also impractical.

Even if Weaver got his wish, some process would have to be held to decide which of the myriad electoral systems would be used.

The most common is the “party list proportional representation” system, where, for example, if 30 per cent of voters choose one party, the top 30 per cent of that party’s list of candidates are elected.

Some systems have a “closed list” where the party determines the order in which its candidates are elected; others have an “open list” where the voter can change that order to their liking.

A variation used in some countries is mixed-member proportional, where there are local ridings elections but then a “top up” of party candidates chosen from a list so that each party gets roughly the same percentage of seats as their popular vote.

The Single Transferable Vote is another electoral system used in Malta, Ireland and Australia’s equivalent to our Senate: it creates large multi-member ridings and votes are “transferred” so fractions of a vote go to other candidates in a complex system that defies easy explanation.

Whatever option might be chosen, Elections BC simply cannot implement a new system with new boundaries and new rules in such a short period of time.

Given all this, one would hope Weaver and new Green MLAs Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen would be among the first to realize that forcing through a proportional representation electoral system without voter approval would rob it of all legitimacy, not to mention encouraging any future government to change make changes without a referendum.

Arguments from imposition advocates that previous B.C. governments changed electoral systems in the 1950s without referenda are desperate and illogical. Not only did former Socred premier W.A.C. Bennett shamelessly change the system to improve his own party’s chances, but it was a different era. After two electoral system referenda in the past 12 years, a clear standard has been set.

The Green Party has its best chance ever of achieving electoral change, if it backs Horgan’s approach of consultation and then a referendum to decide. At the same time it would get rid of the BC Liberal government and bring in progressive policies.

A new government after 16 years of BC Liberal arrogance and entitlement is what a strong majority of British Columbians voted for, and the BC NDP and Green Party need to deliver that — and soon.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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