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BC Politics

Proportional Representation Offers BC Stable Government and Pragmatic Legislation

Toxic and ideological first-past-the-post system needs to be replaced.

Devon Rowcliffe 22 Sep

Devon Rowcliffe is a commentator of Western and East Asian politics, as well as a non-fiction writer. Rowcliffe spent a decade working in the public service in British Columbia, Ontario, and the United Kingdom. He holds a bachelor’s degree from UBC and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto. Email him here, follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

“I believe power-sharing is best for our democracy and province, and that’s why I want to see proportional representation implemented.” — B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan.

Let’s face it: the first-past-the-post voting system that we use provincially and federally here in Canada is outdated, confusing and no longer fit for purpose. It fosters toxic, adversarial politics. And it’s a relic from the past — Canada remains the last developed democracy on Earth to not adopt any form of proportional governance.

But that’s about to change.

Last year, the voters of Prince Edward Island opted to discard the obsolete first-past-the-post electoral system in favour of proportional representation. And next year, British Columbians will go to the polls to decide whether they too wish to adopt a modern voting system that promotes collaboration and consensus above venom and vitriol.

Inevitably, there will be calls from a small minority of voices — particularly those deeply entrenched within B.C. politics — to retain our flawed, first-past-the-post voting system. But as the years pass, these voices become fewer, their arguments increasingly laboured and tenuous as the opinion of society turns against them.

Regular Tyee columnist Bill Tieleman is perhaps the most vociferous voice among those who resist electoral reform here in B.C. Earlier this week, The Tyee published Tieleman’s attempt to discredit proportional representation. Surprisingly absent was anything positive about the current voting system. Tieleman’s tactic is to dress up change as the boogeyman and hope to scare British Columbians away from adopting a better alternative.

But Tieleman’s arguments are mostly spurious. He probably hopes that the lengthy list of problems with our current first-past-the-post voting system doesn’t become part of the conversation.

Let’s begin by deconstructing some of Tieleman’s dubious attempts to scare us from proportional representation. First, he claims that abandoning first-past-the-post would mean the end of perpetual majority governments, which he assures us would be a terrible thing. But does first-past-the-post always result in majority governments? Nine of the last 20 federal governments have been minorities. And with the advent of the B.C. Greens as a major political force, minority government is about to become much more common here provincially.

Tieleman is correct that proportional representation would certainly spell the end of single-party majority governments — but that would be a positive transformation. Most majority governments elected under first-past-the-post are actually “false majorities,” in which one party acquires full power over a parliament despite only earning a minority of voters’ support — sometimes as low as just 38 per cent. One party winning unilateral power from such small support often results in ideological decisionmaking that benefits few. It also causes wild lurches between hard-left and hard-right as the government swings back and forth between polar opposites like a pendulum over the years. One government builds social programs, only for the next government to tear many of them down, resulting in colossal waste. In the long-term, this results in social instability — with the most vulnerable people often forced into destitution — as well as economic uncertainty. Clearly, single-party majority government is overrated.

Next, Tieleman would have us believe that proportional representation leads to dependence on small parties that acquire disproportionate power. It’s disingenuous to brush off the B.C. Greens as a fringe party when they earned almost 17 per cent of the vote — nearly half the amount of the B.C. NDP or the B.C. Liberals — despite pressure on British Columbians to vote strategically for the two biggest parties. Tieleman likes to refer to the Greens’ seat count of three rather than their popular vote to minimize their appearance, but let’s remember that the Greens today have more seats than the NDP did in 2001.

As for Tieleman’s general claim that small parties hold excessive power under proportionality: it’s nonsense. The inclusion of small parties in government isn’t a necessity under minority governments or proportional representation. Nothing prevents the two largest political parties from working together. That exact scenario happened right here in British Columbia from 1945 to 1952. Likewise, nothing formally stopped the B.C. NDP and B.C. Liberals from working together after the May election.

Think such collaboration is impossible? Look to the UK government of 2010 to 2015: two parties on opposite sides of the political spectrum worked together, even without proportional voting. This example also illustrates that the largest party dominates coalitions. The Conservatives implemented most of their policies, while the smaller Liberal Democrats only saw a few of their ideas come to fruition. Even in Tieleman’s example of New Zealand, the larger National party clearly commands the coalition policy agenda. His assertion that smaller parties will unduly call the shots in government as “hostagetakers” bears no resemblance to reality.

If the B.C. NDP wants to pass legislation under the current minority government (or under proportional representation), it needs the support of another party. That doesn’t have to be the Greens. The NDP and Liberals could cooperate to ensure bills get through the legislature, as could the Liberals and Greens. No single party can dictate legislation on its own — resulting in greater cooperation and compromise than we’ve witnessed over the past half-century here in B.C. Legislation becomes pragmatic rather than dogmatic, and enjoys the support of a genuine majority of British Columbian voters. We should embrace, rather than fear, minority government.

Tieleman also suggests that switching to proportional voting would result in tenuous governments filled with numerous fringe parties, yet New Zealand’s parliament hasn’t prematurely collapsed even once since the country switched to proportional voting. In fact, under the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, New Zealand has been more stable than Canada under first-past-the-post. Only four parties in New Zealand enjoy more than five per cent support of the electorate — fewer than here federally in Canada. The suggestion that MMP will cause havoc and instability simply isn’t based on fact.

Tieleman’s tone is scornful toward any party that is not subservient to the B.C. NDP. This is a manifestation of the toxicity from first-past-the-past voting, that other parties are treated as enemies rather than potential allies. It’s ironic that this week he bemoaned the NDP having to cooperate with the Greens, because just four months ago, right here in The Tyee, Tieleman was calling for the NDP and Greens to work together.

Interestingly, Tieleman spent much of early 2017 highlighting governance problems under the B.C. Liberals that would likely have been avoided if British Columbia used proportional representation. In January he complained about “wild west” fundraising rules, then scoffed at partisan ad spending in February, lamented the housing affordability crisis in March, suggested former premier Christy Clark suffered from an “empathy deficit” in April, and bemoaned a lack of hospital beds again in April. Ironically, all of these issues that Tieleman reviewed over several months could exist due to one party garnering unilateral power from the first-past-the-post voting system and drifting toward ideological rule. The solution to prevent the problems he catalogued would be to adopt a voting system that requires collaboration between parties: one that results in proportional representation.

Now that I’ve unwrapped several of Tieleman’s dubious arguments against proportional representation, I will adopt one of his trademark political tactics: tarring the enemy, particularly playing the “confusing” card. We rarely hear about the numerous flaws of first-past-the-post voting. Let’s look at why it’s the most confusing voting system of all.

First, can Tieleman explain why so many British Columbians felt pressured to vote strategically this past May, thanks to the first-past-the-post voting system? Why were so many voters warned that if they opted for their favourite choice, the election outcome would be a terrible result in which their least-favourite option would gain power and cause ruin to the province? I can’t think of any greater flaw in a voting system than one that bullies people into how they direct their vote. Social media was an absolute torrent of lecturing, belittling and scolding during the recent B.C. election, due to the scandalous misdemeanor of people intending to vote for their favourite candidate or party. This aspect of first-past-the-post is particularly confusing. Perhaps Tieleman could explain why we should retain such an inherently flawed voting system?

Skewed election results are another perplexing aspect of first-past-the-post voting. Why does the system cause such a massive difference between seats won and the popular vote? Why does first-past-the-post sometimes cause “wrong-winner” election results, in which the party that finishes second in votes forms a majority government, such as British Columbia in 1996, Quebec in 1998, and New Brunswick in 2006?

Why do parties that garner similar levels of support receive such drastically different seat numbers under first-past-the-post? How can a federal party that earned less than 10 per cent of the vote win 49 seats, yet another party that earned almost as many votes (nearly seven per event) receive just one seat during the same election? These are yet more head-scratching questions caused by first-past-the-post voting, resulting in a National Post headline in 2011: “What the #!%*?: Why seat counts never match the popular vote.”

Why does first-past-the-post reward political parties that only have support in one region, yet punish parties with a similar level of support cast over a larger area? How did our 13th-century voting system make regionalist parties such as Bloc Quebecois and Reform into Canada’s Official Opposition? And why did first-past-the-post grossly exaggerate the urban-rural divide here in B.C. earlier this year, with the popular vote not nearly as polarized as the seat distribution? What would Tieleman think about the creation of a “North and Interior B.C. Party,” which would likely flourish under first-past-the-post’s idiosyncrasies but flop under proportional representation?

Once Tieleman has caught his breath after clearing up such confusion, perhaps he could address why some seats are “safe” while others are “marginal” under first-past-the-post. The B.C. NDP focused much of its recent election campaign soliciting votes strictly from suburban Metro Vancouver, largely ignoring the province’s Interior and North. Are voters in Surrey and Port Moody more important than those from Prince George and Fort St. John? Or is this merely a flaw of the first-past-the-post voting system, in which the seats that are mostly likely to swing back and forth between elections receive most of the visits from politicians and the lucrative promises? It’s ever so baffling.

Could Tieleman explain why some votes are wasted under first-past-the-post? Any votes in a riding that don’t go to the winning candidate, or go to the winning candidate above the threshold needed to win, are essentially meaningless and have no impact on the election. Shouldn’t all votes count?

I’m also confused why first-past-the-post creates an insatiable gravity between political parties that pressures them to merge whenever more than two exist. In Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party had huge differences of opinion regarding policy, yet merged because the voting system was keeping them out of power. Why not just change the flawed voting system rather than decrease the diversity of voices in our provincial legislatures, Mr. Tieleman? It’s mystifying.

Ultimately, first-past-the-post is a relic from eight centuries ago that only works as originally intended under a two-party system. But when was the last time just two parties contested an election either in B.C. or federally? Our voting system is still geared toward pre-Second World War Canada. It’s time for the way we choose our elected representatives to be modernized.

B.C.’s provincial legislature has been diminished to mere pantomime theatre under first-past-the-post’s falsemajority governments, in which one party wins every single legislative vote and the opposition can be dismissed, ignored, or even ridiculed. That’s not how democracy should function.

Proportional representation would decrease the toxicity of British Columbian politics, forcing our elected representatives to work together across party lines. A proportional government would result in pragmatic and evidence-based legislation as well as long-term coherence, rather than wild ideological lurches. It would permanently end strategic voting, ensure that every vote counts, and force political parties to pay full respect to every riding and region of the province. Parties would earn a fair share of seats that reflects their popular vote — no more, no less. And most importantly, every British Columbian would know that their vote informs the make-up of their government.

I’m confused why we haven’t adopted proportional representation already.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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