Opinion

Why Is Bill Tieleman Afraid of Democracy?

Attacks on proportional representation based on myths, ignore problems with current system.

By Kelly Carmichael 16 Nov 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Kelly Carmichael is the executive director of Fair Vote Canada, a national organization promoting electoral reform. It currently has 13 teams in British Columbia organizing to encourage support for reform in next year’s B.C. referendum.

Well it looks like our old friend Bill Tieleman is still pulling old canards out of his bag of tricks to see what will stick in his efforts to kill attempts to build a voting system that will make every vote count.

His recent article implies that if B.C. chooses proportional representation in next fall’s referendum, an evil racist boogeyman will take over the province and “fringe” parties that achieve their fair share of seats will hold legislatures ransom.

The boogeyman argument goes something like this: once people realize their favourite racist party can actually win a seat, we will all unleash our inner racists and take over the Legislature. Great fiction but hardly plausible.

When we saw this article, we sent a tweet out asking Tieleman to stop fear-mongering and do his homework. When you look at the smaller parties, you start to realize that even combined, they receive less than one per cent of the vote.

It’s important to remember that many jurisdictions with PR systems adopt electoral tools that can slow the arrival of extreme right-wing groups to elected office. Minimum vote thresholds before seats are awarded is one popular method adopted widely across Europe. After the Second World War, Germany implemented a five-per-cent threshold in the mixed-member proportional system as a safety measure to stop small extremist groups from attaining a national platform.

The article is accompanied by a photo showing a protest against UKIP, Britain’s right-wing extremist party which captured 12.6 per cent of the vote in 2015 and won one seat. The UK uses the same voting system as Canada — a winner-take-all majoritarian system called first-past-the-post. The U.S., in policy gridlock for the past nine years, also uses good old first-past-the-post.

First-past-the-post provides disproportionate power to the large-tent parties. It’s understandable Tieleman, a New Democrat, and BC Liberal leadership candidate Dianne Watts are so intent on killing any effort to provide citizens with equal and effective votes.

Let’s not kid ourselves — racists already have influence in the existing parties. Remember Stephen Harper’s 2015 hijab wedge issue?

Proportional representation is used by 29 of the 35 Western democracies and more than 90 countries around the world. It’s the ‘WYSIWYG’ version of voting systems — what you vote for is what you get. If voters provide a party with 39 per cent of the popular vote, that party gets 39 per cent of the seats.

Our current voting system overcompensates larger parties who can pull together a plurality of votes in a riding and disproportionately penalizes the smaller parties.

Once you have more than two candidates in a riding, it’s likely the winning candidate will have the support of less than 50 per cent of voters. The rule of thumb in every first-past-the-post horse race is that over half of all voters are unrepresented while others get to decide on the policies that affect their futures. Very often, those who achieve all the power do so with as little as 39 per cent of the popular vote. We call these false majorities.

A stunning example of our disproportionate system was the 2001 election, when the BC Liberals received 97 per cent of the seats with 57 per cent of the vote. The Greens received 12 per cent of the vote, but won no seats.

Proponents of first-past-the-post do not recognize that elections should be about representation; they believe they are competitive dispute resolution mechanisms to determine which social faction deserves to dominate others.

That is why the federal Liberal government broke its promise to reform the electoral system and why P.E.I’s premier decided to ignore last year’s referendum that called for a proportional system. Once it becomes apparent that citizens want more democracy, those in power pull the plug.

Contrast this with the 95 per cent of voters in Sweden and New Zealand who were able to cast votes that helped elect representatives to their legislatures.

In the last B.C. election, it was Liberal voters who suffered as the New Democrats took 47 per cent of the seats with just 40 per cent of the popular vote. Before that, the Liberals enjoyed more than a decade of unaccountable, false-majority, winner-take-all rule.

Tieleman is fearful of democracy and parties that work together to represent a true majority of citizens. Yet he has no problem with the tyranny of the minority and elections that produce governments that dole out pork to their friends and work for those who fill their coffers rather than putting the well-being of the province first.

And then there is the unending cycle of “policy lurch” where one false majority government undoes the policy of the previous government at a cost to long-term planning and goals.

It’s true that proportional representation systems encourage coalition governments and ensure that smaller voices get heard. But to suggest that this means that government will grind to an indefinite gridlock is absurd. How about Germany? Japan? Norway? Sweden? Or New Zealand, where citizens just elected a 37-year-old woman as the third female prime minister to lead the eighth consecutive coalition in that country.

It’s also important to remember there is a huge difference between having a seat in the legislature and being in government. Coalition partners choose who they work with, based on arrangements similar to the supply and confidence agreement in B.C. between the NDP and Greens.

Take Netherlands as a recent example. The media were up in arms yelling the “extremists are coming, the extremists are coming!” Yet, it was their proportional system that has kept Geert Wilders on the sidelines.

B.C. can do better than providing legislative representation for less than half its citizens. Proportional representation is precisely what is needed to get fairer representation for many regions.

The new B.C. government is proposing that citizens adopt a new proportional system that will give every voter — rural and urban — an effective vote that will deliver stronger local and regional representation. It will be a welcome move away from the bitter, divisive winner-take-all politics that rewards politicians who throw each other under the bus.

Proportional representation asks politicians to grow up, overcome their egos and work together to collaborate and build consensus. That also means we are asking them to compromise. When Premier John Horgan says no politicians have all the right answers, we hear him saying that he is listening and willing to take a leap of faith to build something for everyone. He and Green Leader Andrew Weaver appear to be willing to overcome their egos to work together. That is how coalition governments are supposed to work.

Voting systems do not create extremists. If citizens are gravitating to parties that demonize those who don’t look like us, you have a bigger problem than the voting system.  [Tyee]

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