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I Want Proportional Representation — But Not This Way

Proposed referendum questions are too vague and confusing to allow an informed vote for change.

By Crawford Kilian 5 Jun 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

As a long-time supporter of proportional representation, I was delighted to see the provincial government follow through on its promise to put the question to voters. But now that the proposal is before us and we’ll vote on it this fall, I’m not so sure.

The failings of first past the post have been understood for a century or more. In any democracy with more than two parties, FPTP guarantees most governments are elected by a minority; the majority are left out in the cold. This outcome alienates many voters who may decline to vote at all next time.

And that ensures the next government will be yet another Canadian dictatorship, elected by a minority of a still smaller electorate and immune to reprisals for four years.

We forget that all parties are themselves coalitions formed before an election; a minority government made up of two or more parties forms its coalition afterward, and represents more of the electorate than most of today’s provincial and federal governments. In the absence of an outright majority, coalitions have to settle on policies their voters will support, or at least tolerate.

The Tyee has been debating the proportional representation issue for most of its 15 years, ever since the Campbell Liberals offered a choice of FPTP or single transferable vote in 2005. Despite strenuous efforts to educate the public, the referendum failed. Ironically, a majority did support the STV, but 60 per cent support was needed for success. (In 2009, a second referendum saw STV rejected by 60.9 per cent of voters.)

Baffling proposals

This time around, the NDP government has limited its education efforts to a website describing various electoral systems and asking for comments and suggestions. I visited it last winter and found it baffling: the descriptions of possible new voting systems were hard to follow and raised more questions than they answered. Now we have a report with recommendations, and I’m as baffled as ever.

Let’s take Dual Member Proportional: Most electoral districts are merged with a neighbouring district to form bigger districts with two MLAs each. Parties can nominate two candidates; each voter casts a single ballot for the candidates of a particular party. One MLA is elected by getting the most votes. The second seat is “allocated based on province-wide voting results and the individual district results.”

Allocated by whom? And on the basis of what results? How does the Electoral Boundaries Commission decide to merge a given district with that neighbour rather than this neighbour?

The report says “DMP is a relatively simple system to understand and for voters to use,” and that’s true compared to Mixed Member Proportional. In MMP you vote for a single candidate but you may or may not get another MLA drawn from a list of party-designated candidates “allocated on a regional or provincial level.” The percentage of the party’s vote determines the number of list candidates who get seats, but it’s not clear why candidate A gets dropped into district B, or who decides.

Don’t get me going on Rural-Urban PR. For some districts, voters in urban and semi-urban areas use the single transferable vote, while the rural areas use Mixed Member Proportional. And don’t ask me what a “semi-urban” area is, but I suspect it’s monster houses built on ALR land.

Unanswered questions

Much of the confusion stems from three “mandatory criteria” for a new system:

  1. No more than eight new MLAs added to the current 87.
  2. No region gets fewer MLAs than it now does.
  3. No party gets any proportional allocation of seats unless it gets at least five per cent of the overall vote “in the province or region, as applicable.”

Applicable by whom? Why shouldn’t a region get fewer MLAs if its population is falling? And do we really need 87 MLAs?

Almost 10 years ago, I argued in The Tyee for a “post-geographical” electoral system, with no more than 30 at-large MLAs — each casting as many votes as he or she had received in the election, like shareholders’ proxy votes in corporate board elections. What’s more, I argued voters could transfer their votes to another MLA every six months; rapid feedback could reward good policies and punish bad ones.

That’s clearly too radical for today’s voters, but technology could make it administratively far easier than our present cumbersome system or the alternatives on offer.

The report does offer one useful suggestion: If we choose one of the recommended PR systems, we hold another referendum two elections later, to endorse the change or go back to first past the post.

But I would build such a referendum into any electoral system. Even if we support FPTP this fall, give us a chance to vote again on a truly clear and simple PR system after a few years’ further debate. (Such referenda could also test support for Indigenous representation, which the report suggests needs serious discussion.)

Long ago, Machiavelli observed: “It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

We urgently need a new electoral order, one that will inspire more than lukewarm defence. Maybe we’ll get clarifications over the summer, and voters will understand the proposals and choose one of them. But lacking such clarifications, I’m going to stick, lukewarmly, to FPTP.  [Tyee]

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