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STV Gives Rural Towns Needed Clout

Provincial governments have failed to invest in rural B.C. A new electoral system would help change that.

By Peter Ewart 3 Mar 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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When we elect an MLA from the Interior or North of B.C., on whose behalf is this person acting? A political party? Or the citizens of the riding? For rural British Columbians, this is a serious concern as we approach the May 17th referendum on adopting the single-transferable-vote electoral system (BC-STV) proposed by the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Under the current first-past-the-post system, MLAs are torn between allegiance to their political party and loyalty to the voters that elected them. And the party usually wins out. MLAs who take up the causes of their constituents and buck the party brass in Victoria are punished quickly and severely. Those who do follow the party line end up like circus contortionists desperately trying to position themselves in that yawning space between the demands of the party insiders in Victoria and the interests of the voters in their riding.

Why is local representation so important? The rural areas of B.C. (and rural areas around the world) are under tremendous pressure. Globalization is contributing to the problem, as is its spawn, the phenomenally expanding metropolises like Vancouver, Toronto, New York and London.

These mega cities have huge political clout, effectively capturing the focus of government, sucking up provincial revenues with such ambitious mega-projects as the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Olympics and the Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line, and draining away what little power and decision-making remains in the rural areas.

In the coming years, rural areas will need strong voices and a flexible electoral process to avoid being sidelined or even obliterated.

While cities build, towns fall

While there is a massive spending spree on infrastructure in the Lower Mainland, rural areas, relatively speaking, have watched as their infrastructure has been undermined and weakened, health and social services cut, and schools closed. In an act that deeply angered people in the North, the Campbell government broke a major election promise and sold B.C. Rail for what many consider to be a song. Many also believe that no recent provincial government has had a coherent vision for the Interior and North, other than as a resource-extraction cash cow. As a result, the rural regions “beyond Hope” feel alienated and sidelined.

Yet these same rural areas drive the provincial economy. A recent study by the Urban Futures research group concluded that two-thirds of B.C.'s export income is earned by the province’s traditional resource sectors of forestry, mining, fishing, energy and agriculture. The study found that in 2001 $38.1 billion of total provincial exports originated in non-metropolitan areas, while $24.6 billion originated in metropolitan areas. The study concluded metropolitan regions contributed $9,646 per person in export income, while the rest of the province generated $28,070 per capita.

The study also found the gap is widening. Without tax revenue from non-metropolitan B.C., the Olympics, the RAV line, and other projects would be fanciful dreams.

MLAs ‘gagged’ by system

Where have our MLAs been during all this? Have they spoken out against the frenzy of mega-project spending in the Lower Mainland? Have they railed against the massive cuts to health, education and social services in rural areas? Did they boldly and courageously denounce the controversial sale of B.C. Rail and other privatizations? No, they have done none of these things.

The first-past-the-post system and the extreme party discipline it spawns gags them. And we in the rural areas pay the price.

Has the situation been substantially different under previous governments? Not really. The same pressure is exerted on rural MLAs to keep quiet and follow the party line despite the endless fiascos and scandals, and the neglect of the rural “heartland”.

If B.C.-STV is adopted, rural provincial ridings will be larger, and voters will get to vote for several MLAs rather than just one. Candidates from the same party will be running against each other, as well as all the rest of the candidates. To stand out from the pack, candidates will need to have deep local roots and be strong voices for their constituents and rural interests. Candidates who are parachuted in by party brass or those who meekly follow the party line from Victoria will not fare well.

Does this mean that political parties will have no internal cohesion or that there will be too many small parties? Not necessarily. It depends on what the voters want. If voters prefer a two-party style of legislature with relatively strong party discipline, that is what they will tend to get. If they prefer more independent voices or small parties, that too is what they will end up with. The choice is left to the voter — as it should be.

Under the first-past-the-post system, the executive bodies rule supreme over the legislature. MLAs lack sufficient independence to act as a check on this power. After an election, we have four years of dictatorial rule by the Premier and his close confidants, many of whom are not elected. MLAs are reduced to rubber-stamping policies cooked up behind Cabinet doors.

Right meets left in rural B.C.

Politics in B.C. have been highly polarized for a long time. Entire regions of the province can be left out if they vote the “wrong” way. Because B.C.-STV fosters a less polarized and more coalition-style politics, and enshrines more power in the legislature, rural MLAs will be better able to maneuver to defend rural interests, and to be included in the governance process, no matter the political makeup of the government.

A misconception exists that voters in rural areas tend to be more “conservative” than the Lower Mainland. Politics in rural areas are often just dressed up differently. Indeed, unlike urban areas, rural communities often come together en masse over issues, and it doesn’t matter who is “right”, “left” or “centre”. When rural people from all walks of life and all political persuasions block the Coquihalla Highway or the B.C. Rail tracks in Prince George, or rally to defend a hospital from being closed in the Kootenays, is this less “progressive” than politics in Vancouver?

To many rural voters, whether an MLA is on the “right” side or the “left” side is not hugely important. Rural voters want MLAs who are on their side, who will take their concerns to Victoria. At the same time — and the two positions don’t have to be contradictory — they also want MLAs who are on the side of the province as a whole, rather than just focused on the interests of one region. To suggest that, under STV, rural voters will necessarily vote either “left” or “right” does not take into account the rich, unique and often complicated political culture of rural areas.

Not best, but better

In terms of proportionality, STV works best when there are more MLAs representing a riding. Rural ridings tend to have lower population, and under STV those ridings would have fewer MLAs. However, because STV does have a higher degree of proportionality than the first-past-the-post system, it is still much better at creating opportunities for women, minorities, independents and small parties.

Another concern about STV is that rural ridings are larger than under first-past-the-post. But STV provincial ridings will be no larger than existing federal ridings. Voters will have a range of MLAs to take their issues to, and a greater chance that there will be at least one who has similar political leanings.

The modern world is a complicated place, and it’s going to get more complicated in the years to come. Rural areas are under assault like never before, and they need new political and electoral arrangements to cope with these pressures. In this “brave new world” of globalization and urbanization, rural British Columbians want a fairer, more proportional, and more regionally sensitive electoral process. They want clear, strong, and effective voices in the provincial legislature to articulate rural needs and work in partnership with urban areas. STV offers this opportunity.

We should seize the opportunity to take a step in that direction.

Peter Ewart is an instructor in English and New Media at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, BC.  He is a spokesperson for the Active Voice Coalition, a grass roots, non-partisan community coalition. He is also an activist with the Prince George Committee to Save BC Rail and recently the "Yes for STV" Provincial Committee.    [Tyee]

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