B.C. voters are unusually well-prepared for the looming debate on electoral reform given a pair of past referendums on the subject, says a prominent advocate in those votes held over the past dozen years.
The issue of changing the way B.C. voters elect their politicians is now in play given demands from the BC Green Party that electoral reform be a condition for winning its support in a possible minority parliament, subject to recounts expected to be completed next week of results in the provincial election.
“We had two referendums in a row and a lot of people who didn’t know anything about electoral reform learned something through that process, enough to cast a ballot, yes or no,” says Bruce Hallsor, who was co-chair of the Yes side in both the 2005 and 2009 votes, which both failed.
“So I venture to say we probably have a more educated electorate on electoral reform than most provinces who haven’t been through that process.”
Mr. Hallsor, a Victoria lawyer, says British Columbia’s effort to grapple with this issue will have national implications because the political system needs to be fixed, particularly the lack of connection voters feel to their elected representatives between and even during elections.
“You can’t change it without changing the way we elect people,” he said. “If [reform] gets implemented somewhere in Canada, it will gain traction, and I think it will spread.”
The reckoning looms because of the provincial election, which saw the BC Liberals win 43 seats, the NDP 41 seats and the BC Greens three seats. To govern, the Liberals or NDP will have to win over the Greens, who are demanding electoral reform as a condition of support.
Both BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark and NDP Leader John Horgan have spoken of the need for change.
“As we learned in 2009 and 2005, it’s a hard thing to do, This may be the catalyst to doing it,” Mr. Hallsor said.
Back then, the referendums came about because of then-BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell. In the 1996 election, the Liberals won the popular vote, but lost the election to the NDP, which gained more seats. That prompted Mr. Campbell to promise change if he won power. He promised a citizens’ assembly to design the change, and a referendum for voters to decide whether to enact it. When the BC Liberals won the 2001 election, Mr. Campbell launched the process for reform.
However, referendums that took place at the same time as the 2005 and 2009 elections failed to meet the 60-per-cent threshold for approval of a single transferable vote system in which voters would have ranked candidates by preference, even if they were from different parties, and candidates with the highest levels of support would have been elected.
Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the lesson from the B.C. experience is that it is challenging to have such reforms approved through a referendum.
He said New Zealand’s experience offers a path forward.
In that country, there was an initial referendum in 1992 on a system that allowed more proportional voting: It asked if voters wanted to replace the first-past-the-post system and then asked them to choose from four electoral options. That referendum passed by 85 per cent as did a second one in 1993 on the specific new system proposed. The first election with the new system was held in 1996. In 2011, there was a further referendum on whether to keep the new system. It passed with 58 per cent support.
Still, Prof. Telford said it was unclear in the current “charged” B.C. political environment whether there is the focus to organize such reform. “In the B.C. case, with whoever forms the government having a razor-thin hold on [power,] I am not sure they can devote the energy or will have the time to sort it out before we go back to the polls.”
Electoral reform was not part of the BC Liberal platform in this year’s election, but Ms. Clark’s office this week pointed to 2009 comments she made as a CKNW radio talk-show host for an indication of her views. Back then, Ms. Clark told her listeners she had campaigned against a single-transferable-vote system before, but was then urging voters to approve it in the referendum.
At the time, Ms. Clark said politicians campaigning against the idea were afraid of change, but that it was a good idea. “First, it will force all politicians to compete for all of your votes. Candidates will be looking to be your first choice, but if not, then your second, or your third,” she said. “In this context, no MLA will be safe forever, and every vote will be counted. We will stop throwing vast numbers of votes in the garbage once one candidate gets their 35 per cent.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Clark was asked about her current position. She acknowledged her past support for electoral reform and Green Party interest in the issue. “I think the NDP don’t really have a position on it,” she added.
In fact, throughout the 2017 election campaign, Mr. Horgan touted a party commitment to fix a voting system the NDP platform said gave all power to parties that don’t even get 50 per cent of the vote. “We’ll hold a referendum on changing our voting system to a proportional system so that every vote counts,” read the platform.
In an interview after the election last week, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said change is integral to the party. “We believe that our democracy is broken and so we will push for that,” he said. “There’s some compromise in there, obviously, for how that plan plays out.”
Mr. Weaver said one option may be to enact reform and then have the public vote in a referendum. He also said B.C. might be able to borrow some ideas from the federal electoral reform process suspended by the Trudeau government. “I don’t know that we need to rediscover the entire wheel there,” Mr. Weaver said.
Mr. Hallsor said he opposes a system cooked up in a “backroom deal” by the parties. “It should be something that is endorsed by the people,” he said. “If the people passed it in a referendum, it would make it very politically difficult for a future government to tinker with it. If it’s brought in by legislation, any government can change it.”