March 18, 2004

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Overhauling our electoral process

The average British Columbian is now painfully aware of how the quality of our electoral system can directly influence the years in between elections.

At a time when British Columbians are turning out in fewer numbers for their elections, the B.C. Liberal government has initiated the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform. This public consultation process will, if implemented, essentially revamp our aging electoral process in favour of one that more accurately reflects how people vote.

There may not be too many highlights in the B.C. Liberals' first term as government. The Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, however, is the one progressive reform that very few people are voicing their opposition to. The average British Columbian is now painfully aware of how the quality of our electoral system can directly influence the years in between elections. There is no greater argument for electoral reform than the results of the last B.C. election.

The Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform has come about in the midst of an otherwise horrendous first term as government. The Liberal inspiration for the Citizens Assembly is subject to debate. One clear example was the 1996 B.C. election. Despite winning the most votes in that election, the B.C. Liberals lost to the NDP. The NDP won more seats, with fewer people actually voting for them, and therefore won the election.

If the NDP had had the foresight to implement some form of proportional representation in their 10 years as the government, we would have a better form of government in Victoria today.

Instead, we have a disproportionate circus show that revolves around one Liberal telling the other Liberals how great they all are. The more serious consequence of the NDP's lack of vision is that we see legislation being passed that we know nothing about. If the NDP had put some of their electoral reform research into practice, we could have seen the following scenario:

In the 2001 provincial election the Liberals claimed 58 per cent (917,000) of the total vote, the NDP received 21 per cent (343,000) and the Green party received 12.4 per cent (198,000) of the votes cast. Yet in the legislature we saw 98 per cent of the seats occupied by Liberals, 2 per cent by the NDP and no seats held by the Green party.

In 2001, given the proportion of voting preferences, the Liberals would have ended up with 45 seats, the NDP would have had 16 seats and the Green party would have ended up with 10 seats. A far different picture from what we have now. If this is not an example of how our voting system needs an upgrade, I don't know what is.

Our existing electoral system, commonly known as first past the post (FPTP), found its origins in the British parliamentary system 150 years ago. Back then, there was a two party domination, which still exists today. Therein lie the limitations of FPTP - it maintains the status quo of the two party system. Any new party that is not a mere duplication of the existing two will find obtaining elected representatives very difficult, if not impossible. There is no better example of this than in B. C., where the Liberals essentially duplicated the political void left by the Social Credit party in opposition to the left-leaning New Democrats.

Amazingly and somewhat suspiciously, there has been little opposition to the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform. The provincial government has dedicated $5 million to its completion and the Vancouver Sun has dedicated a considerable amount of copy to covering the process. We have yet to see a definitive statement from the union movement on the process. The large corporations and business sector have been quiet on the issue.

It is generally agreed the electoral process in British Columbia is in need of change, so what do we change it to? Our first indication of the need for change came about around Adriane Carr's citizen's initiative on proportional representation. This low budget campaign had 4,000 volunteers eventually collecting 98,000 signatures. While the campaign fell short of the needed number of signatures, it did show anyone with the slightest interest that the citizens of British Columbia were/are interested in reforming their electoral system.

The system that seems most suited to our needs is one used in New Zealand. New Zealand's form of mixed member proportional representation takes the existing first-past-the-post process and adds a second ballot that uses proportional representation. Why New Zealand? New Zealand has a similar socio-economic and geographical profile to British Columbia. It has a vocal native population, similar proportions of urban and rural populations and political parties spread throughout the political spectrum.

New Zealand's adoption of the mixed member proportional representation only arrived after a number of years of royal commissions, referenda and a decidedly nasty anti-democracy campaign by the Kiwi business elite to the tune of $1 million in the week prior to there final referendum.

Upon implementation, New Zealanders found that voter turn-out increased, the gender imbalance was reduced significantly, more native candidates ran (and were elected) and while not all the ills of government were reduced, the population of New Zealand elected a profile of candidates that more accurately represented them.

That being said, New Zealand still suffers from political scandal and political fear-mongering. Governments can still theoretically win with large majorities, although post-election coalitions seem to be the rule of thumb. Even this varies from one issue to the next. Noticeably reduced is that vicious ideological swing from left to right and back again that has plagued British Columbia for the last 20 years.

Can British Columbians follow the example set by New Zealand (and 60 other nations) and make the leap to proportional representation ?

The most significant barrier to us adopting a new electoral system is too many choices. I fear that if the assembly cannot decide on one particular process it will throw up its hands and leave things the way they are, which would be a big mistake, not to mention a waste of personal time and $5 million. It is therefore important for those who feel strongly about the issue to speak out at the various public forums being held around the province. Starting in May 2004, these open meetings will be an excellent opportunity for the rest of us to speak on the issue of electoral reform.

My perfect scenario for the 2009 election is to see the first implementation of B.C.'s version of mixed member proportional representation. We would see more women, more visible minorities and a far healthier legislature in Victoria. After that election we would see parties working in coalitions to resolve differences. However, the most important factors would be that B.C. voters would feel like they were voting for something as opposed to voting against something. Imagine not one vote going to waste.

Between now and 2009, we have to ensure that mixed member proportional representation is the voting method of choice decided on by the citizens assembly and we get the voters in 2005 to vote in favour of implementing mixed member proportional representation in 2009. Once we have this in place, we can then decide the future of this province in a far more fair and equitable manner.

Ian Gregson is the vice-president of CUPE 3338 and was a volunteer with the 2002 proportional representation initiative on electoral reform. He was an unsuccessful candidate in the 2001 provincial election.

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