Each of us needs to think about what really motivates us to reform our voting system. As advocates, we must speak from our hearts and minds, and address issues that really concern voters. What does Proportional Representation have to do with access to housing, education, a safe environment, good healthcare, and so on?
The real question, for me, is who gets to decide on government priorities and how our tax dollars are spent? Should it be one party that represents a minority of voters or several parties and independent MLAs working together to represent a true majority of voters?
I’m a former vice-president academic of an Ontario college, but since retiring to Victoria 12 years ago, the environment and democracy have become my twin passions. I’m also a woman of faith as a founding member of Esquimalt United’s Justice team.
I live close by our beautiful harbour and Kinder Morgan lit my fire five years ago. The thought of an oil spill and its impact on marine life, tourism, real estate, and local jobs got me up in the morning to gather signatures and intervene formally in public hearings.
When the federal Liberals gained power two years ago, I hoped that Kinder Morgan would be stopped, but I’ve discovered the root of the problem lies in our first-past-the-post voting system. It doesn’t seem to matter what a party promises during an election – once it receives a majority, it has all the power and can renege on its promises.
Trudeau promised to bring in electoral reform, but once he got a majority, he disowned this pledge. He promised to revamp the National Energy Board before deciding on Kinder Morgan, but approved it anyway, along with the Site C dam. He could do this because his party received 39% of the popular vote in 2015 but got 100% of the power under our first-past-the-post system. The same pattern occurred under the Harper government.
We call this a phony majority, where one party calls all the shots and 61% of Canadians have no effective voice in Parliament.
We have the same problem in BC. Did you know that in the last 100 years, we’ve had 19 false majorities, four minority governments, and only four true majority governments? That’s pretty shocking, and Liberal or NDP, it made no difference.
British Columbians are highly diverse and we need representatives who look like us, talk like us, and vote according to values we share, not a party that represents only one sector of our society, often the most privileged. In a nutshell, PR means the popular vote is reflected in who sits in our legislature. Votes = seats = power.
I believe proportional representation is a step in the evolution of our democracy and is a basic human right. We have an historic opportunity today to join 85% of OECD countries who’ve abandoned the 12th century horse-racing mentality. BC can afford to help all citizens survive and participate in decision-making, not just the most powerful or the first to race past the post. This truly inspires me – to make every vote count.
That’s why I joined Fair Vote Canada and am now leading our BC team as we prepare to win the 2018 referendum on proportional representation, along with many other groups like our co-sponsor tonight, PRiority. We’re a national, multipartisan organization with chapters all over Canada and 12,000 BC supporters.
So what does Fair Vote Canada recommend?
First, we are delighted that both the NDP and Greens have promised unequivocally to bring in electoral reform, including a referendum on proportional representation this time next year. Both have said they’ll campaign in favour of PR and provide leadership.
This is a major difference from the past two referenda when political parties sat it out, and the mainstream media launched an aggressive, fear-mongering NO campaign.
But this time around, we’re hopeful. In fact, the Confidence & Supply Agreement between the NDP and Greens reflects the spirit of cooperation we’d likely see under a PR system. The two parties are modelling a mature, collaborative approach to democracy – not without their differences that’s for sure – but respectful debate is healthy.
We’re also encouraged by the Ipsos poll on May 22, 2017 which showed 54% of British Columbians support some form of proportional representation, including 49% of BC Liberal voters. 22% of those polled are undecided, half of them women. And 69% agree a referendum is needed to make this decision.
Fair Vote has researched referenda around the world and has submitted an evidence-based document to government. Here are some highlights:
- We call for an independent, impartial body to review previous studies on electoral reform and organize study circles or citizen juries across the province.
- We believe citizen involvement is crucial to build credibility, because the Achilles heel of electoral reform is that we have to rely on MLAs to change a system that affects their own livelihood. And that’s a built-in conflict of interest. Research shows that referendums can be gamed by governments that don’t want them to pass. The only solution is for voters to stand up and be counted, and hold parties which renege on their promises to account at the next election.
- Second, we recommend an expedited process. We don’t need to start from scratch after 12 national/provincial commissions and studies and BC’s own 2005 Citizen’s Assembly.
- Third, we look to government to lead the process, not sit it out as it did in the past or, heaven forbid, secretly encourage the naysayers.
- We need a strong communications/education strategy that speaks to citizens’ basic democratic values. Our research shows that the status quo almost always has a huge advantage in referendums, so education is key.
- Which brings me to the million dollar question, namely the referendum question. The question determines the outcome – it’s that important. Referendums that force citizens to choose between FPTP and a proportional system have nearly all failed. Voters are not well-informed as a rule, but they’re not naïve. When given cues that align with their values, voters will feel confident voting for change.
- This is why we recommend a generic question in the referendum such as: “Do you agree we should modernize the way we elect our MLAs through a proportional system that both preserves local representation and ensures the popular vote is better reflected in the composition of the legislature?”
- If the government decides to invite voters’ views on specific PR options, we recommend this be done through a second question, using a ranked ballot with various PR options, as was done recently in PEI’s referendum.
- Together with Fair Voting BC, we’ve just tabled a User Guide to PR Options for BC with the government. We believe there are three broad categories of PR voting systems: those that involve multi-member ridings or multi-winners; those that call for regional top-up seats; or a combination of both. And just to be clear, FVC does not endorse any one system as “the best”. We’ll support any system that is truly proportional.
- Our sixth recommendation is don’t get into the weeds on voting systems and mechanics. Once you’ve choosen a plane to fly, you don’t need to know how it’s designed and how the costs are counted, do you? Just that it will get you to your destination, namely the land of fair representation. So let’s focus primarily on basic values like fairness, diversity, local accountability and voter choice, rather than the alphabet soup of voting systems.
- We also recommend that BC follow the PEI example of allowing young people aged 16 and 17 to vote in the referendum. After all, they’ll be voting in the next election. I believe the Greens support this too.
- And lastly, we want the government to establish a registry for electoral reform promoters and impose a spending limit for those registered and unregistered, so citizens have equal opportunity to use advertising compared to those with deeper pockets.
I’m waiting eagerly for the government’s legislation this fall, so we can get down to work in winning this historic referendum. It’s our third time up to bat in BC, and it better be a home run.
Just think how this could impact the next federal election….BC can lead Canada!