News / Vancouver

'Bizarre' overseas election results 'fodder' for B.C. referendum

Kiwis, Icelanders give latest examples for clashes between B.C. electoral reform foes.

Iceland’s new Prime Minister,

 Katrin Jakobsdottir, 41, of 

The Left-Green Movement. 

She became Prime Minister on Nov. 30, thanks to a three-party coalition.


Iceland’s new Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, 41, of The Left-Green Movement. She became Prime Minister on Nov. 30, thanks to a three-party coalition.

British Columbians can expect to hear more about Iceland and New Zealand in the New Year.

Even though they're 6,000 and 12,000 kilometres from Vancouver, respectively, both just experienced election results so "bizarre" they're sure to become fodder in the lead-up to fall 2018's referendum on changing how we vote.

That's according to two pundits on either side of B.C.'s proportional representation debate.

The B.C. NDP launched a commission this fall on the upcoming referendum, which the B.C. Liberals accused of being "stacked" with reformers.

"For the most part Canadians don't pay a ton of attention to international affairs," said David Moscrop, a Simon Fraser University political scientist and self-described avid supporter of electoral reform, "and even less to the affairs of New Zealand or Iceland.

"But they have now given opponents of reform some current fodder to use to try to scare people into voting against proportional representation — 'If you want a tiny percentage of people deciding the fate of the province, look what happened in New Zealand or Iceland.'"

In Iceland last Thursday, Katrín Jakobsdóttir became Prime Minister after forming a three-way coalition — despite her Left-Green party's mere 17 per cent of the vote.

And in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern came to power Oct. 26 despite her Labour party only having 37 per cent of the vote — thanks to a coalition with the small far-right anti-immigrant New Zealand First party and a confidence and supply deal with the even smaller Greens.

Such backroom dealings might sound familiar to British Columbians after the Greens propped up the B.C. NDP under a similar agreement. But both Kiwis and Bjork's compatriots have different types of proportional representation which aim to more closely match seats in parliament to the popular vote.

"The biggest problem with any proportional representation system is it almost all but guarantees minority governments, where the smallest party can weild the most power and actually decide who becomes the prime minister or premier," argued Bill Tieleman, who campaigned for the "No" side in B.C.'s 2009 referendum. "Proponents say, 'Some people's vote doesn't count' and all this nonsese.

"But the reality is a party that got five to six per cent of the vote, in the case of New Zealand, decided who will be prime minister and insists on many of their policies — the idea that this is more democratic is absolutely absurd."

Moscrop replied that the "bizarre" outcomes aren't unique to proportional representation systems — look at B.C.'s own current Green-backed NDP minority under first-past-the-post voting — and aren't representative.

"Moments of pro-rep uncertainty are going to be seized upon by opponents," he said, "and they have a point — that those might not be wanted in B.C.

"But that's a cognitive bias. If something's top of mind, people think it's more common. When you think of a non-functioning democracy, you don't think of Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand or Germany; they are some of the world's top democracies."

Tieleman, however, countered that under our current first-past-the-post voting system — in which voters elect an MLA for their local riding and the party able to get the most MLAs' backing in the Legislature forms government — stable majorities and occasional minorities are the norm.

"But under proportional representation, almost no government almost ever has a complete majority, it's just about impossible that happens," he said. "You're always looking at a coalitition or alliances with one to three minor parties … even very minor fringe parties.

"Who are they accountable to if not to constituents? It's up to party backroom politics."

The B.C. NDP tabled referendum legislation in early October, fulfilling a key election promise and one of the pillars of their confidence deal with the Greens. The referendum, it revealed, would be held in fall 2018 by mail, and only require 50-per-cent-plus-one vote to be successful, with no geographic requirements.

But after the government appointed three proportional representation supporters to its referendum planning commission, and only one critic, Tieleman lamented it "has regrettably stacked the deck in favour of pro-rep already."

The referendum also outraged B.C. Liberals who said proportional representation would reduce the voting power of B.C.'s Interior and rural areas unfairly — and mainly benefit the NDP's urban voter base and their Green Party allies.

"The B.C. NDP's plan to change the electoral system is nothing more than an attempt to stack the deck in their favour," the opposition tweeted Nov. 30. "John Horgan and Andrew Weaver are doing everything they can to tilt B.C.'s electoral system to their own advantage."

Here in B.C., two referenda on electoral reform failed in the 2000s — in 2005, falling just four per cent short of the 60 per cent threshold set by the B.C. Liberals, despite majority support in 77 or 79 provincial ridings; and again four years later, garnering only 39 per cent support.

Have your say on electoral reform. The B.C. government is seeking public input until Feb. 28 online. Meanwhile, the opposition B.C. Liberals are signing up opponents of changing the voting system at their Protect Your Voice web page, and Fair Voting B.C. gathering supporters at its website.

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