B.C.'s electoral reform debate: "Yes" side launches campaign
But opponent warns adopting proportional representation could lead to extremists or fringe groups being elected
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Should B.C. stick with its first-past-the-post-electoral system, which can deliver governments that don’t always correspond with the popular vote?
Or should the province move to proportional representation, a more nuanced way of electing MLAs that some say would make for a less partisan and more collaborative legislature?
A campaign for “yes” to proportional representation launched in Vancouver Jan. 25, with former NDP MP Jean Crowder saying the idea would produce “more productive” governments.
B.C. had already had two referendums on whether to implement the single transferable vote system, which would have seen voters able rank candidates rather than vote for just one person. It would also have entailed consolidating some ridings, but electing a number of representatives to represent the riding instead of just one.
Both referendums, in 2005 and 2009, failed.
The issue has again come to the fore in part because the current NDP government depends on the support of the B.C. Green Party, and electoral reform is a key issue for the Greens. They’re a relatively new political force in the province, and have struggled to get candidates elected under the first-past-the-post system: the 2017 provincial election was a breakthrough for the Greens, with three MLAs elected.
“It’s more difficult to ignore a political party when they have more seats,” Crowder said.
The NDP government has started public consultations on another referendum for electoral reform.
Crowder believes proportional representation could work to tone down the partisanship that is common in politics today. Hardline political divisions are increasingly fuelling polarization in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where far-right attitudes towards immigration and race led to the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit.
Bill Tieleman, a lobbyist, former NDP strategist and a frequent political pundit, heads the “no” campaign, along with Suzanne Anton, a former B.C. Liberal MLA and attorney general.
Based on recent examples in Europe, Tieleman warned that proportional representation could give fringe or extremist parties a “toe-hold” in the legislature.
“Under proportional representation systems, someone can get elected with anywhere from less than one per cent of the vote to four and five per cent of the vote in a lot of the PR countries,” Teileman said.
“That means what we’ve seen in Europe is the rise of far-right extremist parties in Austria, in Holland and in Germany.”
But Crowder countered that a proportional representation system could be set up to ensure candidates can’t get elected unless they pass a certain threshold of support.
Both campaigns are still waiting to see what how the B.C. government sets out the frame of reference for the referendum. A key factor will be rules around campaign financing. The Yes campaign would like to see the newly-adopted rules for election financing applied to the refendum: no union and corporate donations, and individuals limited to $1,200.
But Tieleman isn’t so sure: businesses have a stake in the referendum, he argued, because proportional representation could deliver more unstable governments and that could affect the economy.
Because of that, he believes there’s a case to be make for allowing corporations and unions to donate.