Trio of flukes drive the votes on re­form

Times Colonist - - Comment - LES LEYNE lleyne@times­

In be­tween all the in­ter­rup­tions, there were some glim­mers of hard news dur­ing the lead­ers’ de­bate on pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion on Thurs­day.

One devel­op­ment: De­spite this be­ing the third ref­er­en­dum in 13 years on chang­ing the vot­ing sys­tem, the idea won’t nec­es­sar­ily die if this month’s ref­er­en­dum vote de­feats pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

An­other ref­er­en­dum is al­ready re­quired if the cur­rent one passes. It will be held af­ter two elec­tions un­der what­ever new sys­tem is picked, to con­firm whether peo­ple ac­cept the change.

But if this month’s ref­er­en­dum fails, that might not be the end of the mat­ter.

B.C. Lib­eral Leader An­drew Wilkin­son com­mit­ted to con­ven­ing an­other cit­i­zens assem­bly to ex­am­ine the vot­ing sys­tem, if the cir­cum­stances arise.

He did it partly to avoid hav­ing to de­fend the main draw­back of the cur­rent sys­tem — par­ties usu­ally get ma­jor­ity con­trol of the leg­is­la­ture with only a mi­nor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote.

“Try­ing some­thing new would be en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate, and that’s why we’ve been say­ing it’s time for an­other cit­i­zens assem­bly,” he said. “A cit­i­zens assem­bly would be a good idea.”

He said it would pro­duce a straight­for­ward yes-no ques­tion that would be put on the bal­lot dur­ing a gen­eral elec­tion.

It wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily take a Lib­eral re­turn to power for that to hap­pen. Un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances, the NDP might en­dorse the idea, as well, in the event its cam­paign for pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion fails.

So why does B.C. have this re­cur­ring ob­ses­sion with the vot­ing sys­tem, to the point where there’s a chance of four ref­er­en­dums over the course of six elec­tion cy­cles? No­body else does this.

It’s partly due to one out­lier elec­tion re­sult that started the ball rolling, and two sub­se­quent ones that have main­tained the idea’s mo­men­tum.

The NDP won the 1996 elec­tion by six seats, even though it got 2.4 per cent (37,500) fewer votes that the B.C. Lib­er­als. The losers were floored by that re­sult. When they did fi­nally gain power, they cre­ated the first cit­i­zens assem­bly, hop­ing for a sys­tem that would pre­vent that from hap­pen­ing.

The in­de­pen­dent, ran­domly se­lected assem­bly of 161 cit­i­zens ar­rived at a new idea, the sin­gle trans­fer­able vote. It was a the­o­ret­i­cally vi­able idea that few un­der­stood, so it didn’t pass the strict thresh­olds in a 2005 ref­er­en­dum. The vote was close enough that a sec­ond ef­fort was or­dered, and it failed out­right on a sec­ond vote in 2009.

But the 2001 elec­tion that saw the Lib­er­als elected was also im­por­tant for a dif­fer­ent rea­son.

They got more than 50 per cent of the vote, a first in B.C., but scooped 77 out of 79 seats.

It was a wildly dis­pro­por­tion­ate seat count, and the win­ners took full ad­van­tage of it. They even de­nied the two NDP MLAs the cour­tesy of party sta­tus. The house was dys­func­tional for most of that term. The whole ba­sis of par­lia­ment — no mat­ter which vot­ing sys­tem is used to as­sem­ble peo­ple — is the ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem. If there are al­most no ad­ver­saries, it doesn’t work right.

So for years af­ter­ward, the NDP stewed about a fluke elec­tion that al­most wiped out the party.

The third elec­tion that drove the elec­toral re­form agenda was the most re­cent one. For all the com­plaints about the cur­rent sys­tem’s de­fi­cien­cies, it pro­duced a per­fectly rep­re­sen­ta­tive re­sult.

Peo­ple couldn’t make up their minds. The pop­u­lar vote was al­most a dead heat. (With two mil­lion votes, Lib­er­als got 1,667 more than the NDP). So there was only a twoseat dif­fer­ence in the count, and the elec­torate, in its wis­dom, played a wild card. Vot­ers re­turned three B.C. Green Party MLAs, then sat back and let the play­ers fig­ure it out.

The first new party elected in decades had the bal­ance of power, and one of its pri­or­i­ties was to ce­ment its hold, by chang­ing the rules to bring the seat count closer to the pop­u­lar vote. That meshed with the NDP prom­ise to change to pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The ref­er­en­dum cur­rently un­der­way is a prod­uct of that.

The other shred of news was Premier John Hor­gan’s as­sur­ance that there would be more MLAs in the house un­der a new sys­tem. That’s not spec­i­fied in the out­lines pro­vided, but it seems likely there will be as many as eight more MLAs.

The more seats cre­ated, the less wrench­ing the con­sol­i­da­tion of rid­ings will be.

And the gov­ern­ment wants to make the change as pain­less as pos­si­ble.

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