Hor­gan stum­bles dur­ing de­bate on vot­ing change

Vancouver Sun - - CITY - ROB SHAW rshaw@post­ twit­­shaw_­van­sun

Lib­eral leader An­drew Wilkin­son used this week’s TV de­bate to make big gains in his cam­paign to spread con­fu­sion over the de­tails of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. His suc­cess has left the Yes side with some tough choices as it tries to counter the Lib­eral mo­men­tum in the crit­i­cal days ahead.

Wilkin­son ded­i­cated al­most his en­tire time dur­ing a 30-minute de­bate Thurs­day on a fo­cused at­tack on Premier John Hor­gan for be­ing un­able to ex­plain the prac­ti­cal me­chan­ics of how the three pro-rep op­tions on the ref­er­en­dum bal­lot would work in the real world.

It was a dev­as­tat­ingly sim­ple but ef­fec­tive ar­gu­ment, be­cause Hor­gan can’t ex­plain the three sys­tems in short and sim­ple terms. Al­most no­body can. Two are not in use any­where in the world. And the third, mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional, has so many im­por­tant de­tails left un­de­cided — the for­mat of party lists, what vot­ers will ac­tu­ally be vot­ing upon, and the struc­ture of rid­ings — to be near-im­pos­si­ble to ex­plain in any de­tailed way.

“I think the key point, John, is that you’re the one who wants to change the sys­tem and it’s im­por­tant for you to tell peo­ple how this is go­ing to work,” Wilkin­son said dur­ing the de­bate.

“Twenty-three dif­fer­ent fea­tures that you haven’t re­vealed to peo­ple. You’re in con­trol of this process. We want to know and the peo­ple at home want to know how many MLAs they’re go­ing to have, how many votes are they go­ing to have, and how are th­ese votes go­ing to be trans­ferred all over the prov­ince af­ter they’ve cast their vote to get the pro­por­tion­al­ity you want to have in place?”

Again and again Wilkin­son de­liv­ered a vari­a­tion of this theme. It seemed to flum­mox Hor­gan, which is odd be­cause the NDP must have seen the at­tack com­ing.

For weeks, Wilkin­son and Lib­eral MLAs have been ham­mer­ing the NDP in the leg­is­la­ture over all the de­tails the pub­lic won’t know about the pro-rep sys­tems un­til af­ter the vote.

The TV de­bate sim­ply served as a chance for Wilkin­son to hurl more pointed ver­sions of those ques­tions at Hor­gan in front of a live TV au­di­ence.

“I have more con­fi­dence in the peo­ple of B.C., clearly, than you do, Mr Wilkin­son,” Hor­gan of­fered at one point.

“I be­lieve they’ll be able to work through this.”

Hor­gan’s dif­fi­culty high­lights the short­com­ings in the of­fi­cial Vote PR B.C. strat­egy.

The Yes side isn’t cam­paign­ing specif­i­cally for any of the three op­tions. It isn’t even try­ing hard to ex­plain them.

Pro-rep sup­port­ers long ago de­cided to run a cam­paign that sim­ply fo­cuses on change, with an added de­fence that “any­thing will be bet­ter than what we have now” and a fur­ther back­stop of “don’t worry there’s an­other ref­er­en­dum to change back in two elec­tions if we make a mis­take.”

That strat­egy may have been a win­ning com­bi­na­tion early in the cam­paign. But Wilkin­son ripped through it on TV. His point likely rang clear in the minds of un­de­cided vot­ers: If the three pro-rep op­tions are so dif­fi­cult to ex­plain and un­der­stand, how can you vote for change?

Wilkin­son’s TV per­for­mance should give the Yes side pause as we reach the crit­i­cal point of the cam­paign in the next few days.

Should pro-rep ad­vo­cates change their strat­egy to start en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to vote for just one of the three op­tions? Should they de­vote their en­ergy to coun­ter­ing Wilkin­son’s at­tack on the lack of de­tail by try­ing to give on-the-fence Yes vot­ers a safe har­bour in at least one op­tion?

We’ve seen early signs that Hor­gan may be the one to try to bail the Yes side out by back­stop­ping the mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional op­tion.

“I voted to se­lect the op­tion of mixed mem­ber be­cause it is the most used in­ter­na­tion­ally and gives us a base­line to work from,” Hor­gan told me­dia re­cently.

But the premier wasn’t con­tent to just pick the sys­tem. He ze­roed in on one of the key crit­i­cisms of mixed-mem­ber, which is that one pos­si­ble ver­sion in­volves par­ties nam­ing “closed lists” of can­di­dates that vot­ers don’t get to vote di­rectly for, but who be­come MLAs any­way when par­ties are topped-up with ex­tra seats to achieve a seat count that’s pro­por­tional to their pop­u­lar vote.

Imag­ine the kind of F-level pa­tron­age can­di­dates par­ties will put on lists if they know vot­ers don’t get to vote for those in­di­vid­ual peo­ple. We won’t know if B.C. will get this closed list ver­sion of mixed-mem­ber un­til af­ter the elec­tion, when an all-party leg­is­la­ture com­mit­tee de­cides upon those kinds of de­tails.

How­ever, the leg­is­la­ture com­mit­tee will have a ma­jor­ity of NDP- Green MLAs. So Hor­gan could, if he wanted, flex his ma­jor­ity mus­cle and an­nounce he’ll take the closed list ver­sion of mixed-mem­ber off the ta­ble in ad­vance, to ease the mind of vot­ers.

He’s hint­ing he’s lean­ing in that di­rec­tion al­ready.

“I don’t sup­port closed lists,” he told re­porters in a pass­ing com­ment dur­ing an un­re­lated me­dia scrum re­cently. “I sup­port cit­i­zens vot­ing for peo­ple and elect­ing them to the leg­is­la­ture.”

This presents the Yes side with an im­por­tant strate­gic choice: Should it con­tinue to run a “change” cam­paign and hope the de­tails don’t mat­ter? Or should it unite be­hind mixed­mem­ber, throw all its ex­plana­tory ef­forts be­hind that one sys­tem, and use Hor­gan to make crys­tal clear pub­licly that the least-demo­cratic ver­sions of mixed-mem­ber are off the ta­ble?

Any shift in strat­egy will have to come soon. The dead­line for bal­lots to be in is Nov. 30.


Premier John Hor­gan and Lib­eral leader An­drew Wilkin­son went head-to-head on PR on tele­vi­sion.


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