Ref­er­en­dum count is not as promised

The Daily Courier - - OPINION - LES LEYNE

The B.C. Lib­er­als are go­ing to ride ob­jec­tions to next year’s ref­er­en­dum on a new vote­count­ing sys­tem to the bit­ter, pro­por­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive end.

The leg­isla­tive sit­ting is sched­uled to ad­journ Thurs­day, and there are still hours of de­bate ahead on the bill that es­tab­lishes the ref­er­en­dum. Lib­er­als look to be in­tro­duc­ing time-con­sum­ing amend­ments as well, which will draw out the process as long as pos­si­ble. Lead­er­ship can­di­dates have been ral­ly­ing against the con­cept around B.C., although the groundswell they’re hop­ing to gen­er­ate isn’t ap­par­ent yet.

One Lib­eral MLA ac­knowl­edged Mon­day his con­stituents “aren’t en­gaged about this.” If they were, they’d be an­gered, he said. That’s the point.

They’ll have to deal with a de­gree of con­fu­sion first, given that the Lib­er­als also promised a ref­er­en­dum on chang­ing the vot­ing sys­tem in their last des­per­ate throne speech be­fore their govern­ment col­lapsed.

It’s a year un­til the last pos­si­ble date the ref­er­en­dum can be held, so a lot can hap­pen. But it looks as if pre­serv­ing the sta­tus-quo vot­ing sys­tem is go­ing to be an up­hill bat­tle. Lib­er­als have in­er­tia on their side, up to a point. It’s eas­ier not to en­gage in the com­plex ar­gu­ments about change and just stick with what has al­ways been used. In­er­tia can also work against them, though. If peo­ple just don’t bother vot­ing at all, it works in favour of change.

The op­po­si­tion de­voted part of ques­tion pe­riod to their new cause against the ref­er­en­dum on Mon­day, and crit­ics tack­led that as­pect, ask­ing about the lack of a thresh­old for voter turnout. The mail-in ref­er­en­dum needs only 50 per cent plus one to pass, and it doesn’t mat­ter how many vot­ers mail the bal­lots back. Only half plus one of the peo­ple who vote will de­cide it.

As the law is writ­ten, a tiny frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion could de­cide. In an in­ter­view with Fair Vote Canada con­ducted be­fore the spring elec­tion, now premier John Hor­gan raised a cau­tion about turnout. Asked if his govern­ment would still hon­our the re­sult af­ter a low turnout, he said: “I’d like to see how low the turnout is first.”

The last two mail-in bal­lots hov­ered around 50 per cent turnout. A tran­sit plebiscite in metro Van­cou­ver got 47 per cent turnout in 2015. The har­mo­nized sales tax ref­er­en­dum in 2011 got 53 per cent turnout of reg­is­tered vot­ers.

In the same in­ter­view, Hor­gan out­lined another as­pect of the ref­er­en­dum plan that has since been aban­doned — a dou­ble-ma­jor­ity to en­sure regional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

He said: “Once we es­tab­lish the ref­er­en­dum ques­tion, we’d es­tab­lish the thresh­old and this would be part of our con­sul­ta­tion process. … The amend­ing for­mula for our Con­sti­tu­tion, for ex­am­ple, re­quires ap­proval by seven provinces with 50 per cent of Canada’s pop­u­la­tion. So it is an ab­so­lute 50 per cent, but it has to in­clude seven provinces. … This amend­ing for­mula is sim­i­lar to the kind of for­mula we’d need for a plebiscite on chang­ing how we elect peo­ple in B.C.”

That has been dropped in favour of a sim­ple ma­jor­ity, with no re­quire­ment for regional ap­proval. At­tor­ney Gen­eral David Eby said last week it’s not open to change. Eby un­veiled a con­sul­ta­tion ef­fort on other as­pects, but said the sim­ple ma­jor­ity is “hard­wired.”

New Democrats had no ex­pla­na­tion in the leg­is­la­ture for the ma­jor change in the ap­proval mech­a­nism they picked.

It’s fair to won­der if the prom­ise of a sec­ond thresh­old was dropped dur­ing the dick­er­ing with the Green Party, which favoured a uni­lat­eral switch to pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion without even both­er­ing to hold a ref­er­en­dum.

Hor­gan also changed the po­ten­tial terms of the ques­tion. He told re­porters ear­lier it would be a sim­ple yes-no ques­tion, but the bill al­lows for mul­ti­ple ques­tions, which gives more weight to peo­ple who favour some kind of change.

List­ing op­tions could po­ten­tially slant the re­sult in favour of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Drop­ping the orig­i­nal idea of re­quir­ing some de­gree of regional sup­port def­i­nitely slants it. So does the fact the govern­ment and the premier are com­mit­ted to whole-heart­edly cam­paign­ing against the sta­tus quo.

The NDP-Green mi­nor­ity govern­ment is go­ing to do as much as it can to steer the ref­er­en­dum to­ward the out­come they want.

And since they’re in power, they can do a great deal.

Les Leyne cov­ers the B.C. Leg­is­la­ture for the Vic­to­ria Times Colonist. This col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in The Courier.

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