I support proportional representation for B.C., as do a majority of citizens in the province, but there's an aggressive opposition campaign driven by big money and unfounded fears.
Proportional representation would help bring B.C.'s voting system into the 21st century and curb the dominance of political parties and major corporate interests.
Given the stakes involved, I'm not surprised to see the recent flurry of ill-founded fear-mongering by astroturf groups created by powerful businesspeople, backroom strategists and grumpy ex-politicians to spread confusion about the upcoming referendum on B.C.'s electoral system. Their efforts show just how important and urgent it is to switch to a more fair system.
What is proportional representation?
Proportional representation allots the same percentage of seats as the percentage of voters who voted for them – 30 per cent of the seats go to 30 per cent of the voters.
It always results in a majority of voters having a voice in how their jurisdiction is run, unlike the current system where the government in power almost always represents less than half the voting public.
Proportional representation fosters collaboration, curtails attack politics and enhances diversity.
And because of its inherent fairness, it encourages citizens to vote — in particular, young citizens.
The nonprofit organization Fair Vote Canada has spearheaded the move towards proportional representation, working alongside its B.C.-grown cousin Fair Voting BC. Together, they have generated abundant material showing why this system is used by more countries around the world than our current winner-take-all system.
Official bodies tasked with identifying the best electoral system for Canada, from the 1977 Law Reform Commission of Manitoba up to Justin Trudeau’s 2016 House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, have recommended introducing a system of proportional representation or elements thereof.
But some groups and individuals, on both the left and right, are clinging to the past.
Distorted fear of proportional representation
The Independent Contractors and Business Association (ICBA) and the pseudo-labour organization called Canada West Construction Union have become so rattled by the prospect of power-sharing that they have launched a legal action to try and stop B.C.’s upcoming referendum.
In between her stints as a politician, Christy Clark had come to realize that voters – her listeners – were tired of a system in which they felt “their vote doesn’t matter.” #ProportionalRepresentation #bcpoli #cdnpoli
And the day before the legal manoeuvre took place, Ujjal Dosanjh, an NDP stalwart who was premier of B.C. nearly two decades ago, came forward and joined forces with another long-standing NDP partisan, Bill Tieleman, to falsely characterize proportional representation as an open door to dangerous crazies.
And now the ghost of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has risen once again as his former operatives come streaming back to British Columbia, plotting to obstruct change in the system that served their politics so well.
Self-interest looms large
It is fairly easy to see why the large-scale business community has trouble with proportional representation. For 16 years, thanks to a near-complete absence of limits on corporate donations, the business community had enormous political influence. Over the years, the BC Liberal Party welcomed their every contribution, and appears to have favoured those who contributed most with commensurate rewards.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that the BC Liberal Party and their long-time business supporters are vociferous and sometimes vicious opponents of proportional representation. Business executive and BC Liberal supporter Jim Shepard has gone so far as to buy full-page yellow-tinged advertisements in our newspapers, attempting to discredit anyone who supports change.
Mistrust of the people
The fear expressed by Ujjal Dosanjh and Bill Tieleman, on the other hand, arises from somewhere else — from a place of mistrust and negative expectations of human nature. They believe, irrationally but perhaps sincerely enough, that racists and bigots will multiply in our midst when they obtain access to power by proportional representation. They cite examples of European countries where extremist parties have gained modest influence, forgetting that anti-Semitism and other prejudices have a deeper historical hold in Europe than they have in the New World.
They also forget that not so long ago, Canada had a prime minister, elected under the current winner-takes-all system, who did not hesitate to sanction prejudice, or tolerate Indigenous-bashing within his own party.
'A system that worked well for me'
There is no clearer illustration of why some politicians prefer the current electoral system, than a 2009 speech by none other than British Columbia’s previous premier, Christy Clark.
While she was a radio host at CKNW, Clark laid out the profound difference between an electoral system that generates voter satisfaction — proportional representation — and a system that panders to the baser instincts of aspiring politicians. She candidly acknowledges of her time as a politician:
"At the time, I liked [first past the post] because our current system served my personal interests as a politician very well ... I was chosen by the first-past-the-post system...and I didn't see the need to change a system that worked well for me."
But in the years between her first and second stints as a politician, she came to realize that voters — and her listeners — were "sick" of a system in which they felt “their vote doesn’t matter.” Clark expanded on this to her listeners, saying “you’re sick of the fact that, if you live in one of the two-thirds of the ridings that are considered 'safe,' and you don’t choose to vote for the incumbent party, your vote goes in the garbage can.”
Christy Clark goes on to outline multiple reasons why she feels the current system is inadequate. I strongly encourage readers to listen to the entire six-and-a-half minute YouTube video.
The system warps politics
When Christy Clark returned to politics six years later, however, she quickly fell back into the world of hyper-partisanship, tight party control and suppression of dissent. She changed tack once again and pragmatically embraced the winner-takes-all electoral system.
As an intelligent and obviously capable politician taking a step back from political office, Clark came to understand the strengths of proportional representation that is now the subject of the upcoming referendum. Yet when she jumped back into politics, these insights evaporate into thin air.
This says something important about the first-past-the-post electoral system and its power to override the judgment of its participants.
Clark slid right back into the noisy, divisive political system she once rejected, as if her inner reflection had never happened. The winner-take-all system does not reward complexity and nuance in our elections, and that has a long-term impact on our politics.
British Columbians should embrace a system that brings out better qualities in our political leaders than our current system. In the complex world of the 21st century, marked by significant disruption to communities and the environment, a political system that encourages collaboration and allows multiple voices to be heard is more valuable than one that does not.
In today’s world, we need all hands on deck to deal with the multiple critical issues we face together. A system that brings us together, rather than drives us apart, is the right system for our time.