Tuesday, October 26, 2004

New way of electing MLAs offers great hope

VICTORIA - OK, it's confusing, but you should be wildly enthusiastic about the chance to change the way we elect MLAs and governments in B.C.
It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once political parties are in power they aren't much interested in changing the system that got them there, even if it has huge flaws.

But Gordon Campbell, to his credit, promised to give a randomly selected citizens' assembly the chance to see if there's a better way of electing governments.
And what's more, he promised that any recommendation would go to a binding referendum at the same time as next May's provincial election.

Now they've done it. The 160 members of the assembly, after 10 months of study and consultation and public hearings, have come up with what they say is a better way.
You have six months to assess their proposal before the referendum. It deserves your full attention. The assembly came up with two basic conclusions.

First, that the current system isn't working. The make-up of the legislature doesn't reflect the votes of British Columbians. The New Democrats, for example, received 22 per cent of the vote in 2001, but have 2.5 per cent of the seats. The Green Party had the support of 12 per cent of voters, who have no representatives in the legislature. In 1996, the NDP received 40 per cent of the votes, but 52 per cent of the seats.

The assembly also found that the current system concentrates power in the hands of the party leadership, with the result that MLAs are seen as servants of the party, not the people that elected them.

Second, the assembly decided that the best way to improve the system was by moving to a single-vote transferable system, already in use in other jurisdictions.
It's painfully complicated to explain, and a full review will follow in a later column.

But basically, there are several key elements.

The legislature would stay the same size, but individual ridings would be larger, and would elect more than one MLA. Three Prince George constituencies, for example, could become one larger riding that would elect three MLAs.

And the way you vote would change. Instead of marking an 'X' beside one candidate, you would rank the people on the ballot in order of preference. One of the Liberals may be your first choice, because you like the party and the candidate.

But your second choice might be an independent candidate who has done a good job on school board, or a New Democrat whose abilities you admire. You don't have to say yes or no to a party, but can effectively split your vote among several.

Here's where things get complex. When the votes are counted, the rankings come into play and the votes are weighted to ensure a result that reflects the preferences of the voters.

The result, the assembly says, would be a much more diverse legislature, with candidates representing a wider range of voters.

And as importantly, it would -- by ending the domination of two main parties -- lead to a greater need for parties to co-operate with each other, and would shift power from the premier's office to backbenchers.

There's room for a full debate about the pros and cons, and much to learn about the specific proposal going to the referendum. The assembly hopes to have that work done by mid-November.

But this is an extraordinary opportunity for real change, to a system that has worked in other parts of the world for decades.

Few can deny change is needed. The legislature isn't representative; barely half the eligible population bothers to vote; citizens don't feel well-served by their MLAs; and this place is an embarrassment too many days.

The citizens' assembly is composed of two people from every riding in the province, from students to seniors and farmers to scientists. They consulted the best experts, and the public, and produced a recommendation. It deserves serious consideration.

Footnote: Green Party leader Adriane Carr immediately trashed the proposal. She favours a different proportional representation system, and wants to organize a "no" campaign in the referendum. It's a short-sighted, negative response to the one best chance for change that would actually help the Greens and other smaller parties.

1 comment:

Tim said...

I don't quite share your enthusiasm about the proposed changes -- although I am also not crying over the decision like Ms. Carr. Frankly, it seems like an unnecessary and unsolicited compromise with the status-quo.

In one important way, nothing will change -- there are the same number of seats under the proposed scheme, and so there is no requirement that anyone consider the question of the appropriateness of electoral districts as they're presently constituted. The real hilarity will ensue when districts that are widely disparate in political character are lumped together. Because there are no province-wide cumulative seats under the proposed scheme, I doubt there will be more than a few token "fringers" elected, and so their impact on the legislative business-as-usual will not be great.

I agree that this is an improvement -- almost anything would be. Still, it just seems rather tepid. I will be pleasantly surprised if, two elections from now, the legislature is vastly different from the usual pendulous, tiresome dog and pony show we're accustomed to here in B.C. Really, until we have a more politically-educated electorate, no amount of twiddling the knobs is going to bring about more democracy. It's better, but I think the assembly lacked courage.