Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Everything you need to know about the STV referendum

VICTORIA - It would be lame to vote against a new way of electing MLAs just because you couldn’t understand it.
So here, in a few hundred words, is how the single-transferable-vote system works. The issue of whether it’s a good change or not - and I think it would be - can wait for another column.
First, the number of MLAs in thelegislature stays the same at 79. No change there.
But the number of ridings would fall to somewhere around 20 larger ridings. Each riding would be represented by two to seven MLAs. Two current sparsely populated northern ridings with 65,000 people, like Skeena and North Coast, might be combined into a riding with two MLAs. Four urban ridings, with 130,000 people, might be combined into a new riding with four MLAs.
Clear enough so far, right?
So the election rolls around.
Each party can nominate any number of candidates, up to the number of seats in a riding.
So in a four-seat riding, expect the Liberals and NDP to nominate four candidates. But the Greens might decide they just want to have one candidate run, or independents may emerge.
On election day you stride into the polling booth.
Al the candidates names are on the ballot - four Liberals, four New Democrats, Greens, Dr BCers, Marijuana Party, Libertarian.
But you don’t have to mark an ‘X’ beside your single choice, consigning all the others to irrelevance. Instead you rank them - a 1 beside your first choice, 2 beside your next favorite, and so on. You can stop anytime. If you think one candidate is worthy and the rest are scoundrels, you can place a 1 beside her name and leave. If you want the maximum impact, you can rank everyone on the ballot. You can rank Liberal candidates 1,2,3 and 4, if the party is the most important factor in your decision; you can mix and match if you admire certain individuals, or want broader representation in the legislature.
The polls close. And things do become a little more complicated than the current system when it’s time to count the ballots. Right now, whoever gets the most votes wins.
The aim in the STV system is to ensure more faithful representation. The Green Party was supported by one in every eight people who voted in 2001; they ended up with no one speaking for them in the legislature. Many people believe it’s a problem for democracy when some voters feel silenced by the system.
Under the new system there’s an accepted mathematical formula for determining the number of votes needed to be elected.
Elections BC counts the ballots once, and anyone who has that number of first-place choices is elected. Simple.
But all the riding’s seats won’t be filled, so there’s a second count. The candidate who with the lowest support is dropped, but those ballots aren’t tossed away. Now Elections BC counts them again, this time looking at the second choice of those voters
In the same way, the ballots of people whose first choice was elected aren’t tossed, but are counted again. (Remember, four MLAs are being elected and everyone’s preference should be reflected in all four choices.)
OK, this next bit is a bit headache inducing. It would be unfair simply to move to the second choices of all those people. Their views have already been reflected in the legislature with the first canidate elected. So the next count includes their second choices, but on a discounted basis. If Joe Bloggs got twice as many first place votes as he needed to be elected, then all the second place choices of his supporters are counted, but at half their raw value, reflecting the success his supporters have already had in electing him as their MLA.
And so the process continues, until four MLAs have been elected. Each has been the first, or second,or third choice of enough people to emerge as their representative.
And that is how the system would work.
Footnote: It’s still a bit head-spinning, I know. For more detail, if that is your interest, visit Of if you are simply seeking comfort, know that Ireland and other jursidictions have successfully used the system for decades. If you have issues, email me.

BC missed great chance to create pine beetle fund

VICTORIA - The B.C. government had a great opportunity to help communities facing hard times because of the pine beetle infestation.
But it let the big chance slip away.
The Liberals’ pre-election budget did have some significant measures to help deal with the problem over the next few years.
But there was an extraordinary chance to do something much more significant, and lasting. As the Liberals put together the budget, they realized the province was on track to a surplus that could top $2.8 billion in the current fiscal year.
That’s a huge pool of money. Some of the surplus is the result of one-time factors, so care had to be taken in avoiding spending commitments that might not be supportable in the future.
But the opportunity for one-time investments was enormous, in health care, economic development - or a program to help forest communities cope with the coming crisis.
Instead, the government opted to use more than 80 per cent of the money to pay down the debt. About $2.3 billion will go off to the lenders; $450 million will go to meeting today’s needs in the province.
The forest ministry got $112 million extra out of the surplus. But $50 million of that, already announced, will go to help contractors and workers hurt by the province’s industry restructuring plan and tenure takebacks. Another $50 million will go to the big forest companies, because it’s costing more to compensate them than expected. That leaves $12 million for enhanced reforestation.
There’s another $89 million for reforestation in the plans for the next three years.
That’s all welcome.
But what a missed chance to take some of that surplus - say $300 million - and set up a special fund to provide targeted aid to those communities.
Everyone agrees that forest communites across the province will face tremendous challenges. The pine beetles are killing trees today, but that’s not having any significant negative economic impact. The trees still retain their commercial value for five to 10 years.
But in about 15 years, those treees - 80 per cent of the lodgepole pine in the province - will be dead and worthless. The next generation of trees, even with aggressive reforestation, won’t be ready for harvest for 20 more years. Communities will see the annual allowable cut reduced by up to 40 per cent for decades. Mills will close, jobs will be lost, and the face of communities will change.
Take the Quesnel area. The timber supply is expected to be cut by almost one-third. About three-quarters of the 12,000 jobs in the area are tied to the forest industry, which means more than 2,500 jobs will vanish. That's the equivalent of 300,000 lost jobs in the Lower Mainland.
There is other money in the budget which will help the communities. Mining and tourism get more support, and there are transportation and other infrastructure programs.
But those are province-wide programs. They don’t target communities facing the specific problems caused by the pine beetle infestation.
There are no easy answers. Even the current challenge of getting the wood harvested before it loses its value is proving difficult.
But both the Liberals and the NDP have agreed that a legacy or development fund would help communities prepare for the coming crisis. They could improve infrastructure, offer retraining or promote tourism. And they could establish just how bad the situation will be, to allow proper planning by families, and by communities.
There’s still a chance for the legacy fund. But this year’s big surplus offered a great opportunity to providep money for the communities that will be affected. Instead, 80 per cent of the surplus went to paying down the debt, a response out of step with the priorities of most British Columbians.
The government had the chance to take a balanced approach, paying down debt and supporting forest communities facing the pine beetle crisis.
It missed an opportunity.
Footnote: One reason the province hesitated is that it wants a significant contribution from the federal government, and feared that Ottawa would back aay if B.C. seemed to be handling the problem on its own. The federal budget didn’t include any pine beetle funding. Industry Minister David Emerson, ex-Canfor CEO, has the federal responsibility.