Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Why I voted for proportional representation

I spent 10 years in the legislative press gallery, a front-row seat for the spectacle of  B.C. politics. 

It was mostly — not always — horrifying. Cynical, dishonest and hyper-partisan, an unending election campaign. Collaboration was not impossible, but the system made it really difficult. MLAs, mostly good people, behaved badly. It was sad and infuriating, and demeaning for everyone involved.

That’s first-past-the-post. 

So why keep a failed system when we have a chance to try a different, probably better, way of electing MLAs and governments? And with the option to change back after two elections?

The campaigns advocating for the status quo mostly attack proportional representation, rather than presenting the benefits of the current system.

The most repeated positive claim is that the current system produces stable governments. And if stability is all that matters to you, then you should probably vote against change in the referendum. 

But first-past-the-post consistently delivers governments supported by a minority of voters. Yet they govern as if they have the support of a majority.

In Ontario, the Doug Ford Conservatives won power with 41-per-cent support. In Quebec, the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec took power with 37-per-cent support. In Alberta, the NDP formed government with 41 per cent of the vote.

In each case, the winning party — actually, the winning premier — governs with absolute power for four years, even though most voters rejected its policies.

That’s not the only, or most serious, problem with the current system.

The defenders of the status quo say it encourages moderation as parties try to construct a “big tent” to attract voters with a wide range of views. 

In practice, that means a party of the centre-right, like the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, strives to draw social conservatives, hard-line right-wingers and anti-immigrant voters into its “big tent” with policies — or slogans or signals — those groups can support. 

It’s a dangerous dance. At some point, those factions could take over. And the whole process is based on duplicity — signalling to those groups that the party will advance their agendas, with little intention of actually acting.

Defenders of the status quo warn vaguely about the loss of local representation. 

But MLAs don’t really matter in the current system. The premier’s office tells them what to say and do. 

Every BC Liberal MLA voted for the Clone Speech  crafted by a few people in the premier’s office after the last election. The desperate attempt to cling to power meant MLAs were asked to betray every principle they had campaigned on. 

And they did. Liberal MLAs all voted to adopt the NDP platform. Not one dissented. They followed orders from the premier’s office, and abandoned their constituents. 

That wasn’t an aberration. Journalist and professor Sean Holman counted every vote between April 2001 and May 2012 in the B.C. legislature as part of the research for his documentary Whipped. (Well worth watching.)

And in 99.75 per cent of votes, MLAs followed the party line.

That’s first-past-the-post.

The campaign for the status quo has been based on fear-mongering about the rise of extremist parties in Europe. Politics and policy should be left to the leaders and backers of two strong controlling parties, they argue, or British Columbia’s government will be hijacked by racists.

I have more faith in my fellow citizens. And is it bad to have extremist parties seeking voters’ support?

Tommy Douglas was considered extremist, so much so that the RCMP spied on him for decades. Women campaigning for the right to vote and civil rights advocates were called extremists.

Racist parties are bad. So are those who would deny others their rights.

But a party that campaigned on the need to treat climate change as an existential threat might be considered extreme, yet could represent the interests of many voters. Parties that advocated measures to ensure every child in the province could grow up free from the lifelong burden of poverty, or one that committed to advance the interests of northern British Columbians, or Indigenous people might be seen as extreme. But if voters support them, they should be heard.

Defenders of the status quo also argue the referendum process has been a gong show.

They’re right.

But I’m voting for proportional representation despite all that. Because this might be the only chance to try for a better democracy — with an escape clause after two elections.

I would think many people would agree that the current system is broken. Our governments do not reflect our values or priorities.

Proportional representation is no miracle solution. But it might be better, and I’m keen to give it a try.


Unknown said...

Good article Paul. I did struggle with this decision, but came to the same conclusion as you.

Harold said...

Great article that captures so many salient points. Cheers, Harold

Lynne said...

Thanks. That was a helpful article for me.

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful piece but I don't think it will have any bearing on those most susceptible to the fear tactics of the FPTP proponents. The FPTP advertising was targeting older voters while the PR tent was targeting younger voters. Only recently did the FPTP campaign recognize that younger voters were voting for PR in droves and attempted to bring the same argument that PR was confusing. Unfortunately younger voters are very capable of checking out FPTP claims as false and if BC chooses a PR system like New Zealand we'll be getting two or more votes, one for the party and its lists and one for their choice of constituency representative.