Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Electoral boundaries show STV can work for B.C.

I’m sticking with my slogan for the campaign to shift B.C. to a new way of electing MLAs: “STV – it couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve got now.”
The Electoral Boundaries Commission didn’t just recommend new riding boundaries when it reported last week. It also set out proposed ridings that would be used under the single-transferable vote proportional representation system.
Wait. Don’t quit reading. This is important, and pretty interesting.
You remember STV. The Citizens’ Commission on Electoral Reform — Premier Gordon Campbell’s very fine creation — recommended a shift to that system. It went to referendum in 2005 and 58 per cent of voters supported the change — just shy of the 60 per cent needed.
So Campbell said there would be a repeat referendum along with the provincial election in 2009. This time, proposed ridings would be set out so people could make a more informed decision.
That’s what the commission provided. And all in all, despite some problems, the proposed ridings confirm that the STV system would be an improvement.
Under the system there would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to six MLAs, depending on the population.
On election day, you wouldn’t just mark an ‘X’ beside your choice. You would rank as many candidates as you liked, in order of preference. The results reflect voters’ rankings. (The tallying method is explained well at www.gov.bc.ca/referendum_info.)
The system’s benefits include a legislature that better reflects the wishes of voters. It’s likely, for example, that the 162,000 British Columbians who voted Green – 9.2 per cent of the total – would have ended up with members of the party representing them under the STV system.
The ranking system means voters can mix their choices – ranking Liberals first and second, and a Green candidate they admire third, for example.
And it means members of the same party have to compete with each other for support.
That’s important. The important contest in many ridings now is the battle for the nomination, not the election itself. And MLAs – especially in government – tend to worry as much about staying on the good side of the party as they do advocating for their ridings. That would change under STV.
But there’s a snag. The greatest benefits from the system come when there are four or five MLAs in a riding.
But that is impractical in some areas of B.C. To have the population needed to justify even three MLAs, the ridings would have to be enormous.
So there are two ridings proposed in the north – Northeast and Northwest – that would have only two MLAs each. There are several ridings with three MLAs — the Kootenays become one large riding with three representatives.
The benefits of the system are reduced with two-person ridings, and there are some risks. In a riding with four or five seats, it’s likely candidates will emerge who target individual communities within the riding to win support.
But in a two-candidate riding, there’s a risk some areas might be ignored. It’s a long way from Tumbler Ridge to Fort Nelson.
Still, tally the pros and cons and the system looks like a major step forward. And the Electoral Boundaries Commission established that across most of the province, its possible to set out ridings that make sense and allow three or more MLAs to be elected from a riding.
Here in the Capital Region, for example, the commission proposes a six-member riding that pretty much conforms to the regional district boundaries. It should offer a great opportunity for voters’ diverse interests and priorities to be reflected in the legislature. They will be able to support the four best Liberals, if they want to see the government stay in power, but perhaps also a New Democrat who understands their local issues and a Green candidate to advance environmental issues.
The STV system isn’t perfect. But it’s better than what we have now, and it’s the only chance for change.
Footnote: The referendum will be held in May 2009. If the change is approved, it would take effect for the 2013 election. Expect passionate campaigns for and against as the date of the vote comes closer.