I was disappointed but not surprised when Prime Minister Trudeau abandoned his plans for electoral reform. I’ve been let down before.
The first time was in 2005 when a Citizens’ Assembly was created to study models of reform. After much deliberation, they recommended a made-in-BC type of Single Transferable Vote called BC-STV.
The referendum was coincident with the provincial vote. Only weeks away from the vote, an Angus Reid poll showed that two-thirds of respondents knew “nothing” or “very little” about BC-STV.
Then to everyone’s surprise and my delight, BC-STV almost passed despite the high threshold: 60 per cent of voters had to be in favour as well as 60 per cent of the provincial districts.
The threshold for districts easily passed with 76 of 79 districts in favour. The popular vote came within a hair`s breadth of passing: 57.7 per cent. Support in Kamloops was the lowest in the province at 49 per cent in both districts (Elections B.C.). Bud Smith, the popular Social Credit MLA from 1986 to 1991, led the no vote in Kamloops.
The popularity of BC-STV seemed baffling given the lack of understanding of just what voters were supporting. But not so baffling in light of a recent referenda, such as Brexit. British voters were as much against immigrants as they were for leaving the European Union. Clearly, voters don’t necessarily answer the question on the ballot.
BC-STV was on the ballot but not on voter’s minds; rather, it was dissatisfaction with Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals. The BC Liberals lost 31 seats, down from their record win of 77 out of 79 in 2001.
My second disappointment was the defeat of the BC-STV referendum again in 2009. With the earlier referendum being so close, I hoped, against discouraging opinion polls, that earlier support was not a fluke. This time, even in Kamloops, electoral reform would prevail. I joined city Councilor Arjun Singh, Gisela Ruckert, and others in Fair Voting BC. In a column for the Kamloops Daily News (May, 2005), I implored:
“This is a limited time offer. The chance to change our electoral system comes once in a lifetime, . . . Don’t let this chance to make history pass you by.”
It was not to be. A disinterested electorate, 51 per cent of eligible voters, returned the BC Liberals for a third term, defeated BC-STV by 61 per cent and buried electoral reform for decades.
Trudeau raised my hope federally by proposing unilateral legislation. But Canadians want a referendum (73 per cent in an Ipsos poll).
A referendum would doom electoral reform to failure. Voters like the idea of proportional representation but have trouble understanding the voting systems that would accomplish it. The outcomes of referenda in B.C., P.E.I and Ontario made that clear. The same would be true of a federal referendum says pollster Environics. The vote would be split between three alternatives –the current system and two types of proportional representation:
“In a referendum, not one of these three alternatives would achieve majority support — leaving the reform project to die, along with virtually every other proposal ever put to a referendum in this risk-averse country.”
And that assumes they vote on the ballot question.