Have your FPTP and vote PR too

One voting system doesn’t fit all of B.C.  That’s why I like the Rural-Urban system of proportional representation. It recognizes the vast geography of parts of our province and the diversity of people in others. Rural-Urban PR is one of the three systems offered in the mail-in ballot on October 22.

image: Fair Vote Canada

Rural-Urban PR was recommended by Canada’s former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. It was used in Alberta and Manitoba for 30 years where Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton used Single Transferable Vote to elect multi-member ridings from 4 to 10 MLAs and the rest of the provinces used First-Past-the-Post to elect rural MLAs.

Dense urban areas lend themselves to a Single Transferable Vote, a system proposed by the citizens’ assembly in 2004. STV combines small ridings into larger ones that would be geographically related such as in the Fraser Valley. Instead of electing one MLA from four ridings, four MLAs would be elected from one riding.

STV uses a ranking system similar to what’s now used in Kamloops’ municipal elections. Unlike Kamloops, where we have no political parties, candidates would be listed by party affiliation. A ballot would look something like the one below.

example of urban ballot

Four parties are running plus one independent.  Choose as many candidates as you wish in order of preference where 1 is your first choice, 2 is next and so on. If your first ballot doesn’t elect a candidate, your second choice could because it’s transferable.

If you like one party only, vote for candidates only in that party. If you like one party but a candidate in another, you can vote accordingly.

Ballot counting occurs in rounds. First choice candidates are placed in piles and if ballots exceed a predetermined threshold, they are elected. The second choice of those elected MLAs is transferred so that someone else could be elected. The process continues until all the positions are filled. Finally, the losing candidate’s votes are transferred and a final count done.

Counting ballots in rural ridings is simpler. Unlike the First-Past-the-Post system used in Alberta and Manitoba, there is an extra regional vote.

example rural ballot

In the second part of the ballot, you vote for vote for just one candidate. The successful candidates will be determined by the proportion of votes received. In this ballot there are 16 candidates running but not all will be elected.

The advantage of Rural-Urban PR, in general, is that voters select the candidate of their choice. In the existing system, parties select that candidate. This relieves pressure on parties to select the candidate most likely to win because the vote is essentially a popularity contest.

The advantage of the urban portion of the system that candidates would represent the mosaic of voters and opinions found in metropolitan areas.

The advantage of the rural system is that one candidate still represents a geographic area while another represents a larger region.

If you can order from a menu, voting is not complicated. The president of Fair Vote Canada says: “If you can order a coffee at Tim Hortons, you can vote.” I agree.

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The multi-tent government of B.C.

Big-tent parties are standard in politics but in government, they rule from a small room.

Image: TentPictures.com

Getting as many voters into your tent ensures a win in the first-past-the-post system. Once elected, a relatively small group will determine the direction of government. A smart leader will pick cabinet members with diverse opinions. An arrogant leader will dictate the agenda.

Site C dam was one of those ideas that should have been halted early once it became obvious it wasn’t needed. Former Premier Christy Clark blindly proceeded with it.

For all who could see, it was doomed.  Even to me, it was obvious. Three years ago, I wrote:

“An independent review of the project found that BC Hydro could supply the province with electricity, without the new dam, with modest growth in LNG production, until 2028.”

Clark forged ahead with Site C dam in the face of calamity, even as markets for LNG collapsed.

Premier Horgan was left with a no-win situation. If he cancelled Site C, he would make the thousands of unionized workers unhappy. If he approved it, it would make environmentalists unhappy. Horgan chose the pragmatic solution. David Eby, B.C.’s Attorney General, explains.

“The strategies of the previous government to avoid oversight and push the project ‘past the point of no return’ with the hope, achieved, of visiting financial ruin on the books of any government that would seek to cancel it, are unforgivable.”

The cost of competing dam, Eby says, was the same as cancelling it; except in the first case you end up with an asset, essentially a mortgage paid over 70 years. Cancelling it would result in a debt, leaving the government with less money to spend on health, schools.

Horgan’s decision was sure to disappoint. You would think his fragile government would be doomed. However, Green leader Andrew Weaver is not keen to take down the government any time soon for two reasons. No one wants another election.

And both the NDP and Greens are eager to see proportional representation (PR) come to B.C. Since minority governments are typical in PR, it’s in the best interests of both the NDP and Green Party to see this government last as a demonstration that minority governments work.

Multi-tent governments can hold opposing views. While the overarching progressive banner would fly over government, different flags can fly over each tent. Pragmatists can huddle in one tent and environmentalists in another, grumbling at the other but placated in the comfort that they share the same basic values of fair wages, poverty reduction, human rights, and equality.

Multi-tent governments are a novelty in Canada. If a faction in one tent feels betrayed, they can vote to be part of the other tent in the next election –essentially an opposition built into government. With a divergence of ideas, the best plan is more likely to prevail.

Had a multi-tent government been in place when the BC Liberals were in power, Site C would probably not have proceeded. Instead, a premier with a big ego and tunnel-vision pushed the plan beyond the point of no return.

B.C. Government offers help to opposition in drafting bills

There’s more than practicality and clever politics behind the government’s offer to help the opposition to draft winning bills.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right). Photo: CBC

As a practical matter, it’s inevitable that opposition parties will get together and propose legislation that the government disagrees with. Since the Green and BC Liberal members outnumber the NDP, the proposed legislation would pass.

If they’re going to pass, the bills should be well-written. Attorney-General David Eby says:

“It’s an art to draft effective legislation, and we want to make sure the other parties have access to the professionals, if they are putting forward amendments that might actually pass (Globe and Mail, Oct. 18, 2017).”

The offer is politically clever because even well-drafted bills may never make it because the government has the power to call the bill to be debated or not. It could simply expire at the end of the current sitting. In fact, that’s what happens to most private-members bills –the government ignores them and they go away.

If the bill passes, it’s because the government wants, or will allow, it to pass. BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private-member bill is a good example. It would allow ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber into the provincial market. The BC Liberals are in favour of Weaver’s private-member bill. The NDP want to “study” it further because some supporters are not in favour of the gig economy.

If Weaver’s bill is allowed to pass, the NDP can have it both ways: constituents who like Lyft and Uber will be pleased, and to those who are opposed the NDP can say “the opposition made us do it.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal critic for the Attorney-General, is suspicious:

“It’s a trap,” he said. “It’s designed to make the Greens feel they are involved in the legislative process. BC Liberals recognize this as a false promise.”

Beyond practicality and clever politics, there is electoral reform to consider. The NDP and Greens are committed to electoral reform through proportional representation (PR).

The advantage to Greens is obvious.  They won only three per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the popular vote. They could have won 15 seats based on PR (the actual number dependent on the model of PR.)

The existing system of voting hasn’t worked that well for the BC NDP, either. Since its founding in 1933, the NDP has only formed government for 13 out of 84 years. Their chances are greater under PR. In the last election, 57 per cent of British Columbians voted Green or NDP. Proportional representation often results in minority governments and that would put the NDP in power.

The BC Liberals oppose PR because division of the progressive vote puts them in power.

Electoral reform is more likely to pass in the next referendum with support of the NDP government in educating the public –support that the BC Liberals didn’t provide in the first two referenda.

The offer of help to opposition parties demonstrates that minority governments can work. Sonia Furstenau, Green’s spokeswoman for electoral reform, is enthused:

“This is great. This is a step toward having a legislature where all 87 members have the capacity to contribute to policy making. This is what democracy should look like.”

Electoral reform disappointment #3

I was disappointed but not surprised when Prime Minister Trudeau abandoned his plans for electoral reform. I’ve been let down before.

fairvote.ca

fairvote.ca

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.