New Zealand’s experience with electoral reform

I sat down with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, to talk about her country’s experience with electoral reform. She was in Kamloops on June 21 at a reception held at a local pub where about 70 people had gathered.

   image: Wikipedia

“You have five minutes for the interview,” the organizer of the event told us. We made our way to a quiet table.

Two referenda were held in New Zealand, she told me. The first in 1992 was non-binding. It asked whether voters wanted to retain the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or if they wanted a change. And if they wanted a change, which of four systems of proportional representation did they prefer?

The results were overwhelming with 85 per cent in favour of a change. Of the four systems, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), was a clear favourite.

A second referendum was held a year later. This time the referendum was binding and the results closer with 54 per cent choosing MMP over FPTP.

I wondered how proportional representation had changed the culture of political parties. MMP leads to minority governments, Ms. Clark told me, which means that parties need to get along, not only after election but before. “Be sure to make friends”, she said, “you never know when you’ll need them later.”

After 20 minutes, I had asked all my prepared questions and we just chatted. “I thought the interview was only going to be five minutes,” the organizer scolded when he found us. Ms. Clark returned to the group where photos were taken and she gave a speech.

Afterward, I thought about the similarly of our upcoming mail-in referendum this fall to the one in New Zealand.

Two questions make sense to me: Do you want a change? If so, want kind do you want?  However, a B.C. lobby group called Fair Referendum disagrees. In a robocall call, they said that there should be just one question. I had to chuckle. The Fair Referendum proposal illustrates what’s wrong with our voting system. They want a single question with four choices, three of which are a type proportional representation and one being the existing FPTP. Those in favour of change will have their vote split three ways and those who don’t want change will have one choice. The ballot is rigged so that even if, say 60 per cent want change, 40 per cent will make sure it doesn’t happen. It seems obvious that’s what Fair Referendum hopes for.

The referendum, to be held from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot, is shaping up along party lines. The Greens and NDP favour proportional representation and the BC Liberals oppose it.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone says the referendum would be biased in favour of the NDP and that’s probably true –but only because the BC Liberals choose not to cooperate with other parties.

The Greens and NDP have made an extraordinary effort to be nice to each other because, as Ms. Clark suggests, it’s the only way that future governments under proportional representation will work. It’s a shift in party culture that the BC Liberals have yet to realize.



Liberal’s treaty deal with Snuneymuxw sounds very familiar

B.C.’s Attorney General Geoff Plant would feel a whole lot better if he didn’t have to explain new treaties in light of last year’s controversial referendum.

The latest draft treaty with the Snuneymuxw people looks like a winner.  Until you compare it with results of the referendum that cost taxpayers $9 million dollars and angered first nations, that is.

The Snuneymuxw treaty is a first.  If ratified, the B.C. Liberals will have negotiated the first treaty through the B.C. Treaty process – – which cost $500 million over 10 years spent with nothing to show.  The former NDP government couldn’t get anywhere with it.  They negotiated the Nisga’a treaty outside the process.

Even the Chief of the Snuneymuxw has been won over. Here’s what Chief John Wesley Jr. had to say two years ago.  His motion to the  Assembly of First Nations stated that “the Government of British Columbia’s proposed referendum will incite racism and only serve to create a divisive and poisoned environment for treaty negotiations (July 17, 2001).”

Here’s what Chief Wesley has to say now. “There are breakthroughs. We’re glad of them. We worked really hard to get to where we are today,” he recently said.

So why aren’t the Liberals more vocal about this success?  Until a few weeks ago, Attorney General Plant seemed reluctant to even talk about it.  It wasn’t until CBC’s reporter Justine Hunter started to investigate that Plant even commented publicly.  When asked about the proposed treaty, Plant said:

“We had committed to a certain degree of flexibility around some issues. That I think has sent a message that we’re serious about concluding treaties (April 8).”

Ah, flexibility.  I would call it a compromise on the referendum principle of self government.  Question 6 of the referendum,  which asked  “Aboriginal self-government should have the characteristics of local government, with powers delegated from Canada and British Columbia.  Agree or disagree?”

More than 80 per cent of those who returned ballots agreed with the concept of municipal governments for first nations treaties.  Premier Campbell thought that the results of referendum were significant.

“After many years of being shut out of the treaty process, the people have finally had their say – and their message to first nations and to all Canadians is unmistakable,” Campbell said on July 3, 2002.

The unmistakable message to B.C.’s first nations was that they could expect tough bargaining.  They could forget about powers of self government like those in the Nisga’a treaty which was negotiated by NDP government.

The Nisga’a treaty proposed substantial powers of self-government–including an autonomous legislature with lawmaking powers over adoption, citizenship and land management.  It transferred 1,992 square kilometers land and $165.7 million to the 5,500-member Nisga’a band in northern B.C.

As opposition leader in 1998, Campbell disliked the proposed treaty so much that he filed a suit against the provincial and federal governments. He argued that the self-government provisions of the treaty amount to an amendment to the Canadian constitution and the NDP didn’t have a mandate to negotiate the treaty.  “People should make those changes, not politicians.”

So, now that the Liberals have the voice of the people, what does draft treaty recommend?   It looks quite familiar.

The Snuneymuxw treaty proposes substantial powers of self-government–including an elected government with lawmaking powers over citizenship, post secondary education, adoption, and land management.  It will transfer 47 square kilometers land and $75  million to the 1,300-member Snuneymuxw band in on Victoria Island northern B.C.  The Snuneymuxw treaty looks very much like the Nisga’a treaty on a smaller scale, including the self governing powers of a nation-state.  If Gordon Campbell were still in opposition,  would he take the government to court for failing to follow the referendum principle of self government?  Maybe that’s why the Liberal’s are reluctant to talk about it.

Not that Attorney General Plant was willing to admit it. “What we think we’ve achieved in Snuneymuxw is a form of self-government that is consistent with what the people of British Columbia asked us to try to achieve in the referendum campaign. . .,” said Plant (April 16 The Daily News).

The Attorney General should just forget the results of the confrontational referendum that was no more than a political exercise.  Treaties will go a lot smoother without it.