There has been plenty of talk about why our first-past-the-post system needs to be changed, but not much talk about why proportional representation may not be the way to go.
Here are seven things to consider:
1. We need broad-based parties. One Issue Parties are not what running a government is all about.
Good Government needs "Big Tent Parties," not single-issue parties. Governing B.C. is about running a health care system, an education system, social assistance, parks, environmental assessments, a highways system, and much, much more. Parties need policies on all of these areas to be credible and offer voters a full picture of what you will do. They should also span a broader range of ideas to bring diverse views to the table and create good policies for all British Columbians. Hopefully, voters think about the big picture as well and consider a balance of policies before deciding who to hand power to for four years.
In today's world of increasingly fragmented news sources, social media silos, and "tribe building" it is all too easy for a group to focus on only one issue, build a "tribe" around one narrow set of policies — immigration, reducing taxes, regional representation (There is still a Vancouver Island Party) and aim to get five per cent of vote, thus guaranteeing them enough seats to potentially broker a deal to make their narrow agenda part of the government agenda.
For years, the Green Party languished in the low single digits as a one issue party until more recently when they have been able to put together a broader platform.
It may not be ideal that a party with 40 per cent of the vote gets 100 per cent of the power, but it is better than an extreme party with 5 to 10 per cent of the vote getting some of the power and being at the table to push their narrow agenda.
2. All MLAs should be elected by the people, not their parties
Although the "details" are yet to be worked out, according to the B.C.government's PR website, one of the likely features of the proposed proportional representation systems is "party lists." These selected people would be more accountable to their party than to voters.
Political parties would choose directly some of the members of the legislature. These appointees could potentially be cabinet ministers, and potentially a party leader — as is the current deputy leader of New Zealand. If someone cannot get a plurality of voters in some jurisdiction to vote for them, even if it is Kelowna-West, they should not be in the position of making laws. If they make unpopular decisions, no one can directly vote them out. Their party can re-appoint them after the next election.
3. Your riding will definitely be a whole lot bigger.
One thing that is certain under any of the proposed proportional representation systems is that your local riding or voting area will get a whole lot bigger — probably about twice the size. For Squamish, this likely means taking in West Vancouver as ridings tend to spread out from denser urban areas into rural areas. Or we could have a huge riding that covers the Sunshine Coast and some Gulf Islands.
This means your MLA will represent a lot more people and more communities and have a lot less time for Squamish, and Squamish concerns. Don't expect an appointed "Party List" politician to really care about local issues when his or her power and influence come from the party.
4. When politicians meet behind closed doors to make deals for power, the taxpayer loses.
When political parties negotiate for power, they put the things they want on the table, and they will inevitably cost taxpayers more money. When pollical parties have to choose between power and taxpayers, they tend to choose power. A Fraser Institute study recently bore this out. Yes, you should be skeptical of what the Fraser Institute publishes, but this study was just a look at widely available statistics on the size of government. Hopefully, most will agree that keeping taxes reasonable and deficits low is one thing that governments should consider.
5. We know who to hold accountable.
The good thing — perhaps one of the most important things — about the first past the post system is that when a lot of voters feel the government in power is past its best before date, it is easy to make sure they do not run the government anymore. However, under PR, a party that has plunged in popularity could still be part of the negotiations and even leverage an agreement into cabinet seats or continue to push their agenda forward with only a small percentage of the vote. First Past the Post allows voters to change the government decisively.
You know who kept or did not keep their promises, and there are no excuses. It was a bit disappointing that after the last election, Andrew Weaver said that none of the NDP promises made in the last election counted anymore.
6. No computer voting/counting. The current system is easy to administer and easy to understand, and we can trust the results are current as they are manually counted and scrutineered. Some, if not all of the proportion rep systems proposed would require computer tabulation to arrive at results on election night or say which parties get how many seats based in an obscure formula. Let's keep voting simple.
7. You might not get what you want. One of the curious features of the current debate is that many people who tend to support the Greens or NDP seem to be supportive of Proportional Representation. The expectation seems to be that a Green/NDP coalition would rule B.C. in perpetuity. It would be wrong to assume a very different system would lead to people voting exactly the same way they do now. Federally, the Conservatives have received 28 to 35 per cent of the popular vote in B.C. over the last few elections.
With Proportional Representation, one could expect the party to drop their coalition with the BC Liberals, and run competitive campaigns provincially. The Liberals would move to the centre, and push the NDP to the left. Combined, Federally, the Liberals and Conservatives have won 60 to 66 per cent of the vote in B.C. in every election this century. If you are voting for proportional representation because you are hoping for a perpetual NDP/Green government, don't count on it.
There is no perfect electoral system, and no one has a crystal ball and knows how B.C. will fare in the next few decades under first past the post or one of the three proposed PR systems. However, there is value in our current system — it is stable, we keep extreme parties out of power, we directly elect all our politicians, so they are accountable to voters, not political party overlords, ensure our ridings are a manageable size, and we can get rid of governments when needed. Please make sure you vote in the upcoming referendum. Either way, B.C. Politics will continue to be interesting.