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Gordon Gibson

Gordon Gibson

gordon gibson

Changing our voting system demands a public referendum Add to ...

Gordon Gibson was the architect of the B.C. government’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

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The Liberal government plans to use its parliamentary majority to force a constitutional change – electoral reform – without holding a referendum. In the year 2016, this is flatly wrong.

Make no mistake. The “constitution” is about the rules of the game. No rules are more important than those that determine which MPs will be elected and which party forms government. That is what “electoral reform” is all about. And it should not be managed by the job seekers.

Our current voting system has its problems. The Liberals, with less than 40 per cent of the vote in the October election, have received 100 per cent of the power. Many people (including the Liberals, previously) say this is wrong. The New Democrats would love “reform” because they are perennial losers under the current system. The Conservatives, for equally selfish partisan reasons, want no change. But only the Liberals say that they should unilaterally be allowed to change the rules to make sure they get a majority most of the time in future. That is the likely impact of their “ranked ballot” dream.

Electoral reform is very complicated. There are many options and any change will bring winners and losers. The thing is to design change so that the winners include the general public, with much less concern for the interests of the political parties. That means, flatly and bluntly, a system that gives you more control over who becomes your member of Parliament, and then gives your MP more power over the government.

At the moment, as Pierre Trudeau once said, MPs are “nobodies” a few metres from Parliament Hill, which makes the rest of us nobodies, too. Electoral reform could do a lot about this. But how do we figure out what is right?

Fortunately there is a gold standard for this sort of work, developed and proven in Canada. The B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform met on weekends for a year. It was made up of 160 citizens selected at random (like a jury) from around British Columbia, one man and one woman from each riding. The panel was representative. Every British Columbian could see someone there rather like themselves, from professors to couriers. (Politicians were not allowed.)

The members took their work seriously, since any recommendation was guaranteed a referendum and, if approved, would change the political order. For the first months they listened to experts from around the world, organized by a neutral research team and chair. Then they held public hearings across the province.

The final period was deliberation, deep and respectful. Though there was provision for a simple majority report, in the end they came to a massive consensus in favour of a system known as STV (single transferable vote), which was put to the public. (This is not a plea for STV, although it has the virtue of some proportionality without the splintered chaos of “pure” systems. But many variations have merit.)

This next part is important. In May, 2005, the B.C. public voted “yes” for STV, by almost 58 per cent. It is not true that such referendums invariably fail. Alas, the government had specified a minimum of 60-per-cent approval, and what the public supported was dead. But the process worked, and worked well. (Ontarians will remember their own experience in 2007 which, for reasons of inadequate execution, was far less useful, but that proves only that it must be well done.)

There are many (spurious) arguments against a referendum. Some will say, “Oh, reform is not a constitutional change” – but just ask any political scientist. It is. The government says that a parliamentary committee will sagely consult and evaluate all of the options, recommending only the best. Well, if you have ever been an MP, MLA or a witness before such committees, you know this is smoke and piffle. A majority government (such as this one) always gets what it wants.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked a skeptical questioner if it is necessary to have a referendum on everything that matters. Would he try that logic on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms? This is evasive tap dancing, not worthy of the man.

Some say such referendums always fail. Not if it is a good question, they don’t.

No, set these excuses aside with the contempt they deserve. We were promised “sunny ways,” not a dark and evasive manipulation of our right to vote. We must have direct consent. A course correction on this one cannot come too soon. The voting system belongs to the people. Not the politicians. Period.

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ggibson@bc-home.com

 

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