With just more than a week before ballots are mailed out, British Columbia’s referendum on proportional representation looks too close to call.
A recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute had those supporting some form of PR with a slight lead over those opposed. Undecideds comprised nearly a third of the responses – meaning there is a wide swath of the public seemingly willing to be persuaded either way.
However, those campaigning in favour of maintaining the status quo would likely be heartened by the latest numbers. Digging down, the results indicate support is more solid among backers of the current first-past-the-post system – with 56 per cent saying they were “certain” they would be voting against PR, compared with 45 per cent firmly determined to vote for it. And there is also the fact that support for PR would appear to be slipping.
Back in May, Ipsos-Reid conducted a survey that showed 54 per cent of respondents supported a change to some form of proportional representation, against 20 per cent who were opposed and 26 per cent who had not made up their minds. But that was well before the referendum campaign began heating up. And since it has, those wanting to see the province’s voting system remain as it is have been resorting to tried-and-true scare tactics.
One of the most popular go-to arguments the anti-PR brigade is using is that electoral reform will open the door to extremist parties, and before you know it, you have another Hitler running your province or country. This is a distortion and disinformation campaign intended to distract voters and to divert their attention away from considering the obvious benefits of a voting system that does a far better job of reflecting the overall wishes of the public.
It is not voting systems that give rise to political parties holding “extreme” views, it is most often underlying societal concerns. The anti-PR army point to Europe, and political parties that have gained a toehold in parliaments there under proportional representation. These are parties that promote anti-immigration policies, for instance. Policies that would align, in some cases, with those of the new government elected in Quebec.
The Coalition Avenir Québec campaigned on the idea of restricting immigration and introducing values tests for newcomers. They have already talked about prohibiting civil servants from wearing religious garb at work. The CAQ won a majority under Quebec’s first-past-the-post electoral system. I will also remind people that many, many people believe there is a racist in the White House. One who was also elected under FPTP with less of the popular vote than his Democratic rival. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in India is considered neo-fascist by many. It was elected with just 31 per cent of the popular vote under FPTP. We could go on and on.
As Seth Klein and Vyas Saran recently wrote in Policynote: “Are there pro-rep countries like Austria, Hungary and Poland where far-right political parties have won disturbingly high seat counts? Yes, a few. But these countries don’t have an electoral system problem; they have a neo-nazi problem, or have right-wing populist parties that would likely win regardless of the electoral system.”
Under the PR being proposed in B.C., a party would need to receive at least 5 per cent of the provincewide vote to be able to win a seat. It is a safeguard against some of these fringe parties with intolerant to downright bigoted views from setting up shop in the legislature. Also, there would be a second referendum after two election cycles asking voters if they want to keep PR or return to FPTP. It’s an escape hatch.
Many of the other arguments the anti-PR folks use don’t hold up to scrutiny either. A favourite, for instance, is that FPTP delivers solid, stable majority governments and PR doesn’t. Except, nearly half of the past 20 federal elections have produced minority governments. FPTP just generated one in B.C., where the government has formed a working coalition with the Green Party – the kind of partnership some fear PR would deliver all the time.
Maybe. But what’s wrong with that necessarily?
The bottom line: When you’re considering which way to cast your ballot in the upcoming referendum, do your research. And don’t allow yourself to be persuaded by phony arguments not rooted in reality.