A campaign on electoral reform officially started on Canada Day in British Columbia before a fall referendum that has triggered a constitutional challenge from a business association and a union that want the process stopped.
Official groups on each side of the issue will get $500,000 in government funding and are expected to be announced mid-July, with several wooing supporters for months.
Voters who choose to replace the existing first-past-the-post system with proportional representation will be asked to rank three options of that model on a mail-in ballot between Oct. 22 and Nov. 30.
Proponents of proportional representation say it’s a fairer way of electing candidates because the percentage of votes a party gets would equal the number of seats it has in the legislature, but opponents say local representation would be reduced with parties having more control.
The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the Canada West Construction Union and its labour relations director Kenneth Baerg filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court, arguing the B.C. government undertook a “rushed” process for fundamental changes to the democratic system, without sufficient opportunity for debate on the options it chose.
The New Democrats have proposed three models to replace the current system:
- Mixed member proportional representation, or MMP, in which 60 per cent of members of the legislature would be elected by the most votes and 40 per cent by lists set by political parties.
- Dual-member proportional, involving large ridings represented by two politicians, including one with the most votes.
- And rural-urban proportional, a blend of MMP for rural ridings and the single transferable vote system, which voters have rejected in two previous referendums, for urban ridings.
Peter Gall, a lawyer who represents the petitioners, said all the options are complicated and the second and third ones aren’t used anywhere.
“You don’t even know the full details let alone understanding fully what the three options really are,” he said. “The whole thing adds up to just a lot of confusion on the part of the public.”
Gall said he’s hoping the case can be heard as soon as possible in order to clarify multiple constitutional issues, including $200,000 spending limits by third-party advertisers during the five-month campaign.
“It’s so seriously flawed it can’t go ahead in its present form,” he said of the referendum. “Even if it could go ahead the spending limits on advertising are too restrictive.”
The Attorney General’s Ministry, a respondent in the court action, said in a statement that it would defend the matter.
Maria Dobrinskaya, a spokeswoman for Vote PR BC, which is hoping to be selected as the official proponent of the referendum, said proportional representation would allow for a more democratic system because parties that get a low percentage of votes wouldn’t end up with 100 per cent of the power.
“Proportional representation is simple: 40 per cent of the votes should equal 40 per cent of the power,” she said.
British Columbia voters are ready for change after two failed attempts at proportional representation during referendums in 2005 and 2009, Dobrinskaya said.
“I think the issue is before us again because people are frustrated with many aspects of our current voting system, whether it’s plugging your nose and voting for the least-worst option, strategic voting, or if you live in a safe seat … the outcome of some ridings are determined largely before people hit the ballot box,” she said.
“If you look at who the No side is, they’re all people who have enjoyed access and influence in government. The system works for them.”
Dobrinskaya said spending limits are important aspects of the referendum because corporations and unions won’t try to influence the outcome.
Bill Tieleman, spokesman for the No B.C. Proportional Representation Society, which is vying for official opposition group for the referendum, said local representation would be drastically reduced under proportional representation, “even under the most optimistic circumstances, under mixed member proportional.”
“Proportional representation is complicated, it’s confusing, it creates perpetual minority governments and it creates instability,” he said.