British Columbians have said No to electoral reform for the third time in 13 years, prompting the NDP and its Green Party allies to declare the proposal dead in the province for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, the results of a mail-in ballot showed more than 61 per cent of voters chose to keep the current first-past-the-post system. It was a blow to British Columbia’s minority New Democrat government, and to the Greens, who advocated strongly to overhaul the province’s voting system in favour of proportional representation.
“Are we disappointed? Yes,” Deputy Premier Carole James said on Thursday. “I think electoral reform is finished. People have engaged in the process and from our perspective, we now move on.”
The referendum was launched this fall as part of the agreement between the NDP and the Greens, who held the balance of power after the 2017 election resulted in a near deadlock between the B.C. Liberal Party and the NDP.
The three elected Greens supported the NDP after extracting a promise to push electoral reform as a key priority. Premier John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver participated in rallies together, urging voters to choose one of three proportional representation options on the ballot.
Mr. Weaver told reporters on Thursday that no means no – for now.
“British Columbians do not want another referendum on this topic in the near future. But we’ll see what happens in the rest of Canada,” he said. “Certainly it is not in our cards any time soon.”
Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson and his party took up the “No” side in what became a highly partisan debate, accusing the government of rigging the referendum in favour of change.
Mr. Wilkinson said on Thursday the results are a rebuke to the government.
“Today, we saw the power of democracy as millions of British Columbians sent a clear message to the NDP and Greens that their self-serving referendum was not going to be tolerated," he said. “This was a flawed process from the beginning as the NDP stacked the deck to satisfy the Green Party and remain in power."
Although Mr. Horgan promised voters the referendum would offer a clear question, the process was rushed so that, if votes chose change, a new system could be in place for the provincial election set for October, 2021.
Instead of taking time for extended consultations, B.C. Attorney-General David Eby conducted mostly online consultations, and then proposed a ballot with three alternatives: Mixed-member, dual-member, or rural-urban proportional. The last two are not used anywhere in the world.
“We’re disappointed with the results,” Vote PR BC spokesperson Maria Dobrinskaya said. “However, we’re also incredibly proud of all those British Columbians who came together to fight for a more positive politics, and how much impact we collectively had."
Bill Tieleman, president of the No BC Proportional Representation Society, said he was pleased a strong majority of voters rejected proportional representation.
“The issue is over, period,” Mr. Tieleman said in an interview, citing previous referendum defeats in B.C.
Other provinces, including Prince Edward Island and Ontario, have also held referendums on their electoral systems, but neither made changes. For British Columbia, this was the third time electoral reform was offered. Referendums in 2005 and 2009 resulted in no change.
During the federal election campaign of 2015, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pledged the vote would be the last to choose MPs using first past the post. A parliamentary committee looked into the issue, but Mr. Trudeau ruled out reform last year, saying no clear electoral alternative emerged.
Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, said proportional representation has repeatedly failed across Canada, with indications that governments are reluctant to embrace it.
“It’s dead federally. It’s dead provincially,” Mr. Wiseman said in an interview. He said the tepid turnout of nearly 43 per cent was an indication the public is not seized with the issue.
York University political scientist Dennis Pilon, who has been researching electoral reform since the late 1980s and written two books on voting systems, called the outcome “fairly decisive.”
However, in an interview, he said the discussion is far from dead. “This issue has come back again and again over the last 25 years. It’s coming back for a reason."