British Columbia’s northern MLAs clock thousands of kilometres behind the wheel each year to reach the far-flung, sparsely populated communities where their constituents live.
For Liberal MLA Dan Davies, it can mean a 10-hour drive to Fireside, near the Yukon border, to talk to residents with concerns about a boat launch. New Democrat MLA Doug Donaldson plans out regular road trips where he takes up residence in coffee shops for hours at a time to meet with locals in the remote communities across his riding of Stikine.
But those hours on the road could get longer if British Columbians opt to move to a proportional representation system in a referendum next month: According to Elections BC, electoral districts are usually larger than in first past the post. But the boundaries of these sparsely populated regions will only be sorted out after the vote.
Voting information and ballots started landing in mailboxes across B.C. this week, for the pivotal decision that will determine how the next provincial government is chosen. The ballot question offers voters a choice of keeping the current electoral system, known as first-past-the-post, or choosing one of three forms of proportional representation.
The referendum is part of an agreement that came together when the Green Party helped the New Democrats form a minority government in the May, 2017, election. The pact calls for the two parties – who mostly owe urban voters for this term in government – to work together to change to a proportional representation system that could entrench minority governments.
The question has further divided partisans. NDP MLA Mr. Donaldson, whose Stikine riding is the largest in the province – Scotland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark could all fit inside the land mass – with a population of just 20,000, argues that his constituents will be more engaged and better served with a less polarized system.
Liberal MLA Mr. Davies, whose Peace River North riding is the second-largest, but only has 36,000 residents, argues that there isn’t enough information for voters to decide if the proposed changes will be better or worse.
The Liberal opposition, with its strong base in rural B.C., is fighting for the status quo. Their rallying cry warns that a change will further disenfranchise voters in parts of the province with the lowest populations. “If it passes, you will never have an MLA again,” Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson told Dawson Creek residents during a recent visit to B.C.’s northeast communities.
Mr. Davies and Mr. Donaldson, despite their political differences, agree that the issues in rural B.C. are different than in the cities and those variations are a challenge to explain to their urban counterparts. Will a new voting system make things better or worse for their constituents? That depends on who you talk to.
Mr. Davies was already well aware of the challenges of obtaining specialized health care in his riding when he got to experience it first hand this March, after he was critically injured in an industrial accident at a concrete plant.
With a broken back and internal bleeding, Mr. Davies waited all day to be airlifted from Fort St. John to a hospital in Vancouver, and the 12-hour delay cost him: “If I was in Vancouver when it happened, I wouldn’t have lost a kidney.”
Access to health care is a challenge of living in the north: In Fort Nelson, there is no maternity care, so for the past eight years, expectant mothers have had to leave town a month before their due dates.
“People in Vancouver, they can’t fathom that,” he said.
Mr. Davies hopes his constituents will vote “no” to electoral change, because he thinks it further concentrates power in urban B.C., lessening the influence that rural B.C. will have in government. It’s unclear now if that will happen – but he said voters are being asked to make a decision without knowing those critical details.
Elections BC is the neutral administrator of the vote, and the agency states that no region in the province will have fewer MLAs than it does now, under any of the three options for electoral reform. However the boundaries are expected to change if proportional representation is adopted, and depending on the model that could mean bigger ridings.
Disconcerting, especially for northern communities, is that voters won’t know what those boundaries will look like until after the referendum. That is one of the details that will only be worked out after the vote, and only if one of the systems of proportional representation is chosen. An independent electoral boundaries commission would determine the number and boundaries of the electoral districts and regions represented in the legislature. A legislative committee would also be appointed to work out other details, depending on the model chosen.
Elections BC has offered a simplified explanation of the different systems and encourages voters to consult the official “yes” and “no” campaigns for more details.
Blair Lekstrom is the former Liberal MLA for Peace River South, another sprawling riding. He says the information that is available to voters is confusing, but based on his understanding, he believes proportional representation will be a raw deal for rural B.C. “Without question, if you are outside the lower mainland, I don’t think [it] is a step in the right direction,” he said.
But Mr. Donaldson, who is serving his third term as NDP MLA for Stikine, believes his constituents are tired of the hyper-partisan divisions that exist in the province’s mostly two-party system, and would benefit from a new electoral system.
“I think under proportional representation, there will be a much better chance the eight MLAs in the north can collaborate and co-operate and bring that message through to the rest of the province.”
At a rally this week in downtown Victoria, the Greens and the NDP hosted 1,000 enthusiastic supporters who cheered the promise of bringing change to B.C. A year and a half ago, NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Leader Andrew Weaver were locked in a fierce battle for votes. After the election, they came together to form a partnership in part based on a commitment to work toward electoral reform.
At this rally, Premier Horgan and Mr. Weaver shared the stage, and pointed to their record of co-operation that has allowed the New Democrats to deliver on initiatives driven by both parties’ agendas.
Hamish Telford, associate professor and head of the political science department at University of the Fraser Valley, said that unlike the past two referendums on electoral reform in B.C. – both of which rejected change – this one is being rushed to meet the timelines imposed under the NDP-Green pact.
“Because they haven’t taken the time, doing the necessary consultation and groundwork, the Liberals have been able to sow suspicions about the process,” he said. “It was tall order to get this done in one election cycle.”
With a PhD in political science, Prof. Telford understands the details of the options better than most, but he said critics are correct that it is hard to understand, “and it’s complicated in part because the models have not been fully fleshed out.” In fact, two of the three models are not currently in use anywhere in the world.
Ryan Wank runs the general store and coffee shop in remote Dease Lake, in the northwestern corner of the province, just about as far from an urban centre as you can get in British Columbia.
“Population, 500 – if you count the dogs,” he said.
Mr. Wank has not read up on the alternatives yet, but says he is inclined to stick with the current system – he is a conservative, and no fan of the NDP, so he is naturally suspicious of the proposed changes.
However, he likes the idea of a system that would foster more political choices on the ballot: “My biggest complaint in B.C. is that we have a two-party system. The Liberals were in power far too long, so you have to burn the house down just to clean the carpets and then you get the NDP in government,” he said.
It is exceptionally rare for British Columbia to find itself with a minority government, and Mr. Wank said he would be interested in a voting system that made that the norm.
He hasn’t opened his referendum information package yet, and isn’t sure he will vote. “I probably should.”
Some facts about B.C.'s electoral reform referendum
The mail-in referendum is being held until Nov. 30 and asks voters if they want to keep the current voting system for the next provincial election, or move to a form of proportional representation.
Proportional representation is when the share of seats a political party wins is about the same as the party’s share of the popular vote. So, if a party receives 40 per cent of the popular vote, it is likely to have about 40 per cent of the seats in the legislature.
The ballot then offers three alternative voting systems – dual-member proportional, mixed-member proportional and rural-urban proportional – that voters can rank in order of preference. Unless a majority of voters choose the status quo, the top-ranked alternative will be put in place for provincial elections called on or after July 1, 2021.
Another referendum will be held after two general elections to see if British Columbia wants to keep the new voting system or go back to using first past the post.
Editor’s note: (October 29) In an earlier version of this article, Liberal MLA Dan Davies was incorrectly referred to as Don Davies, who is an NDP Member of Parliament for the riding of Vancouver Kingsway