Skip to main content

Should the latest attempt to bring in a new electoral system in B.C. fail, the blame should fall squarely at the feet of the NDP government.

It’s difficult to imagine the referendum on proportional representation (PR) being rolled out any more clumsily than this one has. Now, with the deadline of the vote fast approaching, Premier John Horgan has decided to introduce a significant new wrinkle.

Mr. Horgan told the Vancouver Sun this week that if the referendum is approved, and if mixed-member proportional (MMP) is the model the public chooses, he will insist the “closed list” option for this type of proportional representation be rejected by the committee that would be responsible for working out the final details of the new system.

Bear with me.

Under MMP, 60 per cent of the MLAs would be elected using the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) rules. The remaining 40 per cent would be chosen from people on party lists, and would reflect the overall outcome of the popular vote. A party that gets 17 per cent of the popular vote, would have that percentage of MLAs representing it in the legislature. Of course, under the current FPTP, winner-take-all model this does not occur.

The MLAs who make up that 40 per cent would come from lists provided by each party. Under a closed list system, the public would see the names of the candidates but not have a vote. Under an open list, the public would get to vote on their preferences. It certainly is the desired way to go.

If the government had made this clear at the outset, before ballots had been mailed out, this would not have been an issue. In fact, it may have even helped the pro-PR forces. The biggest criticism of closed lists is that it allows parties to potentially stack them with cronies and party hacks. Open lists help prevent that from happening.

But the announcement Mr. Horgan made is a fairly significant detail. He has fundamentally altered one of the voting options people have. And you don’t change the rules midway through a vote. You just don’t. This might have affected the way people voted had they known it before they marked their ballots.

In this instance, the Premier demonstrated a terrible lack of judgment. And he likely did it because he either sensed the Yes side was losing and needed something to alter the momentum, or, as some have suggested, he never wanted this referendum to succeed from the beginning and is trying to ensure it fails.

Either way, the flood of criticism that is now cascading down upon for this move is warranted.

As someone who has declared his feelings about PR – I think it is a vastly superior system to FPTP and it’s time we joined the modern era – this is a deeply disappointing development. Mr. Horgan has helped ensure that the last couple of weeks of voting take place amid a discussion about how he changed the rules mid-stream and how this has poisoned the process.

And I don’t know how the Premier could shirk his responsibility for creating this problem.

All of a sudden, this PR vote is looking a lot like the recent one in Calgary around the city’s 2026 Olympic Winter Games bid. And we now know how that ended. The fact is, incompetence was largely to blame for that result. And you can certainly question how ably this PR referendum was rolled out here, with more unanswered questions than answered.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Horgan is downplaying his decision to reveal a change in the game, midway through it. He said Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver didn’t support closed lists, nor did the Liberals – who opposed electoral reform altogether. So, what he was announcing was something that was inevitable in any event.

Maybe so. But optically it looks terrible, even amateurish. More than 200,000 had already voted. It wouldn’t matter if they all supported MMP and open lists. You don’t make pronouncements that will alter how a voting system will ultimately look midway through the referendum process. You just don’t.

The question now is how much should it matter?

While it was a dubious tactical move, it should not deter people for voting for PR. That’s my view. There is just too much to be gained by having a more democratic and representative voting system to be undermined and thwarted by a boneheaded decision by the Premier.

The way the New Democrats have handled this plebiscite has been far, far from perfect. But it should not deter British Columbians from making the right call about the future of their democracy.

Proportional representation is just a better, more equitable way to elect officials. And people shouldn’t let an imperfect referendum cloud that fact.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe