The B.C. NDP and Greens say a fall referendum should give British Columbians the option of voting for proportional representation but not allow them to choose a specific type of system – a request the Opposition Liberals warn would leave residents in the dark.
The NDP government, which is supported by the Greens in the legislature, has said the referendum will ask whether B.C. should keep its first-past-the-post voting structure or move to proportional representation. Referendums on a form of proportional representation, known as the single transferable vote, failed in 2005 and 2009.
The province has undertaken public consultation that closed at the end of February, but details, including those on the referendum question, have been scarce. Attorney-General David Eby, who is serving as a neutral arbiter in the referendum process, has said he will release a report on the issue by the end of May.
In a joint submission prepared for the consultation process, both NDP and Green caucuses recommended the referendum have a single, straightforward question.
The parties said that if the Attorney-General opted for a second question it should be “on the values that British Columbians believe should be included in a new, made-in-BC proportional representation system as opposed to a question on specific systems.”
The parties went on to recommend that the Attorney-General create an independent advisory body of “trusted experts and diverse citizen representatives” that would, in the event of a yes vote, provide recommendations on a proportional representation model “that best suits the needs and values of British Columbians.” The submission was written in late February.
A government spokesperson Thursday said the Attorney-General was unavailable for an interview.
Sonia Furstenau, a Green MLA who helped prepare the joint submission, said in an interview that she would have liked to see the referendum process move more quickly. But she said nearly 90,000 questionnaires were completed and processing them does take time.
When asked about voters not knowing what type of proportional representation system would be utilized if they voted in favour, Ms. Furstenau highlighted the submission’s post-referendum process. She said the advisory body would provide recommendations to the legislature.
“It wouldn’t be you have a referendum and then the government gets to decide on the system,” she said. “You have a referendum, which then results in an independent body with citizens involved.”
But John Martin, a Liberal MLA, said in an interview that far too much about the referendum process remains unknown.
“We’ve got this piece of legislation that says we’re going to have a referendum and that was introduced months and months ago and we don’t know a thing about it. We don’t know what the ballot question, or questions, is going to be; we don’t know about the funding models,” he said.
Mr. Martin said British Columbians should not be asked to vote on proportional representation without knowing exactly what type of system would be put in place.
“If they end up accepting this joint submission, people are going to be asked to vote for a great unknown, they’ll have no idea what it is they’re supporting,” he said.
Maxwell Cameron, a political-science professor at the University of British Columbia, said the devil is in the details.
“It would really depend on what the process would look like. And that would have to be laid out before the referendum because I don’t think you can ask the public for a blank cheque,” he said in an interview.
Genevieve Fuji Johnson, a political-science professor at Simon Fraser University, said she supports informed democratic processes and more detail would be preferred. But she said there is an argument to be made for having a straightforward question as a starting point.
“If [British Columbians] feel that that isn’t transparent enough, that they need more, that they actually don’t trust the government to follow through on having a broader consultation process with an advisory group … then they can decide to vote against that and stick with the status quo,” she said in an interview.
Both professors were earlier asked by the province to provide feedback on its planned questionnaire.