Skip to main content

A referendum next year on proportional representation could mark B.C.'s last chance in a long time for electoral reform, says the man who co-chaired failed referendum bids in 2005 and 2009.

And though opposition to moving away from the first-past-the-post system in British Columbia remains, academics in New Zealand say the shift to proportional representation has served that country well.

The BC NDP and the Greens have said there will be a referendum on proportional representation in the fall of 2018, coinciding with the next municipal election. The parties – which last week announced they would topple Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government when the legislature is recalled – have said whatever form of proportional representation is approved through the referendum will be used in the provincial election that follows.

The NDP and the Greens have said they will actively campaign in support of "the agreed-upon form of proportional representation" though spokespersons for both parties said they do not have a preferred form at the moment.

The past two referendums involved the single transferable vote (STV) system, which was recommended by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004, and allows voters to rank multiple candidates. The citizens' assembly said the STV would give voters more power and yield fairer results. The group's final report noted opposition parties picked up 42 per cent of the popular vote in the 2001 provincial campaign but claimed only two of 79 seats.

In the 2005 referendum, more than 57 per cent of voters supported STV, falling just short of the 60-per-cent threshold needed to enact the change.

But support for STV plummeted to 39 per cent four years later and Bruce Hallsor, a Victoria lawyer who was twice co-chair for the "Yes" side, said 2018 could be its final shot.

"If this referendum doesn't win, I don't see how anybody puts electoral reform on the table for a long time in British Columbia," he said in an interview.

Mr. Hallsor said he still supports STV.

The province's independent Referendum Information Office in 2009 said STV was designed to produce a proportional result – "that is, the number of seats a political party wins will be close to its share of the overall popular vote."Under STV, the province would have been split into 20 constituencies with between two and seven MLAs each, instead of the 85 ridings in place at the time.

Mr. Hallsor said he would not be surprised to see the NDP and the Greens push for a different system: mixed member proportional, or MMP.

Under MMP, he said, voters would still select MLAs in single ridings. But Mr. Hallsor said voters would also have a separate ballot to indicate party preference.

"So let's say we had an election result where one party got 60 per cent of the seats with 45 per cent of the vote, they wouldn't get any top-up because they've already got more than 45 per cent of the seats," he said. "But if a party got 20 per cent of the vote and only 5 per cent of the seats, then they would get a top-up."

The downside, he said, is that topped-up MLAs would not represent a specific riding or constituency.

Bill Tieleman, who was president of "No STV" in 2005 and 2009, said in an interview that he still supports the first-past-the-post system B.C. currently uses.

"I think that the first-past-the-post system is simple, it works well. It's worked well for our province, our country and others for a long time," he said.

He said the STV system, with multiple MLAs for large constituencies, would have left voters unsure exactly who represented them.

Mr. Tieleman, a communications consultant and former NDP strategist, said he plans to be part of whichever group opposes proportional representation next year. He said he expects opposition to the effort to come from a range of political parties.

Jonathan Boston, acting director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington, said the country voted in favour of proportional representation in a 1993 referendum. New Zealand's first election under proportional representation – it uses MMP – was held in 1996.

Prof. Boston said proportional representation has worked well for New Zealand thus far. He said it has yielded stable government, a fairer distribution of votes and increased representation from visible minorities.

He said proportional representation has also helped shift politics toward the centre, with fewer lurches toward extreme policy, though he cautioned that may reflect the moderate nature of the New Zealand electorate as much as anything else.

"The beauty of this system is that it retains the advantages of people having constituency MPs, so they know who their local MP is. But it also ensures proportionality, at least in a broad sense," he said in an interview.

He said a party has to win 5 per cent of the popular vote or at least one constituency to ensure representation in Parliament.

Nigel Roberts, an emeritus professor of political science at Victoria University of Wellington, in an e-mail said New Zealand had a chance to do away with proportional representation, but voted to keep it in 2011.

He said any jurisdiction that is considering proportional representation should ensure its official information office is undertaken by a well-funded non-partisan body.

Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, which advocates for electoral reform, in an interview said she was pleased to see B.C. will move forward on the issue.

Ms. Carmichael said it was extremely disappointing to see the federal government recently abandon electoral reform, breaking a campaign promise. She said none of the provincial governments in Canada use proportional representation at the moment, though it is utilized by more than 90 countries worldwide.

She said much more is known about proportional representation than the last time British Columbians voted on it and proponents will be able to harness the power of social media in the upcoming campaign.

"We're pretty confident that this referendum and this move to proportional representation will be successful this time," she said.

Interact with The Globe