The new BC Liberal Leader says party members will be asked if they support using the provincial per-vote subsidy, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, to finance a No campaign in a government-led referendum on changing the way British Columbians vote.
The NDP and the BC Greens, which is propping up the New Democratic government, have long supported the change. The Liberals, however, have been focused for months on selecting a new leader to replace former premier Christy Clark. That focus has shifted over the weekend with former advanced-education minister Andrew Wilkinson becoming leader.
Like the candidates he defeated, Mr. Wilkinson is opposed to the proposed electoral changes, and now says he will ask his caucus – representing almost half of the 87 seats in the B.C. Legislature – at a meeting this week about using the per-vote subsidy to finance a campaign. He said he will then extend the discussions to BC Liberal riding associations.
The mail-in referendum, expected later this year, would ask voters if they want a proportional-representation voting system in which parties get a number of legislature seats in sync with their percentage of the popular vote. That could increase the number of seats for the BC Greens, who now have three legislature members, but won 17 per cent of the popular vote. NDP Premier John Horgan has promised to campaign in favour of the change.
As the NDP banned union and corporate donations, it instituted a system of per-vote subsidies. Although the Liberals oppose the taxpayer-funded subsidy, they still accepted the largest payout of $996,000 on Jan. 2.
"I will be asking the members of this party if they are prepared to devote some or all of the taxpayer subsidy to political parties, that come to all the parties on July 1, to the defeat of the proportional-representation referendum," Mr. Wilkinson said in an interview on Monday.
"That's something that requires the engagement of the members, and we will be getting that under way very shortly."
That said, it remains to be seen how much money could be spent. The B.C. Attorney-General and his ministry are still working on a referendum question and rules on spending limits and funding for proponents.
Mr. Wilkinson said on Monday he sees a particular urgency around the referendum. "The other policy issues are obviously very important," he said, "but they are in the long-term sequence of events of things we deal with on a daily, monthly and yearly basis, whereas changing the fundamentals of our democracy is a pretty important thing for us to address as a priority issue."
Mr. Wilkinson said the exercise appears to be an NDP "payoff" for Green support in the legislature. "I don't hear anybody asking for this in the streets of British Columbia," he said.
Still, the BC Liberals presided over a pair of debates on electoral reform in 2005 and 2009. Both votes to change the first-past-the-post system to a single-transferable vote, in which voters would rank their electoral preferences, fell short of established thresholds to proceed. Mr. Wilkinson said in both cases the development of the question was more open than now.
Also making the case against change is the No BC Proportional Representation Society, which unites a team of Liberals and New Democrats. At the forefront of the group is former BC Liberal attorney-general Suzanne Anton, Bill Tieleman, who worked in the office of former NDP premier Glen Clark, and Bob Plecas, a civil servant under NDP and Social Credit administrations.
Mr. Tieleman said in an interview that it's too early to talk about funding for their effort given the absence of declared rules.
He has argued the No side in previous electoral reform votes and said there are New Democrats who think democracy has been well served by the current electoral system.
"It elected Dave Barrett. It elected Mike Harcourt. It elected Glen Clark. It elected John Horgan. That's a pretty good record, in my book."
He said proportional representation is too complicated for most voters to understand, with the prospect of "unintended consequences" that include allowing extreme parties on the right or left to take seats with very low levels of public support.
Green MLA Sonia Furstenau said Monday that it was ironic that Mr. Wilkinson is so critical, given he was elected through a preferential ballot.
In response, Mr. Wilkinson said if the BC Liberal Leader had been elected by proportional representation, there would be five leaders or one elected by 20 per cent of the electorate. Mr. Wilkinson was elected with 53 per cent of the vote after fending off a strong fifth-ballot challenge from former Tory MP and Surrey mayor Dianne Watts.
Ms. Furstenau said she and the Greens are working with the NDP on a joint submission outlining how they would like the referendum to work, but it won't be completed for a few weeks.