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Does B.C.’s New Democratic Party government secretly want an impending referendum on electoral reform to fail?

It would seem a perfectly reasonable supposition, given its atrocious handling of this matter. How the public could view the run-up to the fall plebiscite as anything more than a fix-is-in sham is difficult to imagine.

It began with the appointment by Premier John Horgan of Attorney-General David Eby as a so-called “neutral arbiter” to oversee the referendum process. Mr. Eby is lots of things but neutral arbiter on electoral reform he is not. Like many of his NDP colleagues, he has expressed his full-throated endorsement for ditching the first-past-the-post system we have now in favour of one that better reflects the results of the popular vote in elections.

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Recently, the government and its legislative partners, the Green Party, drafted a joint submission as part of the public-consultation process around the referendum. In it, the two parties recommend that, should the public vote in favour of electoral reform, that a committee of academics and citizen representatives decide on what that change would look like.

In other words, a small, select advisory group would be the ones to decide on a new voting system for the province.

By any definition this is absurd and can’t be allowed to stand. This is a democracy, not some tin-pot dictatorship. The NDP and the Greens are displaying the same level of arrogance and political tone deafness they once regularly accused the previous Liberal regime of exhibiting.

In the past election, Mr. Horgan promised a straightforward ballot question with a yes or no answer on a particular form of proportional representation. Well, not since George Bush Sr. said: “Read my lips, no new taxes” has there been a greater public policy U-turn. Mr. Horgan has gone from letting the public decide on a new electoral system to endorsing having it done by an unelected committee of academics and hand-picked members of the public.

In the past two referendums on electoral reform in B.C., there was rigorous debate ahead of the vote. There was a citizens’ assembly that oversaw the process, taking it out of the hands of politicians who are conflicted. (As is the case here: the New Democrats are leading a process it hopes will return a positive, yes vote, because they, and the Greens, believe it will favour them electorally down the road).

There will be little debate ahead of this plebiscite. There will be little time for the public to become educated about the various options for electoral reform that exist. Who knows how many people will bother even filling out a ballot and mailing it in? It doesn’t even matter. The NDP has said the result will be honoured no matter how small a percentage of British Columbians take part.

So, the future of the province’s voting system could be determined by a few hundred thousand people, theoretically. Who imagines this is a smart thing to do? And all it will take is one more person to vote Yes, than No, and the motion for reform will go ahead.

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I have written in favour of electoral change. I think there are better voting systems to ensure everyone’s vote counts, as opposed to the winner take-all approach we have now. However, I could not support reform based on the way in which this referendum is being conducted. It is just so badly flawed, so poorly conceived; any outcome will be rendered defective and in violation of the fundamental tenets of democracy. If the NDP government wants to hold a referendum on electoral reform it needs to halt the current process that’s under way and institute changes to make it more democratic – even if it means having to put off the vote until next year.

Now, not all New Democrats are persuaded electoral reform is a good idea. Some believe fervently that it will hurt the party’s chances of ever forming government again. Perhaps these forces of doom have made inroads with Mr. Horgan and his brain trust.

In which case, the New Democrats couldn’t be doing a better job of sabotaging their own referendum and ensuring the public wants no part of changing the status quo.

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