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Opinion How proportional representation would erode B.C. democracy

Geoff Plant was British Columbia’s attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practices law with Gall Legge Grant Zwack LLP in Vancouver.

The current electoral reform referendum is an important opportunity for British Columbians to think about how we elect our governments, and whether a switch from our existing first-past-the-post system to some version of proportional representation (PR) will improve our democracy. But in one important way, it will have the opposite effect. PR in B.C. will increase the likelihood that our governments will not be elected, but rather appointed. The result will not enhance democracy, but erode it.

In our system of government, based on the Westminster tradition, the premier of B.C. is the person who, after an election, can convince the lieutenant governor (LG) that he or she has the confidence of the House. The LG then calls upon that person to form a government. That person then becomes the premier. He or she continues to govern as long as they continue to enjoy the confidence of the House, until it is time for another election.

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In practice, of course, the premier is usually the leader of the party that has won the majority of seats in the House.

In every B.C. election from the early 1950s until 2017, there has always been one party with a majority of seats, and in each case, the leader of that party has become the premier. The LG’s role has been merely formal. The LG simply ratifies the decision that the voters have made.

Not in 2017, however. On this occasion, the LG’s role in choosing a premier was nothing like a mere formality. John Horgan owes his office as premier to a decision made by the Honourable Judith Guichon as LG to reject the advice of her premier Christy Clark immediately following her defeat in a vote of confidence in the House and instead to call upon Mr. Horgan to form government.

There were other decisions the LG could have made. For example, she could have accepted the advice of Ms. Clark and dissolved the House, thereby causing another election.

Ms. Guichon has not had to defend her decision publicly. It was made behind closed doors. We can guess why she made the decision, but we don’t really know. These are not the hallmarks of democratic government.

The point here is not whether the LG made the right decision. The point is that the LG is unelected and unaccountable. (She’s actually appointed by the Prime Minister.)

In exercising the power to decide who would become premier, the LG was taking part in a process that is a fundamental aspect of our system of government. But it’s not democratic.

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Once in a while, the formal elements of our constitutional machinery need to work in order for the system to function. But it would be very unhealthy if this happened more than once in a very, very long time. Nothing would more quickly erode public confidence in our political institutions than a run of elections where a deadlock in the composition of the House had to be resolved by the appointment of a premier by the LG.

And yet under PR, this is much more likely to happen because the main objective of a PR system is to create a political landscape where legislative seats are more evenly divided among a number of parties, in which is it much less likely that any one party will have a majority. How will governments be formed in such circumstances? By coalitions and alliances among parties; horse trading for position and power in search of the magic number that represents a majority of seats in the House.

In such a world, is it more or less likely that there will be virtual stalemates and where the decision about who will be premier ultimately has to be made by the unelected LG? (Such stalemates frequently happen in other PR jurisdictions.) The answer has to be: more likely. This is not the unintended or accidental consequence of a PR system. It is the natural and inevitable consequence. How often? Maybe not very often, but it will happen.

It is difficult to support a proposal for electoral change that is more likely to undermine the basic democratic legitimacy of our governments.

Let me be clear: There’s way too much unnecessary alarmism coming from both sides of the PR debate. But it’s odd that a proposal for reform that is supposed to make our politics more democratic may have exactly the opposite effect.

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