To reduce “polarizing partisan policymaking” in provincial politics, British Columbians should usher in the era of the single transferable vote on May 12.
That is the view of Vancouver-based single-transferable-vote advocate Shoni Field, communications chair with B.C.-STV. Field’s job is to convince provincial voters that the electoral system should change, and they can enact that change by voting on their provincial ballot to adopt STV.
STV is a preferential-style voting system in which voters rank their choice of candidate from first through to fourth or even fifth. Political candidates are grouped into multiple-member ridings based on population. In the event that a voter’s candidate does not get elected, their second or third choices come into play.
“We should adopt it because the voters aren’t getting the government they voted for,” Field told the Georgia Straight on March 30. “Our current system cheats voters, doesn’t provide an effective mechanism to hold governments accountable, and produces instability. Those are, I think, three very compelling arguments for change.”
Field is one of 160 British Columbians selected to participate in the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which recommended STV in 2004. In 2005, the provincial ballot question on adopting the STV narrowly failed to meet its required overall threshold of 60 percent of the total vote.
Now Field is trying to push it over the top at the second attempt with B.C.-STV, an organization which has been given $500,000 by Elections B.C. to make its case to the electorate. Another $500,000 has been given to the NO B.C.-STV Society, a group that opposes the STV and favours retention of the status quo. “When governments know there is not an effective way to hold governments accountable, they engage in polarizing partisan policymaking, which leads to a lot of instability in the province,” she said.
Long-time political commentator Bill Tieleman, president of the NO B.C.-STV Campaign Society, told the Straight his personal view is that “the first-past-the-post system has served us well”.
“I think that there are changes that can be made to make legislatures and parliaments far more respective and responsive to people without changing the electoral system,” Tieleman said. “But look, there is no country in the world where voters go around saying, ”˜Gosh, we love our politicians; they’re great folks.’ And that includes Ireland and Malta, where they have had STV since the 1920s. Every system has problems and every system has challenges, and they aren’t all solved by simply switching the electoral system.”
Tieleman claimed that his coalition contains people with different viewpoints on electoral reform, but he said they all unite around their belief that “STV would be a disaster”.
“Under the single transferable vote, we would lose a lot of the local accountability and responsibility that politicians have to voters, because we would have these gigantic ridings: multiple-member ridings of enormous geographic area and up to seven MLAs,” he said. “So no one would be responsible for any particular community, city, or riding within that larger regional district. When you go from 85 individual geographic ridings—which is what we’ll have in this election—down to 20, it removes that local accountability and responsibility.”
Tieleman also said STV “is a very complicated, confusing, and obscure system” that few people understand.
Field countered that “people who raise the issue of complexity are really undervaluing the intelligence of British Columbians.” While travelling the province as part of the assembly five years ago, Field said people were willing to look past the question of simplicity alone.
“They said they were willing to look beyond the easiest system in the world to get a system that works,” she said.
Norman Ruff, professor emeritus in political science at the University of Victoria, told the Straight the upcoming referendum is “historic”, adding: “It’s not very often the public gets asked if it wants to change the system.
“I started off with the political-science position: tell me what you want and I’ll tell you which system does it best,” Ruff, who is adviser to Fair Vote Canada, said by phone on March 31. “If you want to emphasize representation of a geographic area, first-past-the-post does that.”¦If you really want to put power in the hands of the individual voter and make it candidate-based, and you want the sense that the voter really can choose among candidates, then B.C.-STV is the best system. Where we are now in politics, with the cynicism, declining turnout, and the wild swings we’ve had—Social Credit disappeared as a party in my lifetime and the NDP were virtually wiped out in 2001—I think accountability and trust is on people’s minds. There is an argument to be made that, here and now in B.C. politics, B.C.-STV is worth trying.”