Greens, Liberals drove assembly to STV

There's no way in the world you're going to make a political party respectable unless you keep it out of office.

-- Will Rogers

Why did the B.C. Citizens' Assembly make the surprising choice of asking voters to endorse a little-known electoral system called the single transferable vote, or STV?

The assembly rejected an overwhelming number of submissions favouring changing the current first-past-the-post system to one called mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), a system used in more countries in the world than any other. Instead, the assembly went for STV, which is used in only a few jurisdictions, such as Ireland, Malta, Tasmania, and the Australian senate.

As British Columbians struggle to understand STV, a clearer picture is emerging about how the Citizens' Assembly arrived at its controversial decision.

It is also apparent that the assembly will not just present STV as an alternative to consider but will actively and aggressively sell it to voters.

In interviews with Citizens' Assembly members and through observing its final meeting on November 27, the key reasons for picking STV have emerged:

* The assembly quickly developed a strong anti--political party tendency and rejected mixed-member proportional representation for being a party-friendly system;

* Assembly members reacted very negatively to strong pressure from the Green party and leader Adriane Carr to adopt MMP;

* And the B.C. Liberal government's terms of reference prohibited the assembly from making recommendations that would add more seats to the legislature. That effectively meant an MMP system would have to eliminate up to half of B.C.'s existing ridings to create "party list" seats for MLAs elected to reflect the popular vote percentage.

Citizens' Assembly member Rick Dignard is unhappy with the STV decision and believes the referendum held in conjunction with the provincial election on May 17, 2005, will reject STV.

"On a huge level, STV makes absolutely no sense," Dignard said in an interview with the Georgia Straight. "It wasn't the right fit for B.C. If you want things to change, don't freak people out.

"A lot of them [assembly members] looked at it in a purely academic way instead of how a regular person would look at it," said Dignard, who represented the riding of Powell River--Sunshine Coast and is a B.C. Ferries shipwright.

"If you're a mathematician/
political-scientist combination, STV is going to win every time," he said. "For me, it was really frustrating. I'm representing the ordinary Joe."

The antiparty sentiment was evident when the assembly met in Vancouver on November 27.

"This is a candidate-based system, and I want the emphasis on the candidate, not the party," CA member Sheila McDermott of Penticton said during debate on how the ballot would look.

Dignard said the assembly didn't like the idea that under MMP, voters would elect roughly 50 to 60 percent of the legislature's MLAs by constituency, with the rest coming from a ranked list of names chosen by each political party.

Under MMP, the number of seats each party gets is proportional to the percentage of popular vote it receives provincewide. MMP is favoured by many who reject a system that saw the B.C. Liberals win 97 percent of the seats in 2001 with 58 percent of the vote.

But Dignard, who supported an MMP system where voters could also rank the party-list candidates, rejects the idea that STV reduces the role of political parties.

"This is another thing people bought hook, line, and sinker: that STV is antiparty. That's BS," he said.

Under STV, voters would rank their choices for MLA in ridings of between two and seven members. Smaller parties or independents can only elect members if voters give them enough second, third, fourth, et cetera rankings to meet an electoral quota of the number of voters divided by the number of seats in the riding plus one, plus one vote. (Yes, it is confusing, despite what proponents say.)

While MMP guarantees a proportional result, Citizens' Assembly member Jeremy Young (Victoria--Beacon Hill) says STV does not.

"We know, and we were taught, STV is not a proportional system and it delivers any proportionality by coincidence," Young told the Straight.

The assembly also picked STV in part as a negative reaction to heavy lobbying by the provincial Green party for MMP, Young said.

"The other parties respected the wishes of the assembly to be nonpartisan, and the Green party violated that," Young added.

Dignard agreed: "Another factor was a backlash against Adriane Carr. What they didn't like was that the Liberals kept their nose out of it, the NDP kept their nose out of it, but the Greens were all over it. People had a problem with that."

The B.C. Liberals' decision to keep the legislature's size restricted to the current 79 members also discouraged choosing MMP. The assembly's terms of reference state that its deliberations must be "limited to the manner by which voters' ballots are translated into seats in the Legislative Assembly." In other words, the assembly could not recommend a 100-seat legislature with 60 ridings and 40 MLAs chosen by an MMP proportional-representation list.

Dignard says the assembly realized that under an MMP recommendation, "we would have had to have 40 constituencies and a 39-member list. The constituency size would have to double."

So now the STV selling job begins. At the assembly meeting, member F. W. Zens (Alberni-Qualicum) spelled it out: "The job here is to
sell this, not to split hairs." Added member Frankie Kirby (Vancouver-Kensington): "We need to make this as easy as possible to vote yes."

Dignard, who plans to vote no, expects most assembly members to publicly push for STV. "They'll be out in full force and they'll be selling this, trust me," he says.

But for voters, the question will be: what are they buying?

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at