Martyn Brown: The B.C. Liberal leadership review—Job One is defeating PR

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      (Part two of a four-part series on the B.C. Liberal leadership contest.)

      Of the six candidates in the B.C. Liberal leadership race, four stand a reasonable chance of winning: Mike de Jong, Todd Stone, Dianne Watts, and Andrew Wilkinson.

      By most accounts, Watts is still the one to beat. Though the other three would likely all contend that their internal polling shows them running neck-and-neck, in second place.

      De Jong may well be in that position, but any polls should be taken with a grain of salt.

      As I explained in my previous article, the voting process is not geared to produce a winner who gets the most votes, provincewide.

      It is not a universal ballot that accords equal voting power to all votes cast.

      On the contrary, it is a proportional “points” system that is intended to assure equal voting power to each of the province’s 87 constituencies.

      Each riding will be assigned 100 “points” that will be distributed to the candidates in proportion to the votes they receive in that riding. There will be one vote, with one preferential ballot that offers all voters the chance to rank the candidates in order of preference.

      Consequently, the polls of any candidates’ provincewide support are not terribly relevant.

      Of more value are internal tracking polls that are statistically significant within each riding as snapshots of each candidate’s relative potential for growth as a second or third choice under the preferential ballot process.

      Nor are caucus endorsements necessarily indicative of how any candidate will perform in those MLAs’ own ridings.

      In my last piece, I outlined how those endorsements often failed to affect how B.C. Liberal members actually voted in the party’s 2011 leadership contest. They sure didn’t stop Christy Clark from winning, even though she had only one caucus member in her leadership camp.

      Of the 8,500 total points that were up for grabs in that contest, 3,209 of them—nearly 38 percent—went to Clark on the first vote count. Over 1,365 of those points were from voters in ridings held by B.C. Liberal MLAs who urged their supporters not to support her. Those points accounted for almost 43 percent of her total initial support.

      On the final count, Clark won a total of 1,982 points from those ridings—almost 45 percent of her winning majority—which defeated Kevin Falcon by only 340 points.

      On the first vote count, Mike de Jong only received 31.9 points of the total 100 points that were available in his own riding. Over two-thirds of his own constituency members voted against him, instead opting for one of his three competitors.

      In the 21 ridings whose MLAs endorsed George Abbott, only 727 points of that total pool of 2,100 votes went to him on the first count. Over 65 percent of the members in those ridings voted against the candidate their own MLA had pushed to win. No wonder he finished third.

      Falcon fared only slightly better. 

      On the initial count, he received 827 points from the total pool of 1,700 points that were available from members in ridings whose MLAs had championed his leadership. Over half of the members in those ridings voted against him as their first choice.

      All Liberals need to keep that history in mind as they pour through the tea leaves, trying to divine who will be elected based on the opinions of others—mine especially.

      Predicting who will win is a mug’s game that bears little relation to the candidates’ endorsements from MLAs, especially under the party’s preferential ballot process.

      The provincial party opinion polls mean little under this leadership contest’s equality-of-riding-voting-power points system. It annihilates the principle of “one member, one vote”, as it also disproportionately empowers individual voters in bizarre and unwelcome ways.

      A case in point: the weaker a riding’s membership base is, the more relative voting power each of its members’ have to affect the outcome. With an equal number of points for every riding, those members have proportionately clout than the Liberals casting votes in stronger ridings that boast larger membership bases.

      The person who will prevail on February 3, when the new leader is announced, will not necessarily be the one with the most Liberal members’ support. Nor will it necessarily be the individual who is leading in the opinion polls or who enjoys the most caucus support.

      It will be the candidate who has the broadest breadth of regional support, represented in points, and who has the greatest growth from the secondary choices of the failed candidates’ initial supporters.

      In this leadership contest, I suspect that dynamic will ultimately work against the presumed frontrunner, Dianne Watts—quite the opposite to how it worked in Clark’s favour in 2011. Especially if the “anyone but Watts” crowd rallies around, at most, one or two of her opponents .

      The key to any candidate’s success is obviously to win the ballot question.

      Trouble is, the main issue that is now driving many Liberals to support Watts is not the strategic issue that should matter most in choosing the party’s next leader.

      What the party really needs most of all to be competitive and successful in the long run is a leader who can give it the best shot at winning that vote on PR that will take place next fall.

      The most important question for B.C. Liberal members is which leadership candidate can defeat proportional representation.
      Mike de Jong

      The Liberals’ top strategic imperative is defeating PR

      If the Liberals lose that “mother of all battles”, they will lose their war to “make their world safe for democracy” against the NDP.

      Their party and its chances of forming a government will be done like dinner.

      Most Liberals still don’t get it: the referendum on PR is for keeps.

      If their new leader loses that vote, their party will have zero chance of forming a majority government, not just in 2021, but ever again. 

      It will have little chance of forming even a minority government for at least another eight years from today.

      There is a good reason both the Greens and many New Democrats are so keen on proportional representation and are pushing it as their Holy War to be won at all cost.

      They know it will destroy the B.C. Liberal coalition as we now know it and give their parties more combined seats in the legislature.

      They know it will shatter B.C.’s “natural governing party” into many smaller ideological pieces that all compete against each other under new parties bent on courting votes from “true” liberals, from social and fiscal conservatives, and from ugly populist movements on the far right.

      PR will invite those opposed to immigration, organized labour, LGBT rights, abortion, and socially progressive causes to start their own new parties in the hopes of winning a “proportional voice” in the legislature. Something that should be a very real concern to all British Columbians.

      Many of that ilk now vote for the Liberals, as the party closest to their values.

      All British Columbians need to consider the long-term risks of amplifying the voices of those far-right extremists, under a new electoral system that accords them direct representation that is proportional to their support. 

      It might not matter much for the next election, which under PR would virtually assure the Horgan administration of another minority government. After which, John Horgan could happily ride off into the sunset of retirement, having served as premier for eight and a half years and being 66 years of age.

      But in subsequent elections, it could be very material.

      Even a single MLA representing one of those far-right constituencies could hold the balance of power under a minority government.

      PR institutionalizes minority governments. By design, it makes majority governments virtually impossible to achieve.

      It encourages a plethora of parties that exist mostly for their unswerving commitments to the ideas, policies, and promises that separate them from the other alternatives.

      It encourages parochialism, ideological rigidity, extremism, and populism—not the opposite.

      Critics of proportional representation say that it has the potential to undermine rural representation in the legislature.
      Stephen Hui

      That is not to suggest that PR does not have other redeeming advantages that might be at least as important and welcome. It does. But that is a subject for another day.

      For what it’s worth, I have not yet made up my mind on how I will vote in the referendum on proportional representation.

      It will depend on many things—the model(s) proposed, the question, new literacy on the subject, and perhaps above all, the process and its impact on rural ridings.

      As I have previously argued in the Straight, the newly legislated process for that referendum stinks, as many others have also argued and explained.

      Yet, I remain hopeful and even optimistic that Premier Horgan will remedy that flawed process, at least to some extent.

      Like many voters, I am hoping he will do as he did with his government’s initial misstep on the grizzly trophy hunt; that he will strengthen his well-intended and welcome initiative by listening to the criticisms it has elicited and acting accordingly to address them.

      If he doesn’t do that, it will add further fuel to the Liberals’ anti-PR campaign. It could sink that initiative altogether, as it also undermines today’s growing public support for Horgan’s NDP government. Particularly in rural communities.

      Liberals living in ridings outside Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria should be very concerned with the ways they and their communities will be impacted. Both by the referendum on PR and by that new electoral system, if it is ever implemented.

      Virtually any model of PR would mean much larger ridings, each with multiple representatives, and reduced representation in the legislature for those living beyond Hope.

      Proportional representation is all about ensuring parties' proportional representation in the legislature reflects the ratio of votes they receive provincewide.

      It does the opposite of the Liberals’ own leadership vote process, which discounts “rep by pop” to guarantee equal voting power for each constituency, thereby overweighting representation for ridings in the North, the Interior, and Vancouver Island with lower populations.

      PR flips that on its head, by translating each vote equally—as far as possible—into seats in the legislature that are distributed in proportion to the number of votes each party receives in total, across the entire province.

      While that might be arguably fairer or more “representative”—depending on how one defines that term—it would most certainly impact rural representation in the legislature in unwanted ways.

      All those Liberals casting leadership ballots need to think about that in determining who they really need to lead them, at this critical juncture.

      They need to fully realize the gravity of the challenge at hand and what is required to meet it, instead of leaping over the strategic issue that is literally a life-and-death proposition for their party and its future electoral success.

      In the next two installments in this series, I will assess who can and cannot fit that bill.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at