Matt Toner: Electoral-reform foes are strange bedfellows

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      I was surprised to wake up last week to discover that British Columbia is at risk of being beset by fascist hordes, separatists, and extremists of every stripe and persuasion. And all it will take is a successful “yes” vote on electoral reform this year—a measure currently supported by 57 percent of British Columbians, incidentally—and the gates of this political hellscape will yawn wide.

      That vision is brought to you not by John of Patmos but by our province’s own Bill Tieleman.

      You have to give Bill credit: he’s been fighting the good fight on this issue since antiquity, and he approaches it with genuine evangelical zeal. And Tieleman has seen no little success in years past, getting the lion’s share of the credit for narrowly defeating electoral-reform referenda in 2005 and, more convincingly, in 2009. 

      So it’s no surprise that this time around he is quick to the starting line. Before the province’s new minority government even had a chance to congeal, Tieleman was in the press painting a sudden move toward electoral reform as being of questionable legitimacy. And, to be fair, he wasn’t entirely wrong. 

      Electoral reform is absolutely a decision that should be put to the people through a formal mechanism such as a referendum. It’s a big question and one that cuts to the very heart of how we feel our democracy must function: should policies be mediated through the filter of large, dominant parties or via a series of compromises among smaller, better defined players? 

      In our opening stanza, the B.C. Greens were a little too ready to put aside that formality, something that made those of us who cared about the integrity of democratic reform a little queasy. But now that the B.C. NDP minority government is in place and slowly slouching its way toward a mail-in ballot this fall, Tieleman is moving on to step two. 

      Judging by his pronouncements in various media, step two is apparently creating an environment of deep unease. The "fascist" example is one that springs quickly to Tieleman’s lips these days, as he believes that any voting system that awards a small party five percent of the seats (because they received five percent of the vote) is one ripe for hostage-taking by undesirable elements. 

      He is fond of pointing to Austria as an example of proportional representation gone wrong, but it’s also quite possible that Austria just has a neo-Nazi problem that is independent of their electoral system. The socioeconomic and historical conditions that exist in that country are unique and are certainly no good proxy for the reality of British Columbia today.

      Tieleman needs to remember this: every society has its share of bad actors, and our first-past-the-post system (FPTP) does not immunize us in any way from their influence. Right now, for example, the Conservative government in the United Kingdom is being propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. Have a read of their origins and present policy positions: these people aren’t great examples of humanity. But they are thriving as a political force under a FPTP system.

      This is a reminder to us all: such people do not set aside their drive to power just because there isn’t a niche party that fits them as snugly as, say, a nice pair of khakis and a crisp white polo shirt. They, instead, cover up their rougher edges as best they can and hide behind the skirts of established, respectable parties. Such people target—with varying degrees of success—every political party in Canada.  Even mine.

      As no one seems to be taking the bait on the “Nazis in the bushes” gambit, last week Tieleman moved on to step three: forming a coalition with Suzanne Anton. If you want the appearance of a “big tent” movement, such an alliance makes a certain sense: "Here are people from the left and the right that have come together to oppose this dangerous idea.” 

      But that presupposes that the ideology of “left” and “right” is the only axis available to us—or even a worthwhile frame of reference. You could just as easily—and perhaps more accurately—make the case that the real division here is between political outsiders who want change and political insiders who understand and have prospered under the FPTP system. 

      In that light, both Tieleman and Anton’s backgrounds make for instructive reading. Politics really does make for strange bedfellows.

      The two have formed the “No B.C. Proportional Representation Society”. Catchy name aside, they hope to be able to make the case for a resounding “no” vote, stopping electoral reform in its tracks yet again. As best I can tell, their arguments against a switch toward a system based on proportional representation—and my rebuttals—are as follows:

      PR is too complicated  This sounds like a profound underestimation of the electorate. Citizens in Vancouver, for example, already use a more complex ballot than that found in FPTP elections, as will those members of the B.C. Liberal party who chose to vote in their upcoming leadership contest—as do any number of teenagers completing quizzes on Facebook. Heck, fans voting for the upcoming NBA all-star game deal with a more complex multiround system and seem to have mastered its intricacies. But if we’re still flummoxed, we can always get the Kiwis to explain it to us.

      PR results in candidates controlled by party bosses.  This, again, sounds rather scary, but—like the boogeyman—it is a fear easily dismissed. Both Tieleman and Anton skate past the very obvious point that we can simply opt for a proportional-representation system with what are called “open” party lists: people can see the party’s slate and decide if it is made up of the right kind of people, with the sort of diversity that voters prefer. This transparency would be a powerful disincentive for parties to load their slate in an uneven fashion.

      The FPTP model has produced stability and prosperity.  This is a case of correlation not equalling causality. There are plenty of stable and prosperous countries that operate under some system of proportional representation. And, on the other end of the spectrum, China also has plenty of both without being thought of as a beacon of democracy. Voting systems are intended to translate the will of the people into political action: whether that yields prosperity or not is another question entirely. Heck, even Bill agrees with me here.

      If you want cooperation, there is nothing preventing parties from cooperating in FPTP.  They just choose not to  Again, we’re skating past the obvious truth that in the Canadian experience this is the exception rather than the rule. In practice, political parties can win decisive majorities with well below 50 percent of the votes cast. Once they have done so, there is no incentive to cooperate with other parties, which are left to twist in the wind until the next election. The winner takes all.

      But if people want to change under FPTP, they can just vote their representatives out.  Under the FPTP system, elections have become what George Bush the Younger referred to as an “accountability moment” followed by four years where the people’s voice is truly silenced. While that is also true under a system based on proportional representation, the active presence of smaller parties and the necessity of alliance-building make it more likely that we will not have the sort of “government by fiat” that is common practice today.

      Does all of this sound like I’m down on Tieleman?  I suppose it does, but really I’m more irked by the tactics he has chosen to open with. It feels like the lazy haymaker thrown by a reigning champion overly confident of another victory. 

      I don’t think that’s going to be the case this time around.

      Our province really does need a robust debate on the issue of electoral reform, one where people are fully informed and understand what the possible outcomes will actually mean to their lives. There are good arguments to be made in favour of FPTP and legitimate criticisms of PR-based systems. I’m looking forward to hearing them and, in the second part of this article, offering the counterpoints in turn. 


      Matt Toner is the former Vancouver-based deputy leader of the B.C. Green party.  In 2013, he ran for the B.C. NDP against Sam Sullivan in the riding of Vancouver-False Creek.