Martyn Brown: A day in the life of PR—I’d love to turn you on

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      Thursday, March 1: a day in the life of the NDP’s skewed process to adopt proportional representation (PR).

      I read the government news release today, oh boy.

      “British Columbia’s public engagement, to help shape the referendum on how B.C. votes, wrapped up Feb. 28, 2018, with more input collected than in any public engagement in the province’s history...

      "180,880 people visited the How We Vote public engagement website between Nov. 23, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2018, spending on average 14 minutes on the site.

      "88,547 British Columbians completed the online questionnaire.”

      Translation: PR—we’d love to turn you on.

      Except that you would have to be high as an effing kite to accept those numbers at face value.

      Because website “visits” do not equate to individual “people”, only how many times all people clicked on the “engagement” website.

      I visited that site several times. Were my multiple visits dishonestly characterized in that new release as having each been made by a different person?

      I imagine so.

      Same goes for the number of “British Columbians” that supposedly completed the government’s stacked questionnaire.

      I challenge Attorney General David Eby to prove that the numbers suggested of either those completed questionnaires or visits to the website were made from individual citizens.

      How many of them were even made through computers with unique IP addresses? Enquiring minds want to know.

      It is no small thing, given the legitimacy that the government hopes to confer on its hopelessly compromised public engagement process, which is so central to legitimizing its innately conflicted referendum process.

      And that pisses me off, because it is creating a serious obstacle for adopting any form of PR—a reform that I am inclined to support, depending on the model. And only if the process is independently managed and is truly beyond reproach, neither of which is presently the case, with the partisan Eby as its supposedly nonpartisan, neutral director.

      This “little slip” in mischaracterizing the results of the engagement process is only the latest example of a deeply flawed process that is undermining the NDP’s otherwise laudable initiative to give all voters a direct say on a different electoral model for deciding how their votes should count.

      Enough with the spin, already.

      Enough with the silly charade that pretends the premier’s chief legal adviser—who serves at his pleasure in cabinet, who sits in the NDP caucus, and who personally campaigned on a promise to bring in proportional representation—can ever be an independent guardian of a fair and impartial referendum process.

      He can’t. And if he won’t finally admit that, Premier John Horgan must. Immediately.

      The clock is rapidly ticking, with barely half a year to go before the referendum campaign begins.

      That isn’t much time to do what must be done, given the enormity of the information, research, technical, and communications challenge at hand. It is a challenge that is directly compounded by the number of models of PR that might be put to a vote.

      It’s time to take the whole enterprise out of the politicians’ self-interested, partisan hands.

      Horgan needs to put it under a truly neutral and independent authority, as he should have done in the first place.

      On that point, if nothing else, there is widespread agreement from friends and foes of PR alike.

      As PR proponent Fair Voting B.C. recommended in its submission, Elections B.C. should “have principal responsibility for communicating with the public about the referendum and for overseeing preparation of materials to be distributed to the public…”

      It should further “be responsible for setting up any arm’s-length bodies needed in the overall process (e.g., a Commission, a Citizens’ Review panel, a Citizens’ Jury, etc.)”.

      The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives made a similar plea:

      “In order for British Columbians to have maximum confidence that political parties are not biasing the referendum process, we recommend that Elections BC assemble a ‘Citizens’ Jury’ or ‘Citizen Panel’, made up of volunteers randomly selected from across the province, and empower this group to make some key final decisions.

      “Specifically, this citizen group should: Have final sign off on the system choices and wording of the ballot.”

      After an extensive face-to-face engagement process, the federal Special Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform came to a similar conclusion, before Justin Trudeau broke his election promise and tubed that initiative.

      It recommended “that Elections Canada should produce and make available to the public materials describing any option, including maps depicting potential electoral district boundaries applicable under that option and sample ballot design, prior to the start of the referendum campaign period.” [Emphasis added.]

      Nothing will sink PR faster than an innately biased process that provides easy fodder for the critics of PR to legitimately attack as reason enough to vote No.

      If the government is so stupid as to ignore what it has heard from so many proponents and opponents of PR alike on who should run the process, likely no one would be happier than the (no website) No BC Proportional Representation Society and its three directors.

      As it said in its written submission, “We also respectfully disagree with your own statement: ‘The Attorney General will serve as a neutral arbiter throughout the process to ensure the referendum is conducted fairly and in accordance with B.C. law’."

      I dare say that Bill Tieleman might feel his mission to once again kill PR will be that much easier if Horgan is so foolish as to keep Eby in the driver’s seat and reject his group’s appeal to let Elections B.C. run the show.

      God knows, I do not see eye-to-eye with Tieleman on the supposed risks of PR, which largely come down to an underlying fear of minority governments versus majority governments.

      My concerns on that point have largely been allayed by the encouraging example of the GreeNDP alliance and by all that I’ve read about the significant advantages of minority and coalition governments that I had previously discounted, mostly out of ignorance.

      Tieleman fears that PR would encourage and empower extremist right-wing fringe parties, such as have recently come to the fore in Austria and are vying for new power in Italy and elsewhere.

      That’s a red herring, I’d say, given the huge differences that are driving those populist parties in those very different political cultures and economies.

      Italy, for example, has been an economic basket case, with all sorts of socioeconomic pressures that are not applicable in British Columbia.

      Like so many European countries, it has been massively challenged by the African refugee crisis, which has unleashed an ugly anti-immigration backlash that it is not at all relevant in British Columbia.

      Italy has one of the most complicated, convoluted electoral systems on the planet. It is not a model that anyone is seriously suggesting for PR in B.C.

      Its version of the mixed member proportional model uses a “closed list” system that would never fly in BC. It allocates a portion of its senate seats to “members for life”, for former presidents of the Republic and others, which defeats the purpose of PR.

      Italy also has a bicameral legislature comprising a Chamber of Deputies, with 630 members and a Senate, with 315 members, as compared to B.C.’s 87 elected legislators.

      In other words, its lower house has over six times as many members as B.C.’s legislative assembly, for a country that is only one-third the geographic size of our province.

      The comparison is apples and oranges, as are most of the other comparisons with other countries that are used to whip up public anxiety about PR, as if our own electoral system is not also rife with shortcomings.

      The reality is, without a massive increase in the number of MLAs, or an electoral redistribution that makes B.C.’s already whopping-large rural ridings much larger still, no system of PR will ever mirror what is happening in countries like Italy.

      There simply wouldn’t be enough seats to proportionately distribute to a bunch of tiny, fringe parties, in the way that Tieleman or others might fear.

      Especially if some sort of open list, mixed member plurality (MMP) model, or a variant of the single transferable vote (STV) were adopted.

      Realistically, the thresholds for electing members would have to be set a bit higher in B.C. than what PR purists might prefer, with at least over five percent of the popular vote needed to win any seats in the legislature. I expect even that threshold would be challenging.

      It’s a debatable point, for sure, and one that opponents and proponents of PR can haggle over.

      Proportional representation doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in rural representation, according to Fair Voting B.C.

      My purpose here is not to argue for any particular model of PR as a preferable alternative to our existing first-past-the-post system.

      My interest in PR isn’t remotely concerned with which party it might ultimately favour.

      Tieleman argues it might backfire on the left, given the age-old belief that 60 percent of B.C. voters support “free enterprise” parties. He points out that if PR had been in place years ago, none of the majority NDP governments would have ever been elected, overwhelmed as they would have been by the majority of split votes supporting right-wing parties.

      That might be. Though the times they are a-changing. Millenials tend to be much more environmentally conscious. They and Gen-Xers tend to be more progressive. And as time marches on, they will one day matter more than aging boomers who have historically tended to favour the Socreds and Liberals.

      Anyway, that’s really beside the point, if one accepts that PR is mostly aimed at better representing the pluralities of voters that align with various parties, instead of advantaging any one party, per se.

      To the extent that I am drawn to PR, it is mostly because of how it has worked around the world, albeit under very different circumstances, to better represent the full spectrum of political voices in those jurisdictions’ legislative bodies.

      By definition, proportional representation stands to more closely approximate a proportional distribution of seats to each of the parties’ share of the popular vote, above a certain threshold.

      It tends to result in minority governments and in coalition governments that are obliged to govern by consensus or through negotiated power-sharing arrangements.

      It tends to frustrate majority governments that instead give all power to a single party that only typically received a minority faction of the popular vote.

      Yet, all that aside, I agree with most of the No campaign’s submission on how to ensure a fairer process for making that democratic decision, by way of the referendum.

      I sure don’t agree with those who would deny British Columbians a vote on the actual model(s) of PR that are proposed, on how many seats it/they would entail, or how they would be geographically and politically distributed on the electoral map.

      The idea that people should only be allowed to vote on either keeping the existing FPTP system or embracing the concept of PR as an unspecified “pig-in-a-poke” for others to sort out after the vote is anathema to me.

      Don’t ask me to give anyone a blank cheque on deciding how my vote should specifically count.

      Don’t ask me to say "Yes" to an unspecified form of PR, which no one, including Elections B.C., should have any right to determine after the fact on my behalf.

      Nothing would destroy my tentative support for some form of MMP or potentially even STV like assigning the right to choose and design that or any other PR model to some “wiser body” under a referendum process that treats me like a trusting idiot.

      Actually, all that I ask is that Horgan keep his election promises on how any change to PR would transpire.

      This map shows which countries have proportional-representation systems.

      In large measure, what he said before the election is consistent with what the No campaign is recommending, process-wise. Surprising, perhaps, but true.

      Here’s what the Vancouver Sun  reported on Horgan’s interview with its editorial board during the election campaign:

      “B.C. voters previously rejected changing the electoral system in 2005 and 2009, but Horgan said he’d go back and re-evaluate that research to come up with one alternative proposal, which he’ll then campaign in favour of.” [Emphasis added.]

      “I’m going to put forward a solution whether it be another variation on STV or some other form of proportional representation, I’m going to campaign on it. And if it doesn’t succeed it won’t proceed”, Horgan said.

      I took his use of the "singular" as the heart of his promise: he would put forward a solution—singular —whether it be—singular—another variation on STV or some other form—singular—of proportional representation.

      Hell, even the NDP’s power-sharing agreement with the Greens mirrored that promise.

      It stated: “The parties agree that they will work together in good faith to consult British Columbians to determine the form of proportional representation that will be put to a referendum.”

      Enough with the games. Keep your promise, John.

      We know that the NDP really only wants some form of MMP, while the Green party likely favours some form of STV.

      Dispense with the b.s. that would have British Columbians believe any other option for PR is really seriously on the table.

      It’s not.

      Choose one of those models, or perhaps both of them. Make them real in terms of their implications for the number and distribution of seats. And put them to a vote. Period.

      As it is, it would be tough enough to credibly educate the public on even one of those models in the six months-plus remaining until the referendum campaign likely starts. Doubling that information challenge would be harder still, but not impossible.

      But more than that? Not bloody likely. And it would be virtually impossible to do, supported with draft electoral boundaries that show how each model would materially apply in proportionately representing voters’ wishes.

      Horgan was also interviewed by Fair Vote Canada during the campaign.

      He said this: “If we’re successful in May, our plan would be to set up an all-party committee to hear from citizens and formulate a referendum question at the conclusion of that process.”

      That never happened. It was a broken promise.

      It still could be another alternative for developing the ballot question.

      A better alternative would be to take that task out of the hands of self-interested partisans, starting by removing it from the jealous clutches of the attorney general—who also has way more on his plate than any normal mortal can easily handle.

      Clearly, the most appropriate option is to ask an independent authority such as Elections B.C. to develop that question(s), as several proponents of PR have suggested, with clear guidance from the government on the model(s) it is prepared to contemplate.

      Horgan went on to promise this to Fair Vote Canada:

      “Once we establish the referendum question, we’d establish the threshold and this would be part of our consultation process… The amending formula for our Constitution, for example, requires approval by seven provinces with 50 per cent of Canada’s population. So, it is an absolute 50 per cent, but it has to include seven provinces… This amending formula is similar to the kind of formula we’d need for a plebiscite on changing how we elect people in BC.”

      I applauded that commitment then, as I also insist that Horgan honour it now.

      Eby’s referendum bill broke that promise.

      It included no provision for ensuring that in addition to 50 percent + one support, PR would also require that a majority of regions endorse that change.

      That flaw, under Eby’s anything-but-neutral hand, has been widely and properly lambasted. (Read this, this, or this.)

      Horgan should keep his word and fix the new law, to at least guarantee that one or two highly populated regions are not theoretically able to decide a new electoral model for the entire province.

      I am not saying that the 2005, 2009 referendum thresholds that the No campaign supports should necessarily apply. Indeed, I agree, in retrospect, they were a tad too onerous.

      But if the government’s “engagement” process is anything more than window dressing, Horgan must listen to what was really said by so many voters, beyond that woefully lacking website for public “input”.

      British Columbians want a truly neutral process, administered by a truly neutral and independent authority.

      They want a fair process.

      One that recognizes the concerns of rural communities and ensures that any move to PR is broadly supported by the entire populace it purports to better proportionally represent.

      One that equally funds the Yes and No campaigns and that isn’t skewed with a ballot question crafted by partisans that does a disservice to our democracy.

      They want a transparent process, adequately informed by unbiased educational materials and by a clear understanding of how PR will impact B.C.’s electoral map and its legislature.

      The song goes on. PR could be so good for B.C. if it’s properly pursued.

      I’d love to turn you on. Cue the final chord.

      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, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at