By Andrew Frank
British Columbians have an opportunity to try out a new proportional representation electoral system, risk-free, for two elections.
If you didn’t tune into last Thursday’s debate on electoral reform, don’t worry, you didn’t miss much: two old white guys yelling over each other, trying to score political points.
More than anything, it was a powerful testament to how badly our province needs to adopt a voting system based on proportional representation. This is because our current voting system produces polarizing debates like the one we saw on Thursday night, and a dysfunctional system of seesaw governments in which political parties take turns throwing each other out of office and undoing each other’s policies. It’s a zero-sum, winner takes all system that isn’t doing much good for anyone.
Contrast this with a country like New Zealand—very similar to Canada in many ways—which adopted proportional representation in the 1990s. Today, New Zealand’s coalition government consists of parties from across the political spectrum. In forming government, these parties have had to consult with each other and make compromises on important issues ranging from farmers’ rights and immigration policy, to climate change and cannabis legalization. They now share governance, with ministry roles in finance, foreign affairs, and environment going to members of the different political parties.
Imagine a B.C. coalition government where the minister of finance might be a Conservative with extensive business experience, the minister of health could be a Liberal with impressive medical credentials, the minister of environment could be a Green with a PhD in climate science, and the minister of jobs and trade might be a former labour relations negotiator from the NDP. The end result would be a government that better represented the values and interests of a larger number of British Columbians, and made better use of the wide expertise of our citizens who choose to run for politics.
Proportional representation isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Political parties will still disagree and we’ll have important and heated debates as a society about the things we care about, as we should. What will change, however, is the fact that we will need to find a way forward together. This is a good thing, because for all of our differences, we also share a lot of common sense, and in places that use proportional representation, policies that make common sense tend to become non-partisan.
For example, renewable energy is not a partisan issue in Germany. The vast majority of Germans support it, and as a result, Germany has become the world’s first major renewable energy economy, with almost half of all renewable energy production owned by German citizens themselves. A recent 2017 national survey showed that 95 percent of Germans support further expanding renewable energy. All of this happened because a coalition government was elected through proportional representation in the 1990s, and it created a national renewable energy policy that has been carried on by all governments since then, regardless of political stripe.
Even for the issues on which we disagree strongly, proportional representation can offer us better government. For example, in the South Okanagan, where I’m originally from, citizens who are both for and against a proposed national park have felt underrepresented by their provincial and/or federal representatives. People feel like their voices are not being heard. Under a proportional-representation system, there would be multiple MLAs representing each electoral region, and both opponents and supporters of the park could elect representatives who would carry their voices to the provincial legislature.
There is one group that thinks it won’t benefit from proportional representation: those who are already powerful. Financial donors to the No side include government lobbyists and the wealthy elites who employ them. These are the people who prefer things the way they are. The idea of citizens having more control over the political system scares them. More political power to citizens means more control over the things that affect our lives, including taxes, housing, wages, healthcare, resource revenues, you name it.
At the end of the day, proportional representation means that if you earn 30 percent of the vote, you get 30 percent of the seats, and 30 percent of the power. It’s that simple. It also means citizens will be motivated to create new political parties representing issues that matter to them. This means we will have more political choices to choose from, and while we might not agree with each other’s politics, we can strongly agree on each other’s right to better representation.
When proportional representation was brought to a referendum vote in New Zealand, many politicians were opposed to the new system because they feared the unknown. After the system was adopted in 1996, many changed their position, preferring the new system for the same reason citizens liked it: improved dialogue, transparency, and consultation between political parties and the public. Subsequently, a strong majority of New Zealanders voted again in 2011 to keep the system.
Today, the B.C. government is offering us a risk-free, two-election trial of a new system, meaning that if we don’t like it after two elections, we will have the opportunity to go back to the way things were through a second referendum. What do we have to lose?
The next time someone tells you to vote “no” to proportional representation, ask yourself what’s in it for them. In the meantime, do yourself a favour by voting today and mailing in your ballot before the November 30 deadline. This is a chance to give yourself more power over the things that matter to you, regardless of your politics.
For more information on the referendum on electoral reform, visit Elections B.C.