Martyn Brown: The one thing Christy Clark and John Horgan should agree upon

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      The lure of power is a powerful thing.

      Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberals seem quite prepared to do anything they must to keep the power they’ve got. And John Horgan’s New Democrats are so hungry for power, it is anyone’s guess what concessions they are prepared to make to get it.

      One thing they should all agree upon is this: they will not allow their lust for power to impose an unspecified new electoral system on the 83 percent of voters who did not vote for it.

      Not without their express prior approval, by way of a referendum.

      Both would-be governing parties should agree and commit, right now, that any proposed change to the system that determines how our votes count must be first put to a direct vote of the people who would be bound by it.

      The Liberals and New Democrats must make it clear to Andrew Weaver’s tiny three-person Green caucus that they, too, have at least one common “deal-breaker”. One that is not on the table and that will not be compromised by Weaver’s own pursuit of power.

      It is called respect for democracy and for the right of self-determination in giving all citizens a direct say on any proposed new system of proportional representation (PR) that the parties might support or oppose in their own partisan interests.

      Cue the hisses, boos, and catcalls from the Greens and the Fair Vote Canada crowd.

      I know from my past writings on this subject that many of them regard my position as heretical.

      There is no other way to put it: they fear the people.

      They fear that the voters would reject PR and would choose to stick with the status quo, if given a direct choice on the matter, as they have time and time again in Canada.

      For Weaver’s Greens, any attempt to make our voting system “fairer” by mandating a fair vote prior to the adoption of the electoral system they want, is a risk too great, if only because that vote might be too democratic. 

      Because when all is said and done, they fear that the people can’t be trusted to do the right thing in their own interests.


      Because those self-serving, partisan-know-it-alls deeply suspect that the majority of voters who they purport to speak for are probably too stupid to endorse whatever system of PR is ultimately put before them. 

      Because the system of PR that the Greens want—but have not specified—might be "too complicated" for most voters to “intelligently” cast a ballot on its merits.

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      Let's be honest, Andrew.

      What you and your party really fears is that we poor, politically unsophisticated plebs might too well understand the downsides of the proposed new system of PR that the Greens and others think is best for us. 

      And that that knowledge, and its related concerns, might lead us to actually oppose that new system you think is best for B.C.

      Which is why, in your eyes, direct democracy is so dangerous.

      What you really fear is us losing your religion on PR, to the extent that we embraced it in the first place.

      For Weaver’s PR warriors, the ends justify the means.

      Just as the federal Green party advocated, the B.C. Greens think that the “unrepresentative” and “unfair” system that elected their three MLAs should be exploited, just this once.

      They hope to directly impose their favoured system of PR on the people, at least initially, through a simple vote of the supposedly representative legislature. Because for them, that’s democracy: sometimes you have to deny it, to make it work as it should and would, as long as voters are not allowed to directly decide that question.

      How the Greens can reconcile that hypocritical stance is beyond me, as someone who actually supports their objective of PR, in theory.

      After all, the very words “proportional representation” are their own winning argument.

      On the surface, it is hard to argue against the idea of an electoral system that more proportionately translates the percentage of votes that parties receive into their “fair share” of seats in any parliament.

      OK, so it doesn’t tend to result in very stable governments.

      Experience in jurisdictions that have some form of PR shows that it typically leads to minority governments comprised of coalitions of multiple parties.

      Any such system tends to encourage and reward more parties, in contrast to the first-past-the-post (FPP) system we have used throughout Canada for the past 150 years.

      For the Greens and other proponents of PR, that’s the point.

      It is to prevent any party winning a mere plurality of votes from forming a majority government, and to make all minority governments creatures of “compromise”, as Andrew Weaver puts it.

      It is to allow ideologies to tailor their offerings through multiple parties.

      It is to give them new power to decide after each election how to trade-off and negotiate their platform proposals, to make even the most minor parties disproportionately powerful in the likely event of a minority government.

      It is to give those parties a disproportionate influence over government policy, in exchange for their support in controlling the balance of power. You know, as a check against the power held by the parties earning the greatest number of votes.

      As we are seeing in the situation unfolding before our eyes, even three members can have a lot of clout in an 87-member legislature, if no party controls the majority.

      In that sense, proportional representation can produce the opposite.

      Even one member holding the balance of power might be accorded the power of disproportional representation: the power to drive his or her party’s agenda, whether or not it supported or rejected by most voters.

      PR around the world: Green is where politicians are elected by party list, red is mixed majoritarian, orange is mixed-member proportional, and blue is single transferable vote.

      Back to our future.

      Clark and Horgan are understandably both walking on eggshells, trying their best to curry Weaver’s favour.

      They are doing nothing to openly disabuse either him or us that they might be actually open to imposing some form of PR without a referendum, with or without a vote on it after the fact.

      It is extortion, pure and simple, on the Greens’ part: give us what we demand, or we will throw our three votes and the right to govern that goes with them, to your arch nemesis.

      Agree to PR as we demand, whatever that might be, democracy be damned. Or we just might support the other guys, if they are as weak and unprincipled as we hope they are.

      How pathetic.

      In the name of replacing a system that is supposedly unrepresentative and not fairly reflective of each party’s level of electoral support, the Greens want to abuse the disproportionate power they now enjoy, as a result of that flawed system, to subvert the will of the overwhelming majority.

      As the leader of a party that is rightly committed to democratically advancing the goal of PR, Horgan in particular should answer that “ball-breaker” demand by growing a pair, as it were.

      He should clearly say to all British Columbians that he will not waiver on his party’s pledge to let the people directly decide whether to embrace or reject a new method for choosing our representatives, not the politicians. 

      If we are to adopt a new electoral system of PR, as the NDP proposes, it should be with the overt support of the people, not through a process that inherently lacks legitimacy.

      We all know why the Greens really want that new system of PR.

      Whatever its broader merits, which are considerable, it is first and foremost because it would guarantee them more seats and more ongoing influence than they typically have under our current system.

      It may be a better system, depending on the model.

      But it is also a power grab that the perennially underrepresented parties understandably support, to the extent that it promises to work for them.

      As things stand in the preliminary voting results, less than 17 percent of the electorate voted for the B.C. Green party that ran on a commitment to “Introduce a proportional voting system in time for the 2021 provincial general election.”

      Just under 40 percent voted for the NDP that ran on a commitment to “hold a referendum on changing our voting system to a proportional system, so that every vote counts. We’ll ensure BC’s regions are all represented fairly. And, we will campaign for the yes side.”

      And nearly 41 percent voted for Liberals and others who, for the most part, ran on a plan to stick with our current voting system.

      Fact is, none of the parties ran for any specific model of PR, not even the Greens.

      Yet two parties, with a combined vote of about 57 percent, did run on a commitment to either bring in some form of PR or to at least fight to introduce it with the support of a majority of B.C. voters. Horgan said that 50 percent plus one would meet that threshold.

      Fine. I agree with that goal.

      And I wholeheartedly support the NDP’s approach, which need not be inconsistent with the Greens’ platform commitment, if they honour it democratically.

      This video explains how the single transferable vote would have functioned in B.C. had it been approved by 60 percent of British Columbians in the last referendum on this topic.

      Indeed, I would support a system of PR that is put in place with the express will of the people who it is intended to serve, a mixed-member proportional system, in particular.

      Perhaps even the B.C. Liberals could be persuaded to let the people once again decide this question.

      If the Greens really believe in the values they hold out as the reason for wanting to adopt some unspecified system of PR, they should not fear the voters.

      On the contrary, they should put their faith in the wisdom of the people to decide for themselves the type of voting system that they feel is in their own best interests.

      The last thing the Greens or any party should be doing is trying to deny people that right to vote on how their votes should count—even more bizarrely, in the name of making their future votes count for more than they supposedly today.

      Let’s do this.

      Let’s agree on a process and a timeline to yet again review the different models of PR that are available and to put one or more of them to a vote either prior to the next provincial election, or in tandem with that vote.

      And let’s remember, the devil is in the details.

      What model of PR, specifically, are we even talking about?

      Some variant of party list PR? Would that be a closed list system, an open list system, a local list system, or a two-tier compensatory list system?

      Would we opt for the single transferable vote? Or maybe mixed-member proportional representation? Or asset voting? Or reweighted range voting?

      No? How about biproportional apportionment? Or dual member PR?

      Decisions, decisions. The choices are many.

      Whatever model is recommended as being better than what we have today, we should have at least some sense of what we are talking about before we are asked to vote on it, let alone before it is adopted.

      To say it is complicated is an understatement.

      The different models for PR are often vastly different and would produce very different electoral outcomes for we, the people.

      That should matter to all of us, even if we are only asked to contemplate one of them as a recommended alternative to our current system.

      How would we ensure our democratic choices are proportionately reflected in the make-up of who we elect to represent us in the legislature?

      Would we be bound by the Macanese D’Hondt method of apportioning our votes into the seats that each party receives?

      Or by the Sainte-Lague method, perhaps? Or instead by the LR-Droop method, or the straight D’Hondt method, or the LR-Imperiali method?

      Mathematician André Sainte-Laguë came up with a system of proportional representation in 1911 that, according to his adherents, does not favour small parties or large parties.

      Each method is materially different in deciding who would get to go to Victoria in any future parliament we might elect.

      You can bet that the parties will give a damn about those options, as they might affect their relative political fortunes.

      The NDP and Green party might not find it quite so easy to agree on the “right” model of PR, when all is said and done.

      Voters, too, might have reservations about the size and shape of their constituencies, as any model of PR effectively forces a redrawing of B.C.’s electoral map, and a tectonic shift in the parties’ roles in deciding who gets to go to Victoria.

      How many members are we in favour of electing in each constituency to make any model of PR work? Three to five? Six or more?

      What thresholds and magnitudes should apply to elect any members and how would they be set?

      How would the votes cast be “proportionally” translated into seats filled by party candidates and by the party’s designated “winners”? How would that be determined—provincewide, by district, or by party?

      The point is, the goal of PR is one thing. The means for achieving it is quite another, from the method of adopting it, to the specific model of that voting method that would newly purport to bind us all.

      Any move to embrace a new electoral system without a prior direct vote of the people should be a nonstarter.

      It should be a deal-breaker for any truly responsible government.

      Selling out the people by imposing some unspecified system of PR via a simple majority vote in the legislature, as the Greens alone are advocating, should not be on the table.

      We should advance the goal of PR as the NDP has suggested, through that arcane and sometimes frustrating process known as direct democracy.

      Anything less would lack legitimacy.

      It would be an abdication of responsibility, no matter how anxious either the NDP or the B.C. Liberals might be to gain the Greens’ support in forming a government.

      If we are to embrace PR, as we perhaps well should, we should do it with the explicit confidence of the people.

      The experience in New Zealand showed that voters can and should be trusted to make their own decisions on how their votes should count.

      Voters in that country were asked if they wished to adopt and to retain that new electoral model of proportional representation.

      They said yes. Not once. Not twice. But three times, over the course of the last 25 years.

      Democracy works best when it puts trust in the people, instead of in the hands of untrusting politicians who have their own partisan agendas and mostly fear the voters’ verdicts at the ballot box. 

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor 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, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at