Last week, the Ontario Progressive Conservatives won a majority government, receiving 40.5 per cent of the vote, 61.3 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power.
It was a classic example of a first-past-the-post victory: the last two federal elections also saw majority governments emerging from receiving just shy of 40 per cent of the vote.
The result has launched a familiar round of consternation about the urgent need to reform the electoral system to more accurately represent the desires of voters (something that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blithely promised to do but, well, we all know how that ended).
But this fall, British Columbians will actually have a shot at channelling such frustrations through a referendum that could radically overhaul how provincial elections are won and lost.
“We have an appetite for change, with Justin Trudeau outright lying to the public by saying ‘we want to make sure every vote counts’ and then not following through on that,” Keith Poore, president of Fair Vote Vancouver, told The Narwhal.
With such wild swings between governments in B.C., Poore said, there’s a growing appetite to strike a better electoral balance.
B.C. NDP-Green agreement a foretaste of proportional representation
Poore is right: B.C. has been having weird elections.
The most recent election saw the BC Liberal party actually gain a fraction more votes than the NDP, leading the NDP to strike an agreement with the province’s three elected Green MLAs to form government — an outcome far more reminiscent of an election using proportional representation, which creates more opportunities for minority governments, alliances and compromise.
In the 1996 election, the NDP under Glen Clark actually won a majority while receiving less votes than the BC Liberals. A few years later, in 2001, the NDP was dramatically reduced to just two seats in B.C.’s parliament.
That 2001 election represented the only B.C. election in the last 50 years where a party received 50 per cent or more of the vote, Laurel Collins, political sociology instructor at the University of Victoria, told The Narwhal.
“[This] means for every other election more than half the people who voted did not want the party in power to govern,” Collins, co-host of ShawTV’s program BC Referendum 2018: Are You Voting for Change, said.
“The B.C. NDP and the B.C. Greens have been demonstrating that effective governance is not only feasible in a minority government, but that better policy emerges when parties have to come to the table together.”
Seth Klein, the B.C. director of the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, said critics like to say this collaborate nature of proportional representation creates unsteady politics.
“There’s this narrative among the naysayers of proportional representation that it’ll always result in minority governments and they’re inherently unstable and they can’t get anything done,” Klein said.
“Well, I actually think most British Columbians are looking at this minority experience and thinking it’s pretty good.”
Proportional systems are used in more than 90 countries, Collins said, pointing out more than 80 per cent of OECD countries, including Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark, use some form of proportional representation.
Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. are the main holdouts, she said.
Under B.C.’s current first-past-the-post system, voters in 87 voting districts across the province elect a single representative from one party to represent them in the legislature.
“A proportional system would mean that the percentage of seats a party has in the legislature would reflect the percentage of the vote that that party got in the election,” Collins said.
“Right now our current electoral system tends to give parties who win with less than 50 per cent of the overall vote 100 per cent of the power. In a proportional system if you win 40 per cent of the votes you get 40 per cent of the seats.”
But there’s more than one way to do proportional representation — it’s essentially a family that contains an assortment of systems with unsexy, multi-letter acronyms like Single Transferable Vote (STV), Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) and List PR.
In B.C.’s upcoming referendum, you get to pick your flavour of proportional representation, which means it’s like a choose your own adventure brought to life.
You choose: Three customized proportional systems for B.C.
Recently, B.C.’s attorney general David Eby released his report on how the proportional representation referendum ought to be handled. It was the first glimpse at how government is likely to put the electoral reform question to the public.
Eby recommended voters be asked two questions.
The first question will ask the base question of whether voters want to stick with first-past-the-post or move to a proportional representation system.
A second question will ask those in favour of proportional representation to pick one of three potential systems.
There will be mixed member proportional (used in Germany, New Zealand and Scotland), rural-urban proportional (which combines single transferable vote in the cities and towns with mixed member proportional in the rural areas to maintain local representation) and dual member proportional (a curious system that hasn’t been implemented anywhere and many experts haven’t even heard of).
While there are differences between the three, with the rural-urban proportional working harder to ensure that northern B.C. ridings don’t get too large, they all feature the same basic principle: making every vote count equally.
“All three of these systems are going to lead to broadly similar results,” UBC political science professor Stewart Prest said. “The distinction between that and first-past-the-post is much greater.”
The pros and cons of first-past-the-post
The main message that you’ll find electoral reform experts emphasizing again and again (and again) is that each electoral system comes with trade offs.
Many are aware of the downsides of “majoritarian” systems like first-past-the-post or instant runoff voting: it creates “false majorities,” prevents smaller parties from gaining traction and can breed resentment and alienation amongst the populace if they feel their voice isn’t being heard and their votes don’t actually count.
But Daniel Westlake, political science professor at the University of Victoria, told The Narwhal that such systems do come with upsides as well.
For one, they can provide what he called “very clean lines of accountability” in which voters know which party to blame or reward for policy decisions. In the current B.C. situation, the NDP can always blame the Greens for failures, while the Greens can similarly blame the NDP.
Another potential incidental benefit of a system like first-past-the-post is that it increases the influence of any group that’s geographically concentrated in one area. Westlake said that ethnic minorities and immigrants tend to be concentrated in particular ridings. (This of course depends on how the ridings are actually drawn up, which raises the risk of gerrymandering.)
“There’s strong incentive in that kind of system for parties to pay careful attention to what immigrants and ethnic minorities want,” Westlake said. “In a proportional system, you don’t have particular ridings that you need to win in order to win government.”
Of course, there are a wide range of political attitudes among minority communities that one can’t easily homogenize.
But by benefitting geographically concentrated groups, a system like first-past-the-post decreases the influence of groups that aren’t concentrated. Think of supporters of strong environmental policies or gender equality or residents in what Prest called “yellow dog ridings” — places so politically monolithic a party could literally run a yellow dog and win.
“There are certain parts of the province where elections are effectively fought and large portions of the province where there are a diversity of opinions and we just don’t see the political debate take place,” he said. “The bus or the plane never stops there. Politics becomes a spectator sport for a portion of the population.”
“Fundamentally, from a civic participation point of view in having everyone feel like they’re part of their democracy, I don’t think that’s ideal,” he added.
Collins said a change in the way B.C. conducts elections has the potential to reinvigorate the voting public’s interest in politics.
“In proportional systems, no matter what your vote counts towards electing someone from a party that represents your values and priorities,” she said.
“In our current system, close to half of all voters cast their votes and those votes elect no one. Especially for people who might want to vote for smaller parties, whose support is not geographically concentrated, proportional representation gives them a reason to take part in electoral politics.”
Proportional representation reflects northern tendency to collaborate
Shannon McPhail, executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, said she’s a supporter of proportional representation primarily because it forces parties to work together.
“That is something in the north that we have to do all the time,” McPhail told The Narwhal. “The reason we have to collaborate all the time is because in small communities, you don’t get to ignore the people you have issues with. They’re your doctor or your nurse or your child’s teacher or your mechanic. We have to work things out.”
Compare that to a majority government in a first-past-the-post system, in which parties can launch a policy blitz for four years without any concern for what other parties think.
Klein of the CCPA suggested this often results in policy lurches from government to government: think of Ontario premier-delegate Doug Ford’s announcement to cancel the carbon pricing system that was only introduced in 2013.
Prest said a shift to proportional representation would also impact campaigns, with parties spending less time slamming each other and exaggerating minor difference.
With all that said, B.C. has already had two electoral reform referendums in recent years — and both failed.
The first one, in 2005, actually had majority support but fell just short of the 60 per cent threshold (this time, the threshold is a simple majority).
The second one, in 2009, fared far worse and only garnered 39 per cent of the vote — something which experts suggests was associated with a lack of non-partisan educational efforts.
But with the Ontario election fresh in everyone’s mind and a B.C. government actively forced to collaborate, advocates of proportional representation are feeling hopeful that this third time will be the charm.
Collins said governments elected under proportional systems on average out perform winner-take-all systems when it comes to environmental performance. They also decrease income inequality and result in higher voter turnout, higher satisfaction with democracy and more women elected.
“Switching to a more proportional system could have profound effects on how our government makes decisions, including about natural resource projects,” she said.
McPhail said she believes a re-engagement in the political system will actually benefit the work of conservation groups.
“We believe that when people are healthy and wealthy enough to make a living and pay their bills, the environment wins,” McPhail said. “Let’s develop the kind of economy that we can all be proud of — and that happens when governments and citizens collaborate.”
With files from Carol Linnitt.