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Progressives must rally behind the STV-PR referendum in BC

Canadian Politics

On election day this May, B.C. voters will decide whether to adopt a form of proportional representation. B.C.’s right-wing Liberal government did the unthinkable and created a Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly chosen body with participants from across the province that would look critically at the voting system and make a recommendation about possibly changing it.

The CA was a pretty good model of deliberative democracy. Participants had a chance to study different voting systems, discuss and debate their effects amongst themselves, and hear from experts, activists and average citizens in public hearings held across the province. In the end, they did recommend a change to a form of PR called the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Given the recent groundswell of support for PR from the B.C. NDP, the labour movement, the Greens, the women’s movements and many others, the recommendation should have a lot of support.

But the STV proposal appears to be falling flat. None of the major PR-supporting constituencies on the Left appear to be gearing up for the uphill referendum fight to get the change implemented. Meanwhile, the media and a host of NDP and Socred party hacks are trashing STV publicly every chance they get – people like David Schreck and Bill Tieleman for the NDP and former Socred cabinet minister Jim Neilson for the Right. Without some organizational support, the STV proposal is doomed to fail because the public will not understand how it works or why it is needed. And, given that the change requires a super-majority – a 60-per-cent majority vote province-wide, combined with simple majorities in at least 60 per cent of the 79 ridings – success will be difficult.

The problem for the Left’s PR supporters in B.C. would appear to be that the CA chose the “wrong” form of PR. Everyone knew that the choice would be between mixed-member proportional (MMP), a system used in Germany and New Zealand, and STV, a system used in Ireland and Australia (and in Canada, for a time, as well). Left parties and social movements wanted MMP because it has a track record of good proportionality for parties and improvements in the representation of women and marginalized groups. In practice, STV has had a more uneven record on both counts. Some on the Left appear to be suspicious of STV simply because it is popular with many on the Right. STV has struck a chord both with both the grassroots Right and with a less ideological mix of “anti-party” populists who prefer it because it grants the voter considerable influence over the person, as well as the parties, that get elected.

Soon after STV was chosen by the CA, muffled complaints about the process and result began to emerge from many quarters of the progressive community. Some claimed the CA process was rigged, or that members came under an undue amount of influence from STV supporters. Others claimed that STV was a right-wing plot to keep the Left out of power and that it wasn’t even PR. Feminists complained that STV would not improve the representation of women, given the results with the system in Ireland and Australia. And so on. On the other hand, observers spanning from left to right who paid close attention to the CA process have suggested it was fair and open-ended. If there is any solid evidence of funny business, no one has brought it forward.

The attitude amongst the PR Left in B.C. appears to be one of calculated indifference. They don’t want to get behind the STV-PR option, but they also don’t want to be seen to be condemning what is considered PR. So they plan to sit on their hands, perhaps with an eye to getting the PR system they really want in the future. But progressives in B.C. could be making a big mistake. If the history of voting system reform in B.C. and elsewhere is anything to go by, this may be the last opportunity to get PR in B.C. for a very, very long time. Critics of STV don’t seem to realize that this public vote will grant a degree of legitimacy to the voting system it has never had before, making challenges to it that much more difficult.

Nor are many of their criticisms of STV well founded. STV has led to significant gains for women in both Ireland and Australia, within the cultural and political constraints of those countries. STV can also be just as proportional as any other PR system, depending on how it is districted. If you have STV with small ridings (perhaps just three representatives in each) it won’t be proportional. If you have it with larger ridings (say, five to seven members in each) it will be. And this is true of any PR system, including the Left’s preferred MMP approach.

In fact, Quebec may be in the process of moving toward an MMP-style system, but PR supporters there complain that the current proposal is so gerrymandered it will only benefit the largest parties and offer precious little to smaller ones or those seeking improved diversity in representation. By contrast, the CA proposal calls for mostly larger ridings containing five to seven members, with smaller, three-seat ridings only in the north and some other rural ridings. Who will decide how many? The decisions will be made by independent boundary commissions, not government.

As forms of PR, MMP and STV both have strengths and weaknesses. But at this point the choice has been made in B.C. – it is STV that is on offer. Now the Left needs to reckon with the very good things that would come from the introduction of an STV-PR system, especially the end of the phoney majority governments that have tended to insulate politics and policy deliberation from organized public pressure. When we bring our ten thousand people to a legislature elected under STV, the likely coalition government will have to listen to them more than if the crowd faces a phoney majority government that our current system nearly always produces. This key change could also open up many other avenues of political organizing, beyond just electing a more representative legislature.

Breaking with our tradition of “elective dictatorship” is a change of decisive importance. If people don’t like STV, or think it needs tweaking to make it work better, it is much more likely that we’ll get to make such changes with a PR system in place. But that means we’ve got to win STV-PR now, not pin our hopes on another round in the future. People don’t appreciate how unusual this current opening to reform is; it’s not likely to come back again soon. This referendum is a historic opportunity that should not be missed.

Voting in a nutshell

Single Member Plurality (SMP)

This is the system currently used in B.C. Each riding elects one representative. The winner is the candidate that ends up with more votes than any other competitor. With two candidates in the running the victor will probably have a majority of the vote. If more than two candidates run, the vote can be split in a number of ways, allowing the victor to win with much less than half the votes cast. Multiply this result across all the ridings and you have election results that bear little relation to what people have voted for.

Party List Proportional Representation

This is the PR system used in most Scandinavian countries and in Israel. Here there are no local ridings to speak of and voters have little influence over the specific people elected to the legislature. The system is highly proportional, though, and has produced the highest levels of women’s representation amongst western countries. Lack of a local geographic element has meant that no one has seriously proposed it for Canadian elections.

Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)

Combines SMP with a top-up party list that makes the overall election results proportional. Elections take place in single-member ridings, much as they do presently. But besides marking a preference for a local candidate, voters mark a preference for a party vote. This party vote is then measured against the SMP results and, where parties are under-represented, they get to add members to the legislature off their party list, creating an overall proportional result.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

STV uses multi-member ridings (as do all PR systems) and a ballot where voters indicate their preference for different candidates by numbering them. In a five-seat riding, a winner would need approximately one fifth of the vote. Let’s say that candidate A is popular and actually wins two fifths of the first choices on the ballots. What this means is that she only really needs one half of every vote cast for her – the other half can be transferred to other candidates of her party. This is how STV creates a proportional result. STV is complicated, but Winnipeg and Calgary voters used it from 1920 to the 1960s, and had few problems understanding it or making it work. And today, with computer counting systems, the results are known just as quickly as with SMP voting.

Dennis Pilon is a member of CD’s Editorial Collective and author of Canada’s Democratic Deficit: Is Proportional Representation the Answer? (see http://www.socialjustice.org) and Renewing Canadian Democracy: Citizen Engagement in Voting System Reform Phase One: Lessons from Around the World (see http://www.lcc.gc.ca/en/ress/rr.asp).

This article appeared in the March/April 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .

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