Debate weighs hopes, fears for proportional representation in B.C.

Opponents highlight fears that proposed electoral overhaul could hand power to extremist parties

Bill Tieleman, president of No BC Proportional Representation Society, speaks at a debate on proportional representation at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, mediated by Wallace Chan of Fairchild Radio and Hayley Woodin of Business in Vancouver | Megan Devlin/Richmond News

As the referendum on proportional representation approaches, opponents of sweeping changes to B.C.'s electoral system are raising fears that the proposed changes could have serious unintended consequences.

At a roiling September 20 public debate on proportional representation at Richmond’s Kwantlen Polytechnic University, ahead of the mail-in referendum (October 22 to November 30), a panel discussed the referendum process and how the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) or proposed proportional representation (PR) systems may affect the economy, voter turnout and political representation — such as an expected rise in the number of parties, including extreme ones, under PR.

Businessman, philanthropist and ex-Vancouver city councillor Tung Chan, a native of Hong Kong, has been a vocal opponent of ditching FPTP, fearing PR would give a political foothold to extremist and anti-immigrant parties. He asked a panel of proponents if any of the proposed systems could guarantee such parties don’t hold a balance of power.

Maria Dobrinskaya and Amandeep Singh, spokespersons for the Vote PR BC society, offered no such assurances but noted a FPTP system doesn’t either, citing the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump, who gained power via the electoral college system.

Meanwhile, BC Green Party member Anton van Walraven, a Dutch immigrant who lives on Bowen Island, said it had not been the experience of the Netherlands to have extremists gain any power in that country’s long-established PR system.

Bill Tieleman, president of No BC Proportional Representation Society, cited the rise of far-right parties in several European countries, including in Sweden, where the far-right Sweden Democrats have become the third-largest party in the Rikstag (Sweden has had its PR system for over 100 years).

Singh argued any rise in extremism is more symptomatic of geopolitics and culture and is a “reality in the world.”

Dobrinskaya and Singh argued that while a PR system does put fringe and one-issue parties in a parliament, it sheds more light on such societal trends.

Notably, should PR be chosen by British Columbians, parties must obtain 5% of the popular vote to qualify for seats in Victoria.

The debate kicked off with opening speeches by MLA Andrew Weaver, leader of the BC Green Party, which would stand to gain seats in the Legislature under PR, and MLA Jas Johal, of the BC Liberals, a right-of-centre coalition that could theoretically lose support to fringe parties from both ends of its spectrum.

The two proposed differing views on how PR and FPTP can offer sound governance for business and society.

“Proportional representation means less stability and more elections,” said Johal, citing Israel's having never attained a majority government.

“Some of them [Israeli parties] are single-issue or religious parties who have dictated the agenda,” he said.

Johal said business is better served by FPTP, citing the Greens' vow to topple the government should the NDP expand production of liquified natural gas.

But Weaver noted when changes do occur under FPTP, it leads to “pendulum swings” and an overhaul of the bureaucracy.

“That’s not good for the public service; that’s not good for democracy,” Weaver said.

At the panel, Dobrinskaya said economies work well regardless of the electoral system.

A main goal of hers is voter engagement and turnout, which is proven to rise under PR systems.

Audience member Vincent Chiu, a Richmond resident and Green Party member, asked how PR would affect voter turnout.

Dobrinskaya said people don’t vote in stronghold ridings because their ballot “doesn’t count.”

Singh argued people also vote strategically, “plugging your nose,” in swing ridings under FPTP.

However, “if turnout is your thing let’s make mandatory voting the first thing to do,” Tieleman said.

Another key complaint from the No side is the referendum process, noted former BC Liberal Attorney General Suzanne Anton, director of No BC Proportional Representation Society, who claims it was rushed and people are not educated enough about the PR proposals.

Anton cited concerns about local representation under PR.

“Our position is you should be voting for people,” she said.

“Are you going to be accountable to the district or are you going to be accountable to the party that put you there?” asked Anton, referencing the proposed PR systems that will see candidates who do not necessarily garner the most votes placed in the Legislature to balance seats to the popular vote.

The debate did not focus on the merits of the three proposed systems, all of which maintain local candidates elected under FPTP principles:

First, dual member proportional (DMP) would see two ridings become one and maintain one MLA voted in under FPTP while a second MLA would be chosen by a formula to balance the popular vote. DMP would maintain some of the existing large, rural ridings with FPTP, mitigating concerns about local representation.

How many rural ridings are maintained is yet to be determined. Also yet to be determined is the new boundaries and formula to determine the second candidates – a common criticism of the No side. Following the referendum a binding non-partisan committee as well as Elections BC and the Electoral Boundaries Commission is to iron out such details.

Second, mixed member proportional (MMP) would likely see larger ridings than DMP. A “region” would have a minimum of 60% of MLAs elected by FPTP and the rest determined by a party’s list of candidates.

It has similar technical unknowns as DMP, as well as the need to figure out if each party ranks its candidates ahead of an election, or if voters determine the rankings. Dobrinskaya indicated there’s widespread support for having the voters choose.

A third system is called rural-urban proportional (RUP), which will see rural ridings use MMP and more urban ones use a ranked ballot called single transferable vote (STV). Because the urban ridings are not likely to achieve exact proportionality, the rural ridings will absorb candidates from party lists.

Again, details on what ridings are rural are to be determined.

Should voters choose PR by mail-in ballot, a referendum after two elections will ask if people want to back to traditional FPTP.

“It’s not a pair of shoes you return to the store; it’s democracy,” shouted one audience member.