B.C.’s electoral reform referendum a seriously flawed initiative

There is nothing more fundamental to democracy than free elections and the rules by which our legislative representatives are chosen. Changing this system is a serious undertaking – one that demands meaningful public engagement, clear alternatives that people can easily understand and a voting process that ensures the collective voice of British Columbians is heard.

The upcoming provincial referendum on electoral reform falls short of meeting these basic criteria.

To begin with, the ballot question is muddled. The referendum consists of a two-part question. Voters first indicate their preference for either retaining the current first past the post (FPTP) electoral system or moving to some type of proportional representation (PR) system. The second part asks them to select one or rank three different models of PR. When filling out their ballots, voters can answer both questions or just one. They could choose to retain the current system and not indicate a preference for any of the three listed PR models (discussed further below). Alternatively, they could stick with FPTP but still go on to select one of the PR systems – or even rank the three PR proposals.

One of the PR options – dual member proportional representation – was “invented” by a mathematics student from the University of Alberta a few years ago. It is completely untested, having never been implemented anywhere in the world.

A second option is a mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system, which combines FPTP (the current system) with some yet-to-be-determined form of regional representation. Even the most basic elements of how the system would work are not outlined. With certain models of MMP, voters cast two separate ballots (one for a district candidate and one for a party), while in others a single vote for a candidate also counts as a vote for the candidate’s party. The Elections BC website states that if MMP is adopted, “a legislative committee will decide after the referendum if voters have one vote or two.” So, even supporters of MMP won’t really know what they are getting.

The third PR model is a rural-urban proportional hybrid. It’s even more complex, combining two different voting systems: the single transferable vote (STV) and an MMP system. The two are used independently in a few jurisdictions, but nowhere else have they been combined into a single voting system. Many readers will recall that British Columbians rejected the STV in a 2009 referendum.

Apart from the flawed design of the referendum question, there are other reasons to worry about the implications of shifting to a PR-based electoral system. For one thing, experience in other countries suggests it is likely to encourage political fragmentation, with several more parties virtually certain to secure representation in the legislature. This will make majority governments a thing of the past and lead to greater political and policy instability – something that could well have a dampening effect on capital formation, business confidence and incentives for long-term entrepreneurial wealth creation. Over time, PR may also inject more extremist sentiments into our politics, as seen in several European countries with PR systems where neo-fascist, anti-immigrant and communist/hard-left parties often have a place in national parliaments.

Today in Canada, the major political parties are “big tents,” containing a number of different viewpoints. Under PR, the parties are likely to become more narrowly based. That will make governing harder and political debates more strident.

Also of concern is the absence of a minimum threshold in the referendum. Imagine that only 30% to 40% of eligible voters correctly fill out and then mail in their ballots – an entirely plausible scenario. In that case, the existing electoral system could be abandoned based on the judgments of just 15% to 20% of British Columbians. Worse still, because of the awkward two-stage structure of the referendum question, an even smaller fraction of voters could determine which specific PR model the province ends up with.

A final thought: voters may want to reflect on the fact that Canada’s political and legal institutions, including our electoral system, are seen around the world as having served the country very well, delivering effective government, a generally stable policy environment and minimal levels of political corruption. Against that backdrop, why take a “leap of faith” on a radically different electoral system, one that’s almost guaranteed to produce greater policy uncertainty, heightened political fractiousness and more frequent elections?

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist.

Please note that the above opinions are our own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Business Council of BC or its members