It may have been Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver who is responsible for a referendum on electoral reform being held, but it was NDP Premier John Horgan who was called upon to defend it Thursday night, November 8 in a televised debate.
And while he may have scored points with some of the best laugh lines, he was often on the ropes when Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson repeatedly challenged him to tell voters how many ridings and MLAs there will be under proportional representation (PR) – something Horgan was unable to do.
Thursday night’s televised debate was prompted when Wilkinson challenged Horgan to debate him on electoral reform more than a month ago.
B.C. voters by now should have received mail-in ballots. The ballots must be mailed back in time to meet a November 30 deadline, which is when all the ballots must be received by Elections BC.
They are asked to vote to either stick with the current first-past-the-post system, or choose one of three variants of PR.
The problem, Wilkinson said, is that no one knows what the ridings will look like or how many MLAs they will have in their new ridings. That will be decided afterwards. Wilkinson said people are being asked to endorse a new system that has "23 unknown features" to it that will only be decided afterwards.
"People are getting confused by this ballot, which is why the turnout is now 2.5%, because people are not sure what to do with this dog's breakfast of abbreviations," Wilkinson said.
The abbreviations in question are: DMP (dual member proportional), MMP (mixed member proportional) and RUP (rural-urban proportional representation). Two of them – DMP and RUP – have never been tried anywhere.
Horgan countered: "It's a simple question – this or that."
Horgn said many of the unanswered questions will be decided by the electoral boundary commission, to which Wilkinson countered that many of the questions will, in fact, be decided by an all-party committee chosen by Horgan.
Wilkinson said a simple yes or no question on a single PR system, chosen by a citizens assembly, should have been the referendum question.
“We have three systems, two of which no one has ever heard of before, which Mr. Horgan is putting forward with very limited information, hoping that you won’t ask too many questions,” Wilkinson said. “Because don’t forget – he’s in charge of the results after you vote. He gets to fill in all the blanks, and it puzzles me why he’s not filling those blanks (in) tonight.”
Horgan said he thinks PR will address voter apathy, especially among young voters who may feel their votes don't count.
"I believe proportional representation will open up politics to a whole group of new people who have been tuned out and turned off by a system that makes their vote not count if they live, for example, in a strong Liberal area or a strong NDP area, they know they won't be able to elect someone under first-past-the-post.
"But if you have proportional representation, every single vote will count. That will increase participation, particularly among young people."
In a quip aimed at young voters, he said "If you were woke, you'd know PR is lit."
It was one of two laugh lines that Horgan scored. The other was when Wilkinson kept talking while Horgan was trying to answer a question.
"I think at this point in the evening, people are saying, 'If I'm just going to listen to one guy yell over top of the other guy, I'm going to go watch Wheel of Fortune,'" he quipped.
The referendum has been widely criticized not so much on the fundamentals of PR, but on the way in which it is being conducted. Even some supporters of proportional representation have criticized the way the NDP government has gone about structuring the referendum and the three variants of PR.
It has been criticized for setting the bar for success too low. Unlike the 2009 referendum on a single transferable vote (STV), the bar to pass has been set much lower – 50% plus one, compared to 60% for STV.
And unlike STV, in which voters knew what electoral boundaries would look like, and how MLAs they would have, voters won’t know what the new system will even look like until after they have approved the change.
Wilkinson repeatedly challenged Horgan to tell voters how many ridings and MLAs voters will have, if they vote for PR.
"We don't know, and you're not prepared to tell us, what the change is that you're after," Wilkinson said. "How many votes, premier, how many MLAs will we have and how will votes be distributed?"
Horgan did not answer the question, but responded by defending PR as a system that most other democracies use. Canada is one of the few countries still using FPTP.
"Dozens and dozens of progressive countries around the world use proportional representation to select stable, progressive governments, and the world did not come to an end," Horgan said. "There wasn't mass confusion, there wasn't chaos – there was good government. And that happens because every vote counts."
Wilkinson later again pressed Horgan.
"Let's try another one," Wilkinson said. "How many MLAs will they get?"
But when Horgan was trying to respond, he cut him off by saying, "You know the answer. Why don't you tell us?"
"I don't know the answer," Horgan responded.
The biggest criticism of the current FPTP system is that a party can win a majority without winning the majority of the popular vote. Horgan pointed to a number of recent examples in Canada.
"In Quebec, 37% of the vote made 100% of the power," Horgan said. "In Ontario, 40% of the vote, 100% of the power. And in New Brunswick – explain this to people – the party that got 38% of the vote got fewer seats than the party that had 32% of the vote. That's first-past-the-post. The telegraph used to work – I don't think we need to keep using it. Let's get modern."
Wilkinson raised the spectre of fringe parties proliferating under PR based on ethnic, religious and geographic special interests, as well as the prospect of more minority governments and more frequent elections.
Horgan responded that extremism can flourish under FPTP too.
"Extremism is in our system right now," he said. "In the United States, first-past-the-post system, we've seen a shocking rise of extremism."
The vote on electoral reform was one of the conditions established by the Green Party in a governing agreement that allowed the NDP to form government, despite having won fewer seats than the Liberals. The Green Party is the one that would benefit most from PR. In the last provincial election, had some form of PR been in place, the Green Party would have won 15 seats, not the three that they won under FPTP.
According to a new Insights West poll released Friday November 9, British Columbians are evenly split on the question. A survey of 814 British Columbians found 42% favour a change to PR, 41% favour the current system and 17% are undecided.