What you need to know about the upcoming referendum that could change the nature of Canadian politics
Christine Beyleveldt, Editor-in-Chief
Illustrated by Andrea Alcaraz
The 2017 provincial election was by all means a historic one. When the votes were counted the night of May 8, it appeared that a tie would emerge between Liberal Leader and incumbent Premier Christy Clark, who had held the seat of power since 2011, and NDP Leader John Horgan. After the count, the NDP received 41 seats out of 87 and the Liberals 43, which would have been enough to hold a minority government if it weren’t for the three seats held by Andrew Weaver and the Green Party. For the first time ever, the party was placed in a position to form a coalition and choose the next premier. Ultimately, the Greens sided with Horgan and the NDP, giving the party a one-seat advantage over the Liberals and power in the legislature. If it weren’t for the NDP-Green coalition, under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system used to determine outcomes of elections, the Liberals would have continued to make the decisions in the legislature, despite having only received approximately 40 per cent of the popular vote.
“[FPTP] works well with a two party system because the party that wins is automatically going to end up with the majority of the vote. The problem is we haven’t had a two party system in Canada for over 100 years,” said Fair Vote President Gisela Ruckert. Fair Vote is a grassroots non-partisan organization run mainly by volunteers that advocates for electoral reform in Canada. “Every election in BC … we’ve had a party that wins a minority of the vote winning a majority of the seats. There [have] only been two exceptions to that.” Those exceptions were in 2001, when the BC Liberals won 97 per cent of the seats in the legislature with 57 per cent of the votes, and again last year when the Horgan-Weaver duo took control of the legislature.
On the campaign trail, Horgan and Weaver both promised electoral reform if they came to power. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also vaguely promised electoral reform on his path to the House of Commons in 2015. Trudeau promised that if he were elected, the 2015 federal election would be the last under FPTP. “He used the phrase very often that ‘we’re going to make every vote count’,” said Ruckert. It won’t be the last federal election under FPTP though. In 2019 when Canadians decide whether or not Trudeau remains Prime Minister, their votes will be counted under FPTP, the same system that gave the Trudeau Liberals just under 55 per cent of the seats in the house, although his party received less than 40 per cent of the vote. The referendum in BC was proposed by the NDP, though the Greens originally wanted proportional representation to be taken to the legislature.
The most recent federal election isn’t the first example of FPTP continuing to decide the composition of the Canadian government on all levels. In 2005 and in 2009 the citizens of British Columbia voted on provincial electoral reform, and both times FPTP reigned. The BC Liberals made electoral reform a key component of their campaign leading up to the 2005 election, and won 77 out of 79 seats in the legislature with less than 60 per cent of the vote. When electoral reform was put to the ballot later that year, a supermajority – 60 per cent of the popular vote or more and over 50 per cent in every riding in the province – was required to put electoral reform into action. The referendum received just under 58 per cent of the vote province wide, which was not enough to push reform through the legislature.
“The other different thing about this referendum was that before the government had always taken a completely neutral stance in the referendum, whereas this government has taken a pro stance in the referendum,” said Capilano Students’ Union (CSU) Vice President External Noah Berson. Berson is also an elected member of the Alliance of BC Students (ABCS) and leading a vote campaign to inform students of the options that will be presented to them on the ballot. Previously, politicians wouldn’t have offered up their stance on the issue of electoral reform, but this time voters are seeing parties coming out either in favour of or in opposition to reform.
The upcoming referendum will take place by postal ballot between Oct. 22 and Nov. 30. The ballot will consist of two parts proposed by Attorney General and MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, David Eby. The first part will ask British Columbians which system should be used for provincial elections. Voters will be able to choose to continue having their ballots counted under FPTP or choose to switch to proportional representation. If voters opt in favour of proportional representation, the second part of the ballot presents three options – Dual Member, Mixed Member and Rural Urban, all various forms of proportional representation.
“Dual member is a system that is Canadian designed. If you like a simple ballot – a relatively simple ballot that doesn’t change riding boundaries as much as possible – then you might like that system.” said Ruckert. Under a Dual Member system – one of the options for proportional representation that most closely resembles FPTP – each party can put up for election up to two candidates and two neighbouring ridings merge and jointly elect two MLAs. “The primary candidate would win if that party receives the most votes and the secondary candidate is not likely to be elected under our current system,” added Ruckert. The second MLA is likely to belong to a different political party.
Mixed Member, Ruckert noted, is for voters who want a “tried and true” system. “The term ‘mixed’ refers to local and regional MLAs,” said Ruckert. Every riding would elect one local and several regional MLAs, and voters end up with a team of MLAs from different parties. Riding sizes would be increased, for example the North Shore’s four ridings would amalgamate into two larger ridings, each represented by one MLA and two proportional MLAs to represent the region as a whole. Unlike the Dual Member system, voters would be able to rank their candidates in order of their preference, although if your desired candidate doesn’t win in your riding, your vote might still go to someone else in the province.
Under a Rural Urban system, two different systems would be used in different areas of the province. In Rural areas as it stands, ridings are large swaths of the province consisting of numerous communities separated geographically. Meanwhile Urban ridings are individual communities made up of voters with their own internal divisions. “This system offers maximum flexibility to respond to the needs and population densities across the province,” said Ruckert. Rural areas would use a Mixed Member system and elect one rural MLA and several regional MLAs. Urban ridings on the other hand would use a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which was put to referendum in 2005 and 2009. Under STV, Urban voters would elect between two and seven candidates to represent larger ridings such as the entirety of the North Shore. Voters would rank their preferred candidates on the ballot. If their first choice of candidate fails to get elected, their second choice in candidate would receive their vote and so on.
“We’re really focusing on question one because question two is a moot point. Unless 50 per cent of voters plus one choose to support proportional representation in question one, whatever people come up with in question two is completely irrelevant,” said Ruckert. “Our position is that any of the three systems proposed would be preferable to what we have now because we’ve taken into account the feedback the Attorney General got during one of the largest consultation processes in British Columbia’s history,” she added. In the year since the NDP came to power in BC, over 90,000 people were polled for their stance on electoral reform. The results, released in September, indicated that BC residents were deeply divided on the issue. According to CBC News, one third of the 800 people polled in the Angus Reid Institute’s online poll conducted from Sept. 10-14 were undecided on the issue.
“The other thing that I think is important to point out is that voters would have a chance to weigh in on the system after two electoral cycles,” said Ruckert. “There would be a confirmatory election using the new system where we’d have a chance to evaluate the choice, and if we don’t find it’s working very well we can change to or go back. It’s not carved in stone.”
However, where there is indecision among voters there is also opposition. Former Attorney General Suzanne Anton, who leads the No BC Proportional Representation Society, stated that citizens have faith in the current system. Many critics suggest the concept is too complicated for most voters to understand. Indeed, when Eby proposed the referendum in May, the CBC reported that it “might be too much for voters to unpack”. The Vancouver Sun reported on Aug. 28 that the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), a lobby group representing 2,300 BC companies, had petitioned the BC courts to stop the referendum on grounds that it was too complex a decision to be put to a hasty vote. Justice Miriam Gropper struck down the petition.
In a press release, ICBA noted that it “feels very strongly that the NDP government shouldn’t be allowed to present the public with very confusing questions rigged to promote a vote in favour of proportional representation and to prevent the public from getting the information it needs to make an informed decision.” Furthermore, in a Sept. 13 release, ICBA continued that they believe British Columbians deserve “robust debate” and that the flaw is that proportional representation is being unduly rushed to the ballot.
“I think a lot of the challenge, especially on university campuses, is that folks don’t know what’s happening,” said Berson. He added that a lot of students might go home and receive their referendum package in the mail and not necessarily know what to do with it. A lot of packages accidentally get recycled or people vote along the same lines as their parents without understanding the options laid out before them, which illustrates the opposition’s stance that the ballot may be confusing to some voters. “The majority of students at Capilano haven’t been fairly represented by First Past the Post,” said Berson. “We want to make sure students vote for the best option for them[selves] in the referendum.”
Whether or not the process is being rushed, the decision is being put to voters instead of being discussed behind closed doors in the legislature, and British Columbians will have a chance to make their voices heard.