BC Liberal "fear mongering" over electoral reform draws fire

Party to argue Yes vote on proportional representation means lack of accountability, government instability and rise of extremist groups

B.C. Liberal talking points for party MLAs urging a “No” vote in the upcoming proportional representation (PR) referendum are “fear-mongering,” “distortions and absolute fabrications,” a former University of Victoria political science professor said Oct. 4.

“What we have here is a deeply cynical approach by the Liberals to take advantage of voter ignorance,” said Dennis Pilon, now a professor at Toronto’s York University.

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According to an internal Liberal document, the Liberals intend to stick to four key allegations about the mail-in referendum (Oct.22-Nov.30) and its three proposed PR systems, claiming that some MLAs will not be more accountable to their party than to their riding; that there will be more government instability with more elections; that extremist groups will win seats; and that the BC NDP crafted an unfair referendum process.

“It was an opportunity to ensure all of our team members have an opportunity to speak to their communities,” explained Michael Lee, Liberal MLA for Vancouver-Langara.

To drive their points home, the Liberals will highlight instances where coalition governments are formed in “political backrooms” by politicians who are chosen from party lists and who “don’t even need to live in your riding.”

Former Liberal MLA Suzanne Anton, who is campaigning against the referendum, said while some MLAs do not live in their ridings (she didn’t) under the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, they nevertheless maintain close ties to them (in 2013 former Premier Christy Clark, a Vancouver resident, was parachuted into Kelowna West, for instance). Under PR, many more MLAs will not be “local,” said Anton.

The Liberals intend to cite Italy, Greece and Belgium as countries that have had “unstable” governments under PR, with frequent elections (the document claims Italy has had an election every year since WWII, though it has only had 19, with 65 coalitions). Frequent elections inherently lead to “short-term planning only,” according to the Liberals.

NDP Minister of Education Rob Fleming accused the Liberals of engaging in rhetoric, singling out Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson as having “degraded the debate to the point of being ridiculous.”

Wilkinson and NDP leader John Horgan were unavailable for comment.

Fleming said New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavian governments using PR “have had stable governments for decades.

“This is all about their self-interest as a party rather than what is good for British Columbia,” said Fleming. “I think British Columbians deserve a more honest debate.”

But Lee said the New Democrats have created a “flawed process.”

The Liberals intend to argue the BC NDP and BC Green Party politicians made “unfair” referendum rules in secret. Specifically, they will highlight that the referendum does not require a minimum number of voters and that it can pass with 50% plus one vote.

Lee argued such a fundamental change to the democratic system requires a higher threshold than the existing voting system, not unlike constitutional changes.

Pilon said the threshold isn’t something the NDP and Greens invented. Switzerland, New Zealand, Ireland and United Kingdom all have held referendums under such provisions, he added.

Moreover, Pilon argued, it was the Liberals who imposed a so-called “super majority,” or significantly higher threshold, in the 2005 and 2009 electoral referendums, out of partisan concerns.

That method, Pilon said, was motivated by political expediency, with Gordon Campbell kowtowing to rural backbenchers fearing the loss of their seats under PR.

Also part of the Liberals’ strategy are claims there is a “stacked deck” and the referendum is a “rigged game.”

Lee noted an online public questionnaire lasted just three months and over last holiday season. Furthermore the PR systems cited in the questionnaire did not end up in the final proposal from Attorney General David Eby, said Lee.

“We’re quite concerned this government hasn’t properly engaged British Columbians,” said Lee, adding, “it’s a failing that many British Columbians aren’t aware of this referendum.”

At the root of such concerns is the belief PR is being proposed by the government to “lock” the NDP and Greens into power, according to the document.

Pilon suggested under the existing FPTP system the same theory has actually been realized, just on the opposite partisan spectrum; there have been 24 B.C. elections since a left-leaning party appeared in 1933 and the left has won four, he said.

Pilon’s research shows that in Germany and New Zealand parties from both sides of the political spectrum have been elected under PR.

Contrary to the Liberal talking points, Pilon said, PR provides accurate representations of party voter strength and potentially higher voter turnouts and delivers majority governments representing a majority of voters.

He contended PR allows for cooperation across parties, plausibly creates for more transparent government and delivers better voter diversity representation.

The current system, Pilon said, is “a dictatorship of a minority of voters.”

The Liberals will also play on fears rural areas will be underrepresented by PR.

A map in the document paints an image of a province with 10 large ridings under PR instead of the current 87.

Pilon said the Liberals are suggesting parties could dominate super ridings under a new system. He dismissed that notion, saying people’s political persuasions are not region-dependent.

The Liberals also intend to claim an anti-immigration party controls New Zealand while in Germany a far-right party claimed more than 90 seats in the government. MLAs may note B.C. has 27 registered parties.

Pilon dismisses the notion a change would lead to a rise in extremist parties holding seats.

“If a small party is too demanding, they are punished in the next election,” Pilon said.

He said arguments that fringe groups might be allowed to participate in elections “are an insult to democracy,” and that people making the effort to vote for parties with policies they want to see realized “is the check on extremism.”

Another talking point will be the ballot, which appears in the Liberal document, suggesting – as has been previously argued on social media by Fort Langley-Aldergrove MLA Rich Coleman – that it is confusing and problematic.

“That’s where the government will have to respond with people to help people,” Pilon said. “If Rich is saying it’s confusing, get to work.”

The Liberals will be asking people to sign up against PR on their party’s website, as well as donate to the party.


The three proposals

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 are 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 technical unknowns similar to DMP’s, as well as the need to figure out whether each party will rank its candidates ahead of an election or voters will 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.

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