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A West Coast Tbilisi?: Electoral Reform in BC

 Attending the November 2003 British Columbia New Democratic Party Leadership and Policy Convention with media credentials on the same weekend as the Georgian velvet revolution was quite poignant. Watching the NDP not only pick a new leader to confront Gordon Campbell in 17 months—but also deliberate over dozens of policy resolutions (including several on proportional representation)—reinforced for me the necessity of transforming BC’s electoral system from first-past-the-post (FPP) single-member plurality (SMP) to some form of proportional representation (PR), perhaps in the form of the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system operating successfully in New Zealand for ten years now. To fully appreciate the importance of electoral reform in BC, it is necessary to examine the purpose of electoral systems themselves. It is also critical to examine the merits of the FPP system and why they no longer serve our needs by examining New Zealand’s particular version of MMP, its inherent benefits, and how it can be applied in BC. Also valuable is examining various provincial and federal attempts to improve the electoral system: Free Your Vote’s BC campaign to force a PR referendum initiative, the BC NDP’s efforts to develop more explicit PR policy, the federal NDP’s introduction of an electoral reform referendum bill in the House of Commons, and the Campbell government’s Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. While examining the merits of MMP, it is also important to address its inadequacies and their possible remedies. Ultimately then, as the Georgians have taught us, we need to carefully examine our electoral system to ensure it consistently meets our expectations of democracy. If it does not, reform is essential.

 Electoral systems are designed to enact and reflect the fundamental principle of democracy that “political power should originate with the people rather than with those who rule” (O’Neill 2002, 263). These systems are also essential for contributing to a government’s legitimacy (269) by demonstrating that those elected actually represent the electorate in a meaningful way. Seeking legitimacy is why systems based on representation by population, with a roughly equal number of constituents in each riding, have primacy in bicameral government systems like in Canada (since only MPs can introduce money bills). In a relatively ancient world democracy consisting of fairly homogenous populations, and Whigs and Tories or Republicans and Democrats (the US presidential Electoral College notwithstanding), the FPP system can be appropriate. With two candidates vying for election in each riding, complicated MMP systems would be far more confusing than Florida’s dimpled chads. As well as confusing, more complicated systems would be unnecessary. The FPP system is also simple and quick to count: the candidate with the most votes wins. And long ago, before election results were uploaded to websites before ballot boxes closed on the west coast during federal elections, electoral systems that only took a day or two to count were advantageous.

 But the FPP system has shown glaring holes of inadequacy in recent decades, holes that become apparent by examining an MMP system. An MMP system like New Zealand’s can allow for geographical, representation by population government legitimacy while reflecting voters’ principles by allowing them to also vote for party representation in legislatures. Rod Donald, Green Party MP from New Zealand spent some time in BC this fall promoting electoral reform. BC and New Zealand share a number of similar traits. New Zealand’s population is virtually the same as BC’s (CIA 2003). It has experienced neo-liberal privatization of public assets as here.  It has a relationship with Australia similar to Canada’s relationship with the United States. It has a unicameral House of Representatives like our provincial unicameral Legislative Assembly. On his tour of BC, Donald explained how New Zealand experienced the same kind of skewed representation with parties acquiring legislative seats far out of proportion to their popular vote in the 1980s and radical policy swings with changing left and right governments as we have experienced in BC. New Zealand’s National Party government ruled from 1978 to 1984. Its leader, Robert Muldoon was an authoritarian within his party and treated opponents harshly (Vowles 2000, 681). Muldoon’s lack of popularity (similar to Gordon Campbell’s today) and skewed representation in the two elections that the National Party won meant that when the Labour Party won in 1984, they established a Royal Commission on the Electoral System, starting a process that resulted in New Zealand changing their electoral system in 1993, something Donald himself was partly responsible for (Warnica 2003). Their version of MMP has voters casting one vote for a constituency MP (an electorate seat) and another vote for the party they prefer (a list seat) (Elections New Zealand 2003) with a 5% threshold of popular vote (or the election of an electorate candidate) for a party to have proportional legislative representation based on the party-ranked list of candidates (Warnica 2003). If such a system were in BC in 2001, it would have excluded the Marijuana Party and the Unity Party (Elections BC 2001). This exclusion seems justified since parties that do not have wide enough appeal to garner 5% of the popular vote or an elected key candidate (because they are single-issue parties like Marijuana or they represent fringe interests) do not have sufficient credibility to justify their presence in the legislature.

 Establishing an MMP system has significant benefits. Compared to an FFP system, Donald argues that “MMP has meant less wasted votes, less adversarial government, better gender and racial representation, higher voter turnouts and more choices for New Zealand voters” (Warnica 2003). In fact, the New Zealand Labour Party, which currently governs, and the other major party, the National Party, each had at least six additional list seats added to the House in the 2002 election. Even more significant are the five other parties that won either zero or one electorate seat, that were granted an additional one to twelve list seats (Elections New Zealand 2002). Wasted votes cast for non-winning candidates or for parties that are not likely to win (Warnica 2003) detract from political participation. Wasted votes cast to strategically defeat a government or incumbent politician, or to contribute to creating a minority government would occur less often under MMP, thus potentially increasing political efficacy in the jurisdiction, reflected in higher voter turnout and increased political discussion in society in general. Also, women and aboriginals could see a marked increase in their level of representation in legislature (O’Neill 2002). Further, from a historical perspective, with increased literacy among the electorate and improved communications methods over the last century, there has been an increase in political participation, partially reflected in the increasing numbers of people forming political parties to compete with traditional parties. When Whips and Tories can no longer represent all political views, MMP appears to be a preferable model.

 Another feature of increased political participation in our culture over the decades has been the establishment of the political initiative to facilitate citizen-directed legislation. In 2002, a BC civil society group called Free Your Vote: A Citizen’s (sic) Initiative to Establish a Proportional Representation Electoral System in British Columbia, demonstrated such participation by trying to reform the electoral system to more effectively reflect the desires of an increasingly informed and assertive electorate. Even though they managed to accumulate only 46% of the signatures required to force the government to introduce (but not necessarily pass) PR legislation or “put it to a province wide initiative vote” (Free Your Vote 2003a), they did manage to accumulated over 98,000 signatures from across the province in only three months. They managed to exceed the minimum number of signatures required in each electoral district in nine of 79 ridings (Free Your Vote 2003b).

 Why did not more people sign up for the Free Your Vote initiative, though, if it has the potential to eradicate the polar swings of electoral extremity in BC apparent over the last 5 decades? Temporary weaknesses in the PR system may appear in two explanations for the initiative’s lack of success: an electorally punitive attitude in Canada, and ignorance about the complexities of PR. In Canada, perhaps citizens are used to the near or absolute decimation of political parties that have offended the population. The federal Tories were almost annihilated in 1993, as was Social Credit in BC in 1991. Perhaps citizens believe that bad parties need to be erased from public influence; the decimation is justified. Related is the idea that citizens, however, seem to be able to tolerate only a certain degree of distortion that the FPP system provides. Mulroney’s free trade win in 1988 without a majority popular vote was irksome, but not enough to cause any velvet revolution in Canada. The NDP victories in 1991 (41% of the popular vote with 68% of the seats (Elections BC 2000)) and 1996 (52% of seats with 38% of the popular vote (Warnica 2003)) demonstrated a similar degree of distortion, but the Campbell government win in 2001—98% of seats with only 58% of the popular vote (not to mention the New Brunswick Liberal 100% sweep in 1987 (O’Neill 2002, 277))—has moved the populace to a new level of action to address an unrepresentative electoral system, but not enough of the populace to ensure a victory for the Free Your Vote campaign. Likely, the public’s lack of understanding of PR systems limited the kind of viral word of mouth that the Free Your Vote campaign needed to meet its quota of signatures. People may be upset with skewed legislative representation, but they may not fully understand or grasp the value of alternative systems. Gerry Scott, Provincial Secretary of the BC NDP, stated that there was little understanding among his party membership in the late 1990s of PR systems and the need to address electoral reform (Scott 2003), which was perhaps why the NDP did not alter the electoral system before they left office in 2001. Perhaps too, the NDP did not change the system because of hubris: they had benefited from the electoral skewing when re-elected in 1996, so they may not have appreciated the value in possessing the legislative power to improve the electoral system while they were in office.

 The BC NDP today, however, are acutely aware of the feelings of being victimized by a skewed electoral system. At their November 2003 Leadership and Policy Convention they further reformed their party policy regarding proportional representation for when they regain government and in intervening years. While they had general plans to address electoral reform after concluding a report in the fall of 2001, they needed to operationalize those ideals. At their 2003 Convention, after moderate debate, the NDP passed by a vote of roughly 90-10% a PR resolution (J2003-03) with a number of specific features: to pursue PR as an election platform in 2005, to ensure that when they return to government they are inclusive in designing the PR system, to ensure there is not too much erosion of rural representation (if constituencies enlarge geographically with an MMP system, for instance) and the number of seats in the legislature, to ensure party representatives are chosen sensitively, and to also ensure a “fair and workable threshold for qualifying parties to receive proportional representation in the legislature” (BC NDP 2003).

 But still, within NDP convention delegates there was concern and some ignorance about the PR alternatives available. Perhaps related to the hubris factor were the self-serving arguments against PR in the debate points about how a PR system would have kept the BC NDP from being re-elected in 1996 and the Saskatchewan NDP from being re-elected recently. Significant debate ranged on either side of the topic of extreme parties getting representation after garnering an extremely small popular vote. Though the convention did not demonstrate a thorough understanding of the structure of PR alternatives and their benefits for BC, debate at least ceased when (allotted time expired after) Stephen Phillips, Langara College Political Science Chair and NDP Vancouver Langara constituency delegate, explained that statistically outlying examples of PR electoral systems in Israel and Italy with extreme party representation can be avoided with a minimum threshold of around 5% of the popular vote before a party gains a representative seat.

 As well as being difficult to not only sufficiently educate an electorate about PR before even implementing an MMP system but to also reject the entertainment value and vengeance-appeasing quality of an FPP system, an MMP system has other difficulties. Even if the electorate has understood the principle and mechanics of MMP, voting is still somewhat confusing with voters having to vote for a constituency representative and a party preference for proportional weighting. However, we can learn from New Zealand’s efforts to educate its electorate. Beyond extensive web-based information for the population, they have developed a youth-targeted magazine called Active Voices that explains the value of democracy, the MMP process and the significance of voter participation, especially among youth. The magazine even has a section aimed at increasing participation in those currently too young to vote (Evans and Ryan). Further, though decreasing the possibility of draconian legislation from a party with an obscenely large majority, an MMP system can impede a smoother flow of legislation that comes from majority governments when the system will more often lead to more minority governments and the presence of coalition governments. In New Zealand in 1996 it took two months for a coalition government to even form (O’Neill 2002, 277). And while coalition governments can lead to parties not being able to fulfill election promises as easily (O’Neill 2002, 277), more consensus on policy may soothe the dissatisfaction voters feel because what promise their party does not achieve in one situation may be to their advantage in another, ultimately leading to less political turmoil and more national solidarity.

 On a practical level, it is unlikely for parties that have for so long benefited from FPP systems to consider changing to a system that would let moderately fringe parties hold sway over them. Criticism over the BC NDP’s refusal to engage in building a campaign coalition with the BC Green party, though the new NDP leader is not opposed to working cooperatively with the Green party once in the legislature, reflects the perception that parties do not want to risk diluting their support. From this standpoint, it took favourable citizen support for changing New Zealand’s electoral system to MMP by forcing the two major parties to obey their will in 1993 even though neither major party was particularly inclined to change. Providing additional impetus for change was the fact that the 1993 election saw a new majority government form—though with a mere one seat majority—making the accompanying vote on electoral reform overshadow the fact that a new government formed (Levine 1996, 948-9). In Canada, similar barriers to PR and practical cooperation exist in traditional parties today. Paul Hellyer’s anti-free-trade, nationalist Canadian Action Party is lobbying federal NDP leader Jack Layton to merge the two parties (Canadian Action Party 2003). Despite the alignment of policy, Layton does not believe his substantial membership (of roughly 90,000 members compared to the CAP’s roughly 500 members nationally) would see the value in a merger (Layton 2003). Perhaps though, having introduced a federal PR electoral system referendum bill into the House of Commons means the federal NDP does not need to merge with anyone; House coalitions under a PR system would be easy to form.

 The Campbell government began its own formal investigation into electoral reform (Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform 2003) after its horribly skewed election in 2001. Not to do so would have been untenable to civil society. After an initial report, they have now struck an assembly of a man and a woman randomly picked (though modified by some demographic traits) from each riding to spend 2004 examining alternative electoral systems. The Assembly is empowered to recommend no change or a change to be voted on as a binding referendum during the May 2005 election to be implemented in the May 2009 election. Following a similar process as New Zealand’s, BC civil society has the opportunity to explore the complexities of electoral reform, compare their advantages with our provincial and federal history of FPP skewed electoral results and make their recommendation. It seems almost certain that after a 77-2 provincial election in 1991 that the Assembly will recommend some form of PR system. Though, those who fear what the Campbell government could do in a second term of office may not be terribly soothed by even an overwhelming vote for a PR system for 2009 because of how much more damage Campbell can do for four more years if his government is re-elected under an FPP system. Gerry Scott, however, is keeping an open mind about the potential of the Citizens Assembly (Scott 2003). While a cynical perspective is that the Assembly is just optics, Scott at least is hopeful that it can be meaningful, perhaps at least until there is cause to suspect its usefulness.

 In a world where Czechoslovakia’s velvet revolution is held as a model for Georgians to oust an election-rigging Eduard Shevardnadze, a man who helped bring down his own Soviet Union, then returned to his Georgia promising “to establish democratic rule with free and fair elections” (Thompson 2003), electoral systems are critical elements in assessing nations’ political stability. In fact, to spend a weekend watching the mild tumult of the BC NDP leadership convention only to return home each night to watch CBC Newsworld cover Georgian bloodless revolution over systemic problems in their electoral system perhaps puts BC’s Citizens’ Assembly into a more proper perspective. Considering the severity of the human impact of BC’s neo-conservative policy shifts and the importance of the May 2005 election in BC, Georgia demonstrates the severity of how democracy is at stake in every election and in electoral systems themselves. While British Columbians do not now seem to be in a position to storm the legislature as in Tbilisi, continued Campbell assaults on society, coupled with a meaningless Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform (if its process, results or implementation become merely token), and a likely Liberal re-election could all combine to push citizens to act like the Georgians to demand a new electoral system before May 2005. Canadians have less of a revolutionary tradition of democratic reform. Peace, order and good government imply moderate, reasonable, gradual change. However, the members of BC’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform would do well to bear in mind the lengths Georgians went to ensure their democracy was meaningful. Electoral reform in BC can be reasoned and calm, but it also has the potential to ignite into a Tbilisi under the right circumstances.


BC NDP. 2001. Who We Are, Where We Stand: The Policies of the BC NDP, 1961-2001. Burnaby: BC NDP.

BC NDP. 2003. Convention Booklet. Burnaby: BC NDP.

Canadian Action Party. 2003. “One Big Party—Uniting Canada”, http://www.onebigparty.ca/subdomains/onebigparty.ca/ (November 17, 2003).

Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. 2003. “Citizens’ Assembly in Action”, http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/inaction (November 17, 2003).

Elections BC. 2000. “SOV91 Summary of Results by Political Party”,  http://www.elections.bc.ca/elections/sov91/sov91-17.html  (November 17, 2003).

Elections BC. 2001. “Summary of Results by Political Party”, http://www.elections.bc.ca/elections/sov01/polpart.htm (November 17, 2003).

Elections New Zealand. 2002. “Summary of Party List and Electorate Candidate Seats”,  http://www.electionresults.govt.nz/e9/html/e9_part1.html (November 17, 2003).

Elections New Zealand. 2003. “New Zealand’s electoral system”, http://www.elections.org.nz/elections/esyst/govt_elect.html (November 17, 2003).

Evans, Nigel and Jenny Ryan. Active Voices. The Electoral Commission (New Zealand) http://www.elections.org.nz/elections/pandr/av/ (November 17, 2003).

Free Your Vote. 2003a. “Pro Rep Vote”, http://www.gowebtide.com/freeyourvote1/infoOfficialWord.html (November 17, 2003).

Free Your Vote. 2003b. “Free Your Vote Proportional Representation Final Results”, http://www.gowebtide.com/freeyourvote1/districtNumbers/districtNumbersFinal.html (November 17, 2003).

CIA. 2003. “New Zealand”, http://cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/nz.html (November 17, 2003).

Layton, Jack. Personal interview. November 22, 2003.

Levine, Stephen I. 1996. Untitled book review of Vowles, Jack et al. Towards Consensus? The 1993 Election in New Zealand and the Transition to Proportional Representation in The American Political Science Review 90(4), 948-9.

O’Neill, Brenda. 2002. Democracy in Action: Elections, Referendums, and Citizens’ Power. In Studying Politics: An Introduction to Political Science, edited by Rand Dyck. Scarborough: Nelson.

Scott, Gerry. Personal interview. November 22, 2003.

Thompson, Justin. November 24, 2003. “Georgia”, http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/georgia/ (November 24, 2003).

Vowles, Jack. 2000. “Introducing proportional representation: the New Zealand experience.” Parliamentary Affairs 53(4), 680-696.

Warnica, Richard. 2003. “B.C. elections undemocratic, says Green kiwi.” Martlett (University of Victoria), October 9, 2003. p. 2.

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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