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Complex referendum, simple principles

Want local representation, accountability, moderation and stability? Keep first past the post.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to over 1,000 delegates gathered in Vancouver for the BC Liberal convention. I spoke about the referendum we’re facing on B.C.’s voting system, and how vital it is that every one of us makes sure to vote.

The issue is complex – but there are four underlying principles that are not. A deeper look at each one makes it abundantly clear how well our current system has served us - and disturbingly clear how much we stand to lose under proportional representation.

  1. Local Representation

Whether in the West End, West Vancouver or the West Kootenays, effective, meaningful local representation is essential to a functioning democracy. Under first past the post, local representation is ensured not only because ridings are much smaller than under PR, but also because a candidate must receive more votes than any other to become MLA. This means a candidate must share the values and priorities of a community in order to represent it in the legislature.

Under PR, ridings are increased in size. Concerningly, we won’t know how much bigger until after our ballots are in – but we do know that larger ridings mean a greater chance our MLAs will come from different communities than we’re from.

Worse, many locally-elected MLAs will be replaced by MLAs selected from party lists. Again, we won’t know key details (i.e., how much power voters stand to lose) until after the referendum is over, when we no longer have a say. Whatever those details turn out to be, list MLAs will concern themselves with the interests of political parties– since that’s who they’ll owe their position to.

  1. Accountability

With first past the post, there’s a clear line of accountability between voters and their representatives. If voters feel they’ve been well served by their MLA, they’ll vote to return them to office. If not, they’ll vote for someone who better represents their community.

Under PR, the introduction of party list MLAs who don’t rely on local votes means that essential line of accountability is muddied. Even more concerning is the lack of information about exactly how votes will translate into list seats – and the fact that those details will be “filled in” by a committee of politicians (or by fiat from the Premier’s Office) with a vested interest in the outcome is more concerning still.

  1. Moderation

Moderation means policy is driven by parties that reflect the views of large numbers of average British Columbians, rather than by marginal parties that received just a fraction of the vote.

Under first past the post, big tent parties of the center-left and center-right include MLAs with a wide range of viewpoints debated within the party structure. To be successful, parties know they need to appeal to a wide range of voters to be successful – so more polarized views are held in check.

Under PR, single-interest and far-polarized parties fare much better. By their very nature, these parties represent views further removed from those of average British Columbians. Worse, the propensity of PR to result in minority governments means these parties are likely to gain a level of influence that goes far beyond their share of the vote. Post-election dealmaking means these parties can end up holding the balance of power – and drive the policy agenda.

  1. Stability

Finally, stability is integral to the ability of policymakers to make the kinds of long-term, generational decisions that have led to the quality of life we enjoy today.

Expo 86, the Agricultural Land Reserve, Port Mann Bridge and Canada Line are examples of decisions made by different parties in different eras, all of which were highly controversial at the time.

Each was possible because our first past the post system allowed voters to elect a majority government that had a mandate to follow through on what they believed best.

Minority governments under PR will be far less capable of making these kinds of decisions. Bold leadership will become nearly impossible as parties struggle to find agreement and continually avoid tough decisions in order to stay in power.

We’re likely to see tenuous governments clinging to power by choosing the easy thing rather than the right thing. Vision and leadership will be replaced by parochialism and politicking.

Short-term thinking will outweigh long-term interests.

When British Columbians fill in their ballots over the final weeks of the referendum, I hope they’ll think hard about the principles of local representation, accountability, moderation and stability.


Caroline Elliott is pursuing her PhD in political science at Simon Fraser University. She also runs a consulting firm providing communications and public policy advice to a broad range of clients. Caroline was previously a communications and policy advisor on BC Hydro’s Site C project, and served as a ministerial aide with the B.C. Government.