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The Vancouver Sun

Assembly opinions devastating for B.C.'s electoral system
by Vaughn Palmer
September 14, 2004

VICTORIA - After months of listening publicly to the urgings of experts and non-experts alike, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform began crafting its own recommendations on the weekend.

On Saturday, assembly members listened to a final round of public presentations, mostly from advocates of change. Then, on Sunday morning, assembly members dispersed into 10 smaller groups and retired to decide their priorities in private.

What did assembly members themselves think were the "desirable" features of an electoral system?

Which features were "simply not important" in deciding between the status quo or any potential alternative?

They'd had months to reflect, formally and informally. Their leanings were apparent to many observers as far back as the spring. But now they were going to start locking themselves in, decision-wise.

After 90 minutes, they came back together in the main hall and 10 recording secretaries began reporting the results of their deliberations.

The results were decisive -- and brutally devastating -- for the first-past-the-post system currently in place in B.C.

For all its flaws, the existing system can be relied on to deliver majority governments. Rival electoral systems often produce minority or coalition governments. B.C. hasn't had one in more than 50 years.

But assembly members don't regard the production of majorities as an especially desirable feature of an electoral system.

They concluded Sunday that it was "simply not important" for B.C. to have a system that would produce "single-party majority governments."

As group after group reported its findings, I was sitting next to former MLA Nick Loenen.

"Wow," said Loenen, who has been crusading for a better electoral system since he went down to defeat with the last Social Credit administration in 1991.

He was one of the fathers of the assembly. But he never expected to see it come out so decisively, so quickly, against first-past-the-post system.

By the time all the working groups had reported each had attached the lowest priority to the one thing the existing system does best, namely deliver single-party majority governments.

The status quo got its butt kicked -- 10 times out of 10.

Assembly members said it was because the existing system sacrifices many of the other features -- proportionality, choice, broader representation -- they would like to see in an electoral system.

But I have to think that Sunday's outcome was also a visceral reaction against the kind of governments the electoral system has delivered over the years.

It is all very well to defend majority governments in theoretical terms. They can, as the textbooks say, mean stability, continuity, decisive leadership.

It can also mean a premier wielding his legislative majority to backstop or his own personal morality on an issue like abortion.

Or a premier using his majority to put through one crackpot scheme after another, never mind that his opponent garnered more votes than he did.

Or a premier, at the head of one of the biggest (and most artificial) majorities in provincial history, who contemptuously withholds official recognition for the two members of the opposition.

That wasn't a textbook response you saw from the assembly on Sunday. The members also spoke from their hearts and for many British Columbians who are fed up with the abuses of power under the current system.

But what should replace it?

Assembly members adopted three leading principles that will guide their choice of a new system.

"Seats won should mirror votes won," they decided, meaning a strong degree of proportionality.

Then, too, they want for "MLAs to be chosen to represent a specific 'local' constituency."

Third, there should be enhanced "voter choice," either among parties or candidates.

Those goals leave lots of room for debate and are somewhat incompatible, depending on the choice of systems.

On the weekend it looked to me as if it will come down to two main options -- mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) or the
single-transferrable vote (STV).

The former looked like the front-runner in the spring. Lately the latter has been gaining favour, for reasons I will discuss in a subsequent column.

Assembly members are scheduled to narrow the choice at a series of weekend sessions between now and late October.

If they do decide to recommend a new system, the final call will still be up to the electorate in a referendum next spring.

But at this stage, I have no doubt that British Columbians will be asked to approve a new electoral system.

If the citizens' assembly has anything to say about it -- and on Sunday it said plenty -- the status quo is dead.

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