B.C. government promises second referendum on electoral reform

By Dirk Meissner
Published September 12th 2005

VICTORIA (CP) - British Columbia is taking a second shot at reforming its electoral system after the narrow failure of a referendum on a form of proportional representation in May's provincial election.

In a throne speech Monday that formally opened the new session of the provincial legislature, Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government said another provincewide referendum will be held to change the way British Columbians elect their representatives in the house.

A referendum on the single transferable vote electoral system missed becoming law by less than three percentage points in May, prompting the Liberals and opposition politicians to suggest the appetite for electoral change in the province is strong.

Under the so-called STV system, voters would have had the opportunity to rank their favourite candidates in order of preference, allowing them to vote for a straight party ticket or mix and match candidates.

B.C. was the first province in the country to hold a referendum aimed at eliminating the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system, where the candidate with more than 50 per cent of the vote is declared the winner.

British Columbians will have the opportunity in November 2008 to vote on which electoral system they prefer: the current first-past-the-post or the single-transferable vote, said Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo, who read the speech on the government's behalf.

"Whichever model succeeds is the model that will be employed to elect the next parliament on May 12, 2009," the speech said.

In 1996, Campbell's Liberals were defeated by the New Democrats even though they received more votes than the NDP. In the 2001 election, the NDP only elected two members to the 79-seat legislature, despite the fact the opposition parties earned more than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

The government said it will review electoral boundaries prior to the referendum, allowing the possibility for British Columbia to increase its number of ridings from 79 to 85.

Other initiatives contained in the throne speech include expanding question period to 30 minutes from 15 minutes. The government will also appoint a committee on sustainable aquaculture chaired by the Opposition, with a majority of its members coming from the NDP.

The NDP has consistently called for reform of the aquaculture industry, which has been blamed for pollution and creating salmon diseases.

The government said it will increase its determination to fight the pine beetle infestation that is threatening to destroy much of B.C.'s northern forests.

A decision-making body, similar to an emergency response team, will be formed to lead the fight against the pine beetle.

The government also pledged to improve relations with Aboriginal Peoples, striving to eliminate what it called injustices within 10 years.

And a new Pacific Centre for Social Innovation will be created, focusing on families, communities and improving voter participation in elections.

With the new session of the legislature starting, the Liberals and the NDP have said they want to change politics in the province, promising a more civil debate. Campbell and NDP Leader Carole James vowed to cut out the trash talk to restore order to the legislature.

A mini-budget is scheduled to be delivered on Wednesday and it is expected to include even rosier revenue and economic forecasts than last February's surplus budget.

The New Democrats gained 30 seats in May's election, which saw the Liberals re-elected for a second term. The Liberals have 46 seats and the NDP 33.

Campbell said the Liberals and NDP shouldn't lose sight that the legislature is "foremost a tool of the people of British Columbia."

Past governments and the opposition parties have promised to be on their best behaviour in the legislature, only to bare their fangs at the first opportunity.

Campbell signalled that he's serious about a milder legislature by nominating Okanagan MLA Bill Barisoff, a respected former minister of land, water and air protection, as the new speaker of the legislature. Barisoff, who was elected Monday, has the job of keeping debates in order.

Highlights of the throne speech delivered Monday in the B.C. legislature:

-A binding, provincewide referendum will be held in November 2008 on reforming the electoral system.

-An Electoral Boundary Commission will be asked to provide riding boundaries for up to an 85-seat legislature under the current electoral system, and to consider reconfiguring boundaries under a single transferable vote system.

-A new response team will be established to fight the mountain pine beetle and address the economic impact of the infestation on forests.

-The daily question period will be doubled in length from 15 to 30 minutes.

-A new legislative committee on sustainable fish farming will be set up, which the Opposition NDP will chair and it will hold the majority of seats on the committee.