Referendum result is enough to start process of reform

Published May 19th 2005 in The Province
With Gordon Campbell's Liberals effectively held in check by a rejuvenated Opposition in the wake of Tuesday's provincial election, you might be tempted to ask, "Why tamper with the electoral system? Why fix what ain't broke?"

Look at it more closely, however, and you will see the opposite to be true. And for reasons that may not be readily apparent. Of all those who exercised their franchise on Tuesday, 13 per cent -- more than 200,000 people -- might as well have cast their vote to the winds. They elected no one. To be clear, they voted for the candidate of a party other than the Liberals or the New Democrats. And no such candidate was successful.

The most glaring examples of these wasted votes were those cast for the Green Party. Critics will point to a drop in popular support for the Greens -- from 12.4 per cent in 2001 to around nine per cent this time.

But rather than indicating a lack of interest in environmental matters, the drop may be directly attributable to flaws in the present voting system that virtually restrict competition to just two parties. We saw this in NDP Leader Carole James' repeated appeals to voters not to let in a Liberal by voting Green. It's interesting, too, that, under the present system, only one majority government in the past 50 years was elected by an actual majority of the people. Campbell was returned to power with just 46 per cent of the vote.

Mathematically, 46 per cent would earn you just 36 of the 79 available seats. But there's a phenomenon known as the "winner's bonus" which almost invariably gives the incumbent party an additional 12 per cent of seats. Thus, Campbell came home with a total of 46.

It has been persuasively argued that a form of proportional representation would iron out these wrinkles in the system. And a surprisingly large number of voters, consistently around the various regions of the province, clearly agree.

The bar was set high in Tuesday's referendum on the single transferrable vote. To succeed, it had to cross a double-barrelled threshold: 50 per cent in favour in at least 48 of the 79 ridings and a province-wide approval of 60 per cent. The first target was easily surpassed; the second came within fractions.

These twin targets were set with the deliberate aim of ensuring that no one region of the province should be able to dictate to the rest. The result clearly indicates a consensus for change. The Liberals should get on with it, and the Opposition shouldn't stand in the way.