VANCOUVER, British Columbia (CN) – With wildfire smoke looming over the skies of Canada’s British Columbia, the air quality in Vancouver currently rivals Los Angeles and Beijing. But the province also finds itself in another haze distorting the view of its political future, as a referendum on electoral reform looms.
This fall, B.C. voters face a choice to either keep the status quo of a first-past-the-post electoral system, long a target for critics who claim it has produced skewed results for more than half a century, or change to a system of proportional representation under either a dual-member, mixed-member, or rural-urban system. Provincial ridings, like U.S. districts, would increase in size and, ideally, if a party receives roughly 40 percent of the vote, it wins roughly 40 percent of the seats.
The province, under the year-old government of the labor-oriented New Democratic Party, is holding a mail-in referendum on the question of changing a system where “to the winner goes the spoils” and the losers wind up with political obscurity and irrelevance. Unlike in U.S. state elections, Canadians don’t directly choose provincial leaders on ballots; instead, local candidates in parties vie for the most seats in legislatures in order to form government. Under the current system, parties can win a majority with around 40 percent of the popular vote. In a scenario with low voter turnout, a party can hold all of the power with support of just a third of registered voters.
The election in Canada’s most populous province of Ontario this year provides a recent and stark example of the distortions of the current system frequently targeted by reformers and critics. With about 2.3 million votes, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives party won a large majority government – 76 seats compared to the Ontario New Democratic Party’s 40 seats on about 1.9 million votes. Meanwhile, the province’s Green Party received just one seat with a little over a quarter million votes and about 100,000 votes went to parties that failed to win a single seat.
Opponents to potential reform in B.C. pounced, filing a challenge in the province’s Supreme Court claiming the referendum process, its outcome, and advertising spending limits are improper. One group leading the charge against proportional representation, the Independent Contractors and Business Association, has long been a thorn in the side of B.C.’s union movement as the public voice of nonunion or “open shop” construction companies.
“In the view of the ICBA, electoral systems that favor broad based and ideologically moderate parties, and which tend to produce stable majority government, create the type of political stability, economic and regulatory certainty, and government accountability that ICBA and its membership need in order to make informed, long-term business and investment decisions,” the association’s president, Christopher Gardner, said in a supporting affidavit. “By contrast, electoral systems that do not produce stable and moderate majority governments, and that shift the balance of power to political parties at the more ‘extreme’ end of the political spectrum, can – in the view of the ICBA – significantly hamper economic development and investment, and can lead to a deficit in political accountability.”
The B.C. government’s plan, on the other hand, has the blessing of the nonpartisan chief electoral officer and officials warn that allowing a challenge to the referendum process and results could delay implementation before the next election in 2021.
In an affidavit, the province’s director of justice policy Neil Reimer warned delaying completion of the vote would mean the next election “would have to proceed under the current First Past the Post voting system, regardless of the result of the referendum held almost three years prior.”
But the lawsuit likely has little chance of stymieing the vote according to Richard Johnston, Canada research chair in public opinion, elections, and representation at the University of British Columbia.
“My hunch is that nothing will come of it,” Johnston said in a phone interview. “I decided not to get into it in detail because it struck me that this wasn’t going to be the main story.”
The current system and the proposed options for reform are marred in hypothetical posturing, Johnston said, while examples from history and around the world provide an evidentiary record upon which to judge their merits.
“In a place like British Columbia, where politics is left versus right – it has been since 1933 – the party is the biggest single thing,” he said. “Any federal party in Canada would be ecstatic if it could get routinely 40 to 45 percent of the vote. The problem is that the other side kind of gets 42 to 47 percent of the vote, and that’s enough.”
Johnston said he favors a mixed-member system, which isn’t much different than the current system except it would allocate seats in a way that would reflect a party’s share of the vote rather than a localized result with concentrated voting blocks. Mixed-member systems exist elsewhere, whereas the other two options – dual-member and rural-urban – are untested in the real world.
“Both urban-rural and dual-member were devised as a way of trying to neutralize the standard objections to proportional representation and I think they went out of their way to do this, but produced these difficult-to-understand systems which have no evidentiary record. You cannot generalize about them other than the hypothetical,” he said.
However, he cautioned there are weak links to systems of proportional representation and examples the world over of its pitfalls, though problems often associated with electoral systems may be misplaced.
“The PR [proportional representation] system is vulnerable to sort of a species of extortion from the last few parties into the governing coalition,” he said. “Israeli governments, for example, have been kind of held hostage by religious parties. So Israel has become a much more religious society than it was originally conceived to be. Some of that would have happened anyway, but some of it is the product of policies opposed by a majority of Israelis but foisted upon the policy system as part of the package that these small parties have extracted.”
With a proposed threshold of 5 percent for small parties to get into government, the fear of “extremist” parties may be alleviated and, Johnston points out, “the overwhelming majority of PR systems in the world have never produced results like this” – with a negative exception being the Weimar Republic. Johnston said Weimar is indeed a negative example when it comes to proportional representation, but to blame the rise of the Nazis on the system is a mistake.
“It’s not clear it was the electoral system. Weimar, the republic, was basically under assault by a Communist party on the left that was a tool of the Soviet Union and that had every interest in subverting the German state, ” he said. Meanwhile, Hitler and other disgruntled soldiers reeling from Germany’s defeat of World War I actively subverted and exploited weaknesses in the system before it all burned down.
“In due course it all fell apart to be sure, but that’s because the system was under fundamental anti-democratic challenges and no system could, simply by mechanical decree, contain those kinds of forces.”
Post-war Germany, though, provides a shining example of the success of proportional representation, at least up until recently.
“The German system is a proportional system. It is the system that was put in place by the occupying powers in the belief that the particular structure of this mixed-member proportional system would reduce the vulnerability of the system to the kinds of things that occurred under Weimar,” he said. “Until recently at least, it’s arguably the most successful parliamentary government in the world and the most successful example of democratization in the world. Now things have gotten frayed at the edges in the last few years, but no one would say, taking the long view, that Germany was badly governed under this.”
It took German chancellor Angela Merkel months to establish a new coalition government after her party – the center-right Christian Democratic Union – and the Social Democratic Party suffered a shellacking in the September 2017 elections. In the end, the two parties renewed their “grand coalition” in March 2018 and Merkel held on to power, if only to keep the surging far-right populist Alternative for Germany party at bay.
Johnston also points out New Zealand, with a size and population similar to British Columbia, has had a mixed-member proportional voting system for more than two decades.
“The sky has not fallen in New Zealand,” he said.
In addition, governments elected under proportional representation systems in B.C. would also require parties to formulate policy with more input from opponents, which make policy commitments more credible because they’re harder to change, while also harder to achieve.
“They have to have allies somewhere and this has a great stabilizing effect. In general, PR parliaments, PR governments exhibit more policy stability,” Johnston said, adding that one just needs to look at the investment record of PR governments and economic growth rates of PR governments. “Guess what? They’re higher,” he said.
The mail-in ballot period for the referendum in B.C. runs from Oct. 22 through Nov. 30, 2018.