Highlights from a debate: Proportional Representation vs. First Past the Post

The Vancouver Sun and Province invited leaders on both sides of the B.C. referendum on electoral reform to debate the future of our democratic system.

Maria Dobrinskaya of the Vote PR B.C. campaign represented the Yes side, arguing in favour of a switch to proportional representation. Bill Tieleman of the No Proportional Representation Society of B.C. represented the No side, urging that B.C. stay with the current first-past-the post system.

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Here are excerpts from their debate. You can find more coverage of electoral reform at timescolonist.com/more.

Which countries use proportional representation now

Maria Dobrinskaya: Over 90 countries around the world use pro rep and we see positive outcomes. We see more collaboration, more transparency, and the most critical part is we see voters’ intentions reflected in the legislature. Forty per cent of the vote should equal 40 per cent of the seats.

Bill Tieleman: When we look around the world at proportional, we see unstable governments, we see changing governments. We see Italy with 65 governments in 70 years, we see perpetual minorities, we see extremists elected with as little as five per cent of the vote potentially holding the balance of power.

What B.C. could expect under proportional representation

BT: When we look at the actual ballot … two systems that have never been tried anywhere in the world … and mixed member proportional has been used in New Zealand, in Bolivia, in Germany and Lesotho as a national system. So four countries out of all the ones that actually use it. So we are really playing a political experiment here …

Look at Belgium, 589 days to form a government … A country being run by bureaucrats for almost two years. On the flip side, you look at Sweden, the Social Democratic Party of Sweden has been in every government since 1917 — 101 years. That’s not the kind of system that encourages change and innovation, and allows the voters to have the right to throw the bums out.

MD: Two-thirds of people don’t believe that politicians care what they think. Just over half of people don’t think that they can have an impact on the outcome that politicians make … I think those are really, really alarming statistics …

The policy lurch and the uncertain economic environment exists more under first-past-the post. With coalition governments that come through pro rep, some times things take longer, absolutely. But what you get is policy that has been collaboratively agreed on, and is more likely to be long lasting and create more stability.

Why the current first-past-the-post system does, or doesn’t, work

MD: In the last 8,500 votes in the [B.C.] legislature, [only] five of them were against party lines. …

First-past-the-post arguably could have worked at some point when we had a two-party system. But we don’t have a two-party system now and we’re seeing that across Canada in provincial election results. … Our first-past-the-post system cannot actually accommodate multiple parties on the ballot.

BT: Right now when you vote for B.C. Liberal, or Green or B.C. NDP, in this province, you know what the policies and platforms are. When you get into perpetual minorities and seven, eight parties in a possible legislature, then all of the decision-making is going to be in the backrooms after the election when deals are being struck and when policies are thrown out the door to cobble together a coalition.

Whether voters’ interests are better represented under proportional representation

BT: If we have proportional representation, and the Green Party gets 17 per cent, you will see Andrew Weaver and Sonia Furstenau in a cabinet of one sort or another, and they will be pushing their policies. … They will have enormous power.

I think under proportional representation, you take power away from voters and give it to political parties and political party leaders. Because under mixed-member proportional, for example, 40 per cent of those seats, whether they are regional or provincewide, are from party lists. Who do those people report to first and foremost? The party leader and the party hierarchy. They are not reporting to constituents.

MD: Parties don’t have power other than what voters give them, and larger parties that make deals with smaller parties need to still answer to their electorate. If they are making a deal with a small party — and I question whether we can call the Green Party a small party anymore given the growing amount of support that they receive … They made this arrangement with the NDP. If the NDP does something that their voter base does not like because of the Greens, they are going to have to answer for that in the next election. …

We’ll see a lot more independent discussions. I think party platforms will be smaller, certainly, because we can’t make commitments around 95 things that we’re going to do like we do now. … The discussion around prioritizing policy initiatives is essentially the discussion to form coalition government.

How proportional representation would look in B.C. if adopted

MD: All three systems on offer are mixed systems. So they are designed to preserve local representation and I think strengthen it. But there are some unanswered questions.

… Most countries that use some form of proportional representation have a slightly different variation on it to meet the needs of their particular jurisdiction. And what they all have in common is the fairness of the outcome. … All three systems lead us to that. With this criteria that no region of the province is losing MLAs, that we’re going to retain between 87 and 95 MLAs in the legislature and that we do have an option of reviewing how well it’s working for us after two elections.

BT: Not one voter going into this referendum will know what the riding boundaries are, what riding they live in, whether they have one MLA, or two MLAs or seven MLAs. All of those things will be decided later by a committee, which will have a majority of New Democrat and Green MLAs on it. And even though I’m a proud New Democrat, I don’t think any party should be making up the rules.

Debate in Victoria

A debate on electoral reform is being held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Victoria High School theatre, moderated by University of Victoria Prof. Michael Prince. Teale Phelps Bondaroff will argue in favour of proportional representation. Bob Plecas will argue against it.

CBC British Columbia and Global News B.C. will present an electoral reform debate between Premier John Horgan and Opposition Leader Andrew Wilkinson at 7 p.m. on Thursday, on Global B.C. TV, CBC TV and radio, CKNW radio, cbc.ca/bc and globalnews.ca.

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