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News release - Weekend wrapup

12th September, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
Assembly "votes" on electoral values

Proportional representation, local representation and voter choice were selected by B.C.’s Citizens’ Assembly members as their top three values in developing a recommendation for any new electoral system for the province.

In what they described as "lively debates," Assembly members began the process of wrestling with the issues – a process that will ultimately result in a recommendation later this fall on whether to retain the current electoral system or opt for a new one.

Describing the discussions on values as beneficial, member Ray Spaxman of West Vancouver said: "We recognized that we need a lot more discussion before we can come to a conclusion."

Assembly members also expressed concern that all votes should count, that the system should accommodate independent MLAs, that voter interest must be reignited, that BC politics should be more consensual and civil, and that the system should be responsive to differing geographic needs.

Single-party majority government was rated a low priority.

Members discussed and prioritized their top electoral system values Sunday after hearing nine guest speakers – invited from the hundreds who presented to the Assembly in public hearings in May and June – make special presentations to the Assembly on Saturday.

The nine presentations included calls for BC to adopt a new way of translating votes in provincial elections into seats in the legislature as well as a defence of the current "First Past the Post" system. Those who recommended specific systems were grilled by members on the system's pluses and minuses.

Members may reach their final decision as early as the end of October. If they do recommend a change, it will be the subject of a referendum for all voters in the May 2005 provincial election. The provincial government says that if voters approve a change, it would go into effect for the 2009 BC election. If Assembly members opt to stay with the current system, then there would be no referendum.

The Citizens' Assembly is an independent, representative, non-partisan group of 160 randomly selected British Columbians, plus chair Jack Blaney. They have a deadline of December 15 to report to British Columbians on their decision, its implications, and their reasons. Then the Assembly will disband.

Details of the Assembly's schedule and work are at together with texts from the nine speakers on Saturday.

In the order in which they spoke, here are the nine speakers:

Ian McKinnon of Victoria urged Assembly members to consider how any potential change of electoral system would affect government and political parties. He also urged the Assembly to think about the consequences of repeated minority governments.

"The First Past the Post system tends to mean significant local independence in determining who will be the local candidate. . . . There is a tendency for looser central party control over the choice of candidates. . . . In contrast, list-based Proportional Representation systems tend to give more power to the central party apparatus. A mixed system . . . can also lead to power being exercised by a highly centralized party organization."

As for minority governments: "Recurring minority governments drive Canadians crazy."

Bruce Hallsor of Victoria said either a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system or the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system would best suit B.C. Under MMP, voters would vote for both their choice of local MLA and for a preferred party. In the end, each party's share of seats in the House would reflect (as closely as possible) its share of the popular vote. In STV, voters rank candidates in order of preference; ballots are then counted so that the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

"The over-arching principle is that every citizen's vote should count and should be treated equally with those of other voters across the province. Perfect proportionality may not always be possible, but we should get as close as reasonably possible to making every citizen's vote count. . . . Using First Past the Post in the 21st Century is like using a hand-crank telephone rather than the internet. It was good in its day, but that century is long gone."

Tom Hoenisch of Naramata proposed the MMP system, but with the number of seats in the provincial legislature being reduced to 72 from the current 79. In his system, half the members would be elected in constituencies that coincide with the 36 federal ridings in B.C. The other 36 would come from party lists of candidates.

"We need this system so that the makeup of the legislature truly reflects the wishes of the electorate. . . The current system favours two large parties. It is as if we live in a black and white world. Well, only extremists believe that we live in a black and white world. . . .In fact, in a civil society that respects peoples' freedoms, public policy should reflect that vast grey area between the two extremes. . . . (Under MMP) the tyranny of the Left and of the Right will be broken."

Katherine Gordon of Gabriola Island also opted for MMP, as used in her native New Zealand. "Knowing that a system exists where no British Columbian voter ever has to feel that their vote is lost . . . surely is a compelling argument that the time has come to change to that system."

Members asked her whether MMP, and the likelihood of it producing coalition governments, would reduce political squabbling. Her answer: "You will never take adversarial debate out of politics. But the level of debate (under MMP in New Zealand) has more integrity. There is less time for slanging matches." As for coalitions, she said: "Think of a rope. It is stronger than any of the strands that make it up."

Julian West of Ladysmith advocated a modified form of STV, with constituencies of as many as 5-7 members in urban areas, and 2-3 in remote areas. His electoral districts would be based strongly on existing Regional Districts and municipalities. He called for a system of "circuits" within electoral districts, so that each area and community is represented by an individual MLA.

"The question is: How do you make sure that each person elected represents the same number of voters? If this is the right question, then STV is the right answer."

Asked if voters could easily understand the STV system, West replied: "The counting system is complex; the voting system is not. From the point of view of most voters on the morning after the election the question is 'Who won?" and 'Who is my MLA now?'"

Nick Loenen of Richmond recommended a "Preferential Plus" system, with preferential voting in multi-seat ridings for urban areas and single-seat ridings for rural areas, thus producing semi-proportional representation. In preferential voting, voters rank candidates on the ballot in numerical order of the voter's preference; ballots are then counted so that the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

"This is my dream, that starting in 2009 in Victoria, we will have the essence of responsible government, and it will move east and permeate Ottawa, The greatest democratic deficit is not in Victoria; it is in Ottawa."

Loenen spoke of a second dream, too: "If we have a major accomplishment, it will be like England where (Prime Minister) Tony Blair had 137 members of his own party vote against his involvement in Iraq. Can you see that happening in Canada? If that were to happen in Canada, that would be wonderful."

Mayor Chris Morey of Fort Nelson said that representation by a "local" MLA is particularly important in remote and rural regions, and that any electoral system must ensure it continues. Some electoral systems would require larger constituencies, and Mayor Morey argued against bigger ridings.

"Increased ridings just don't work. Look at our health authority, the Northern Health Authority. You're looking at a region that looks after the health interests of one-third of the people of B.C. It is too large, too unwieldy. It does not address sub-regional issues as it should. . . . No discredit to the people who are directors of the health authority; it just doesn't work."

Arpal Dosanjh of Vancouver called for an Alternative Vote (AV) system. AV systems use preferential ballots on which voters rank candidates in numerical order of preference. If no candidate gains a majority on the first count, the second preferences listed on the ballots of the least successful candidate are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate has a majority. British Columbia used AV in 1952 and 1953.

"Such a move would be a safe option," Dosanjh said. "There is little risk at all in moving to this system (and) it does improve on our current system. . . .Other models may have great advantages, but also great disadvantages. . . . Since a winning candidate requires 50% support of those voting, the constituency may feel the elected candidate more legitimately represents the riding than a candidate elected with less than 50%, a common occurrence in the current system."

Jim Nielsen of Peachland, a former B.C. health minister under Social Credit, gave a ringing defence of the current single-member plurality (SMP) system, often known as First Past the Post.

"What is the perfect system of electing members to the B.C. legislature? Well, there isn't one. (But) citizens of our province have been choosing their representatives, for the most part, over 133 years by permitting the candidate with the greatest support in a riding to represent the residents."

What about the representation of minorities and minority views, Nielsen was asked. And he replied: "What is a minority? One person? Two people? . . . There are many ways of expressing minority opinions. It doesn't mean they have to be in the legislature. I've got a minority opinion. I'd dump the Queen. I'd sell the CBC. Why should I be in the legislature just because I have a minority opinion?"

What about the Green Party, asked one member. It got some 12% of the vote in the last B.C. election but no seats. Nielsen shot back: "Twelve per cent is not a winner. Somebody who has competed in the Olympics and has come in fourth 20 times is not a winner. Just because you have some candidates, and some people voted for you, does not mean you should be in the legislature."
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