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Mark Milke, in National Post

4th November, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
A victory for B.C.'s voters

By Mark Milke

National Post, 04-Nov-2004

Similarly to the province itself, the second premier of British Columbia was famously eccentric.

Amor De Cosmos -- an adopted name which means "love of the universe" -- was afraid of electricity and thus refused to ride in electric streetcars or allow electricity in his home. A frequent drinker, he was involved in street fights and, after he ceased to be premier, was declared insane two years before he died in 1897.

Colourful as he was, De Cosmos also fought for substantial reforms that positively affected British Columbia, including the union of Vancouver Island and the mainland (until then two separate colonies) and for responsible government to replace the colonial administration.

De Cosmos serves as a useful symbol of British Columbia writ large.

Legendarily goofy though Lotusland is, its Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform voted recently to dump the current first-past-the-post system (where the candidate with the most votes wins, even if it's a small fraction of all votes cast) and replace it with one that some hope will lead to more responsible government.

The Assembly's recommendation -- for a single transferable vote (STV) that allows voters to prioritize their voting intentions in multi-member ridings -- will now go directly to the voters in a referendum on May 17, 2005, the date of B.C.'s provincial election. If passed (simple majorities in a least 60% of B.C.'s ridings are needed), it will take effect in 2009 and could set the stage for similar reforms across Canada.

The recommended STV system for British Columbia would mean that between two and seven Members of the Legislative Assembly would be chosen per riding (more in highly populated urban ridings, fewer in rural constituencies) and voters could number their preferred candidates: 1 for their first choice, 2 for the second and so on down the list. I will not plunge into arcane details, but the preferential ballot will allow voters' wishes -- not just their first preference -- to be reflected in the eventual make-up of the legislature.

Thus, election results will more closely resemble the percentage of votes cast for each party. In B.C.'s last election, the NDP received 21% of the vote but only two seats in the legislature (out of 79). New Democrats deserved the shellacking given their 10-year reign of error and incompetence. Even so, NDP supporters should have their political preference better expressed in B.C.'s Legislative Assembly.

Another bonus of a preferential-style ballot is that party discipline may well be weakened as coalition governments become more likely, given that a party's seat share will more closely resemble its percentage of the popular vote. If that occurs, MLAs -- especially independent ones -- will then have more influence than is allowed in the current system. Now, almost every vote against a government by a government member is considered an act of betrayal at worst or a ticket to obscurity at best. The new STV system is also preferable to a highly proportional system where voters are forced to choose MLAs based on lists drawn up by distant party elites, which would preserve excessive party power and was properly rejected by the Citizen's Assembly.

I've been skeptical of electoral reform, because voters don't need to hand parties more power and reduce direct constituency representation, the inevitable result if B.C.'s reforms produced a system where parties present voters with competing lists. But because the STV system is so unfriendly to backroom party bosses producing such lists, that's exactly why I'm in favour of the experiment.

And it is possible that if STV is approved, B.C. will only reinforce the wacky side of its De Cosmos-like reputation. Sure, it's possible drastic electoral reform may lead to multiple tree-huggers and "tree-sitters," chronic dope-smokers and economic illiterates populating the B.C. legislature, and with dire results.

Thus, the B.C. government may wish to provide that the system will automatically revert to first-past-the-post after several elections, unless voters later endorse a permanent change to the voting system having had a chance to give the new system an honest chance and some sober second thought. That would ensure a solution if a dysfunctional system emerges out of this experiment -- one that cannot correct itself. But giving voters a chance to see if the STV experiment will work -- by giving them more power and parties less -- is worth the risk.

Mark Milke, author and columnist, was a director with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in both Alberta and BC. He is the author of two books, Tax Me I'm Canadian - Your Money and How Politicians Spend It and the BC bestseller Barbarians in the Garden City. Milke writes regularly for the Victoria Times Colonist, The Province, The Calgary Herald, and National Post.

[© Copyright 2004, Mark Milke. Reproduced here by permission of Mr. Milke.]
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