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Gordon Gibson, The Vancouver Sun

14th December, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
Why party politicians don't like the STV

The Vancouver Sun, 14 December 2004

The Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has recommended a new system for choosing our MLAs, dubbed BC-STV. We vote in a referendum five months hence.

Will the proposal pass? And if it does, how will politics change in our province?

Some say that passage will be difficult, because people are inherently conservative and afraid of new things. The implementation hurdle is a fairly high one. Fifty per cent approval will not do. It must be at least 50 per cent in 60 per cent of the ridings, and an approval rate of 60 per cent over-all in the province.

Others say that big business, accustomed to the simplicity of dealing with majority governments, will spend to defeat this initiative, though I have seen no signs of that.

Some point to the rejection of the ward system proposed for Vancouver civic elections less than two months ago, and forecast the same fate for the provincial reform.

This argument, at least, is easily met. The ward system had highly questionable promoters, in the form of the controversial COPE council. By contrast, the ordinary folk of the citizens' assembly had no personal axe to grind, giving a tremendously legitimate parentage.

And in the Vancouver case, voters had to scratch their heads and ask, "What's to fix here?" This is by common consent a first-rank livable city of the world, with one of the strongest financial situations in North America. But when one looks at the way things have worked over the years in Victoria, there is lots to fix, and that argues for change.

The assembly alumni have established their own speakers' bureau to explain the proposal, and an independent "Yes" committee has been formed. The role of the pundits and open-liners will be unusually important on this issue as the two main political parties sit on the sidelines (as they should; the voting process belongs to the people.) It is to be hoped that a "No" committee will materialize, because a system that has survived for more than a century deserves a defence.

My guess is that in the end most folks will take the position that our political system doesn't work nearly as well as it should -- too confrontational, insufficiently responsive, too partisan, remote and so on -- and that the assembly's modernization of the voting system is worth a try.

So if it passes -- then what?

For starters, party bosses will have to change their ways. They have reason to hate STV, because it shifts power from the political parties to the voters and the individual MLAs.

Under the new system, all ridings will be multi-member. Voters rank candidates on the ballot according to their preference, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.

Now, take a typical four-member riding, with local party support at the provincial average. Knowing that each party will get only its percentage "share" of the four seats, the Liberals and New Democrats would each likely nominate three candidates, and the Greens maybe two, or one if they couldn't get their act together. But that means -- think about this -- that Liberal nominees (say) aren't just competing for first choice votes (the most valuable kind) with the New Democrats and Greens, but with each other. Only two out of the three Liberals, or New Democrats, will be elected, and fewer if one Green gets in.

How many to nominate (out of the four slots open) becomes a matter of high strategy. Does a party "lowball" to in effect control who the Liberal or NDP members are, or does it "highball" to present a slate of balanced gender and ethnic diversity in hopes of attracting second preferences or profiting from a landslide?

In general, that will mean the voters get to choose their favourite Liberal or New Democrat, not the party. Horrors!

Moreover -- and think about this, too -- there will be no more safe seats. Just because Jane or Charley has been the NDP member in Vancouver East for 20 years now means nothing, because a fresh New Democrat face might be preferred.

And since everyone wants to profit from the second preferences of voters whose first choice doesn't get counted (because their favourite candidate has already been declared elected, or dropped off at the bottom), it will pay each candidate to be respectful to opponents. New territory, indeed.

In the resulting legislature, party discipline will be less.

Why so? On any given issue MLA Jones or Wong can say to the party whip, "Can't go along on this one -- my voters don't like it." And if the whip insists, on pain of expulsion from the caucus, the MLA can say -- with real credibility -- "OK, you can kick me out, but I will then run next time as an Independent -- and win."

This last statement is true because -- another aspect that party bosses hate -- STV routinely elects well-known Independents, as with about eight per cent of the members in the Irish legislature.

So the political culture, at elections and in the legislature, will change. That is not all. Majority governments, while still possible, will become less usual, since party standings will approximate party share of the vote. Most people think that this is as it should be, and it also means many fewer "wasted votes." Under our current system, in most elections most people's votes are "wasted" in the sense of not electing anyone. STV changes that.

That does not mean unstable "minority government" will be the norm. Most of the democratic world is governed by stable combinations of parties in coalitions, and as soon as politicians adjust to the new reality it works perfectly well.

What ends, of course, is the Canadian tradition of four-year elected dictatorships where the rigid discipline of a majority party concentrates all power in the first minister's office.

All of which tells you why STV is so rare in the world. Voting systems are mostly designed by politicians, and they have reason to dislike STV.

But the voters love it, as the Irish have demonstrated in rejecting two partisan attempts at abolition. A system that is more consensual and open has its attractions.

Gordon Gibson is a former Liberal leader and MLA. He made the recommendations to Victoria on how the citizens' assembly should function and be structured.

[© Copyright 2004 Gordon Gibson. Reproduced here by permission of Gordon Gibson.]  
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