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Rafe Mair editorial

17th December, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
The best political exercise I've seen

The following editorial by broadcaster Rafe Mair ran on AM600 and on 17 December 2004.  

The election date, May 17th 2005, will be the most important Election Day held in my life. That’s not because of the general election but the referendum on whether or not we change our voting system.

The BC Citizens Assembly for Electoral Reform is far and away the best political exercise I’ve ever seen. David Wills, one of the members, made a very important point yesterday … in fact it’s a crucial point … The Assembly did not go into the exercise with the notion that they had to recommend reform. They spent considerable time deciding whether the present system needed any reform at all … and it was only after they decided that the answer was yes, did they embark on a rigorous search for a new system.

The remarkable thing about this exercise is that 160 people, from all parts of the province, from all walks of life, men and women could spend the time they did on such a vexing question without getting at each other’s throats. Just as remarkably, the vote for the Single Transferable Vote … STV … was 153-7. No matter where you come down on this issue you must surely agree that this was a wonderful event and that all 160 must be acknowledged. Indeed I think there’s an argument either for giving them all an Order of BC or striking a special medal for each of them including the Chairman Jack Blaney … who was absolutely the right man for the job.

The debate will commence in earnest in January. What has pleased me so far – and I believe this will continue – is the temperate nature of the argument. The Yes and No sides now forming show every sign of wanting to present all the facts and more importantly, all the opinions that can be brought to the debate. I think this was clearly shown when Julian West and Bill Tieleman, both NDP insiders, incidentally, presented their initial arguments in a sober, good humoured way.

I support the yes side but I want you to know how I will comport myself on this issue. I will give my views both in interviews and editorials, it would be dishonest of me to do anything else given my history of involvement in constitutional affairs. But I will diligently make sure that both sides of the debate have a full and constant opportunity to express their views. As often as we can, we will have each side represented in the broadcast booth. Where we have only one, we will try our best to see that the other side has an early chance to match opinions.

The main evil STV will cure is the imbalance between the popular vote and the number of members a party elects. There would be no more 1996 which the NDP stole nor 2001 where the NDP got but two MLAS where under STV it would have been closer to 16 or 17 – a thrashing but not virtual annihilation.

I have been grossly offended by the present system since I first was elected to the Legislature in 1975. To those who say that BC has prospered with the first past the post I would say that the prosperity was in spite of the system.\

Why do I reject the system so fiercely?

Let’s start with its dishonesty. When you go to the polls, you are told by each of the candidates in your riding why he or she will do the best job. You will hear friends say so-and-so will make a good MLA. This is all stuff and nonsense. The MLA under our system, unless there is a rare hung parliament which we haven’t had sine 1952, is virtually powerless. He can be, in the old expression, a fencepost with hair, for all it matters. When that MLA enters the chamber to represent your constituency he does precisely what he is told. He speaks when the leader tells him to or says that it’s OK to do so and doesn’t dare stray from the party line. He votes as he is told. Even an abstention will bring reprisals.

This changes to some degree if your MLA goes into cabinet. But although every successful MLA on the government side believes he’s slated for cabinet, few are chosen and they have their ironclad discipline.

Parliamentary committees are appointed by the leaders and the whip is on meaning that whatever the opinions of MLAs might be, they vote as they are told.

This is not to say that there isn’t discipline imposed when there is a coalition because there is … but by the nature of the situation each MLA will not be permitted to get away with saying he was forced to vote one way or another. While STV will not by any means eliminate party discipline it will soften it considerably and make the MLA much more accountable to the electorate.

Another softener of party discipline comes in multiple member ridings but we’ll get into that as the "yes" and "no" cases make their arguments in the run-up to May 17, 2005.

What I counsel is something I have a lot of trouble with – patience. I think we should start with the thought that 160 of our fellow citizens, in an overwhelming favourable vote, and after the most careful of examination of plenty of evidence, have made a recommendation. While that doesn’t mean we must agree with them – it does tell us that since none of us have gone through that exercise, we should give considerable weight to the recommendation made.

Plenty more to follow.

  [© Copyright 2004 Rafe Mair.  Reproduced here by permission of Rafe Mair and his website, .]
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