Despite Green Party demands, changing B.C.’s electoral system requires a referendum

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Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, May 27, 2017

British Columbia’s recent election may be the last under a First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system.


Because both the Liberals and NDP need the support of the Green Party to form a majority coalition, and as a condition of their support, the Greens are demanding that the province’s electoral system be changed, most likely to a form of proportional representation.

Troublingly, according to reports, the Green Party is pushing for this change without a referendum.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver has said there’s no need for a referendum to change B.C.’s electoral system because “the system we have in place today, First-Past-The-Post, was brought in by W.A.C. Bennett without a referendum. It used to be a preferential balloting system and then it got him into power, and then immediately he got rid of the preferential balloting system with no referendum.”

Weaver’s reading of history is both misleading and incomplete.

Heading into the 1952 election, the Liberals and Conservatives, who were governing in a coalition, were concerned that the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) would gain power. To prevent this outcome, they decided to change the electoral system from FPTP to the Alternative Vote (AV) where voters rank their choices on the ballot. The Conservatives and Liberals estimated that each would be the other’s second choice, thereby securing another shot at government. And yes, they did so without a referendum.

However, elections are never foregone conclusions and the Liberal/Conservative gambit failed. While the CCF did not form government in 1952, a fourth party—Social Credit—won a minority government followed by a majority in 1953. After that election, Bennett and the Socreds abandoned the experiment (which was pursued for purely political reasons) and returned to FPTP.

Put simply, the Socreds made electoral changes without a referendum to restore the traditional approach of elections, which, again, had been changed without a referendum.

Perhaps more importantly for the current debate, there are ample precedents for a referendum on electoral reform within B.C. and across Canada.

On four separate recent occasions, Canadians voted on electoral reform: Prince Edward Island (2003), Ontario (2007) and B.C. (2005 and 2009). P.E.I. also held a plebiscite in 2016. In each case the referendums failed because the threshold for support was not met.

Weaver is aware of these outcomes and has used them to argue against a referendum. As he stated in an interview with Fair Vote Canada, “The problem with a referendum is that you often lose.” But obviously, just because referenda have been unsuccessful in the past is no reason to deny British Columbians their right to choose how they elect their political representatives.

Moreover, beyond a clear precedent that demands a referendum, because electoral reform was not a major issue in the campaign, no party can claim a legitimate mandate to change the electoral system.

It’s ironic that politicians are considering changing the way British Columbians vote without giving them a say as to which system they prefer.

But beyond the irony, based on precedents and the lack of a clear mandate to change the way we vote, any reform should be put to British Columbian’s through a referendum. Let’s hope that short-term political decisions interfere with this fundamental tenet of our democracy.

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