Lessons on electoral reform for B.C.—from New Brunswick

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, October 1, 2018
Lessons on electoral reform for B.C.- from New Brunswick

New Brunswick voters went to the polls last Monday and the ensuing uncertainty (some might say chaos) should be instructive for British Columbia voters as they contemplate voting in the upcoming referendum on electoral reform—specifically, whether or not B.C. should switch to a proportional representation (PR) voting system.

For the first time in New Brunswick’s history, voters delivered seats to two new parties at the expense of the traditional Liberals and Conservatives. The emergence of smaller niche parties in New Brunswick is standard fair in countries with PR systems.

In New Brunswick, the Green Party and the People’s Alliance each won three seats. The Tories elected 22 members compared to the Liberals’ 21. However, the Liberals won the popular vote 37.8 per cent to 31.9 per cent. Conventions in parliamentary democracy dictate that in a minority situation, the lieutenant governor first asks the previous government (the Liberals) if it can form the next government. The Liberals have made it clear that the Green Party is their preferred coalition partner.

However, a combination of the Conservatives and the People’s Alliance would have one more member than an alliance or coalition between the Liberals and Greens, which means a non-confidence vote could be won by the opposition. The odds, therefore, of another election in the near future are high.

To make matters more complicated, eventually a Speaker must be elected, who is normally drawn from the government benches, increasing the gap between the government and opposition. This may seem eerily reminiscent of the 2017 B.C. election where the Liberals received the most seats (and the popular vote) but lost on a vote of non-confidence to the NDP with the support of the Green Party.

Moreover, research on coalition governments shows they are prone to higher spending.

Why? Because in coalition governments, which are the norm in PR systems, the smaller party (or parties) that hold the balance of power have disproportionate influence on policy relative to their seat or vote count. Why? Because the larger parties fear losing the support of their coalition partners, which would force an election. They are more likely, therefore, to acquiesce to the smaller party’s demands, which leads to more spending and more borrowing.

Proponents of PR claim that minority governments are more responsive to the people and that the compromise is more democratic. But in fact, with minority governments, it’s more difficult for voters to hold governments and politicians to account.

Interestingly, if New Brunswick actually had a PR system, the results would have been even more complicated since the NDP, which received five per cent of the popular vote, would have also won seats. This would have likely led to one of the two major parties negotiating with two coalition partners.

Simply put, the current uncertainty in New Brunswick, and the disproportionate influence granted to smaller niche parties, is the norm in PR election systems. British Columbians should consider not only how their last election unfolded—but how New Brunswick’s election is unfolding—when considering a future under proportional representation voting.

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