Today, I stood to speak to the debate on the Attorney General’s recommendations for the proportional representation referendum. This represents and extraordinary opportunity for British Columbians to participate in the future of our electoral system and our democracy.
S. Furstenau: I’m very happy to take my place in this critical debate about our democracy. In just less than six months, British Columbians will be asked whether they believe we should modernize the way we elect MLAs to office in our province. They will be asked to consider whether we want to keep our single-member-plurality system, better known as first-past-the-post, or whether we want to join the majority of western democracies around the world and start using a system of proportional representation.
For me, the choice is clear. I want every vote to count for more than they do in our current system. I want to end the practice of governments getting 100 percent of the power with only 40 percent of the vote. More than anything, I want to end the exhausting practice of strategic voting that we are forced to go through every election.
I want citizens to be empowered to vote for what they actually want, not against what they don’t want. The process that will play out this fall will give every voter in British Columbia the chance to ask themselves similar questions about what they value in their democracy, to ask themselves what they want their government to look like.
The Attorney General’s recommendations have started this process. And 91,725 surveys were filled out on line, 1,101 additional questionnaires by selected panel, 208 written submissions from individuals, and another 46 from organizations. I’m hoping I got the numbers right with the Attorney General.
The cynics will cry: “It is not enough.” Yet the truth is that this is the most engagement that a government consultation has ever received on any issue. And we should be proud of that. We should be happy that the citizens of B.C. care this much about their democracy. It’s a sign of healthy democracy.
The Attorney General and his staff should be commended for the work they have done. They have taken an immense volume of feedback and ideas and thoughts from British Columbians and what they have wanted their referendum to look like, and they have struck a balance in their recommendations.
We have a report that addresses the fundamental values that people wanted to see in a referendum, reflecting both the distinct nature of B.C. and its different regions and the core values that we all share across this province.
I’m a historian. As a history teacher, it is interesting to note the history of electoral system change in our province. Our system has actually changed twice, including when we switched to the system that we use now. In both instances, there was no referendum. There were no choices put before B.C. voters. The system was imposed on citizens in back rooms, based purely on political calculation.
By contrast, the referendum we have in the fall offers a truly novel opportunity for British Columbians to shape their system, and indeed, it’s a very rare opportunity for any citizen in any country to be asked to have a say in the future of their electoral systems.
I fully believe in British Columbians’ ability to look at the choices in front of them and to tell their politicians what they want. It is no greater a challenge than what plays out every election when voters have to decide what their parties stand for and which one has earned their vote.
There are few conversations that are more important than those about our democratic institutions, because the way we shape them affects every issue in our lives. Thinking about and engaging in our democracy is vital to ensuring the health of it.
In this conversation, more than most, truth and honesty will be critical. No matter what side of the issue you fall on, whether you want to keep our existing first-past-the-post system or whether you favour updating our system to a form of proportional representation, we owe it to voters to base our arguments for and against in fact, not fiction. If we use fear and conspiracy theories to advance our case, we cheapen the discussion and risk lasting damage to voters faith in our democratic institutions.
The reliance on fear-based rhetoric is actually the primary reason I want to see British Columbia lead Canada in modernizing our electoral system, adopting a form of proportional representation. I believe that our current system of first-past-the-post is a big part of what drives this fear-based rhetoric.
In our system, you can receive 100 percent of the power with a small percentage of the vote. Parties are pushed to escalate their rhetoric and launch accusations of others, because the goal isn’t to appeal to the most people possible. It incentivizes us to appeal to the minimum number that we need to win a seat and to win the minimum number of seats to win a majority.
It creates a winner-take-all mentality, because after most elections with less than the majority of votes, what generally happens is the winner does take all. Majoritarian governments are able to pass any legislation without the need for support from any other parties in the House, and ultimately, the disconnect from the other parties can also become a disconnect from the citizens we are here to represent.
If politics is a numbers game about winning a few swing ridings in order to have all the power, we lose sight of our higher purpose here. We forget that we owe future generations a debt. Minority governments force us to do what the rest of the world must do as a matter of course. They force us to find agreement, to overcome conflict, to work from a place of common values, to listen, to recognize that no one party, no one person has all the answers, and this is a good thing.
Voters can see this, and it drives the disengagement and the downward trend of voter turnout when we force our parties to work in a fear-based, winner-take-all system. It also breeds cynicism, which is so detrimental to democracy. Elections are often reduced to exercises of strategic voting, as we try to figure out who is most likely to beat our least favourite choice, rather than who we actually think deserves to be elected.
I believe that proportional representation offers our province a very different future for our democracy. As I said last fall, imagine an election campaign where ideas and policy are what we’re debating, rather than who the strategic vote is in your area. Imagine an election campaign where parties put forward their vision for the future, rather than putting out attack ads against each other’s leaders.
So let’s get to work and have an honest and open conversation with British Columbians about this referendum. Let’s raise the level of debate in a way that recognizes the importance of what we are discussing. The best outcomes will come from honest debate.
The Attorney General has provided us with his recommendation. Government needs to adopt these as quickly as possible, and British Columbians will ultimately be the ones making the decision. I look forward to this important conversation in the months ahead.