Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sifting through the ashes for signs of pro-PR life in Canada after latest big referendum defeat...

B.C. voters opted for status quo by 61.3% this year
After this week's big defeat for proportional representation (PR) in the British Columbia referendum, change in Canada remains as elusive as ever.
It's almost enough to make me give up that change is even possible.  

This was the third referendum B.C. has held on the question of voting reform.

The first vote in 2005 was a simple Yes or No vote on a proposed system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is used in Ireland, that was recommended by a B.C. Citizens' Assembly.  That referendum immediately followed four years of near one-party rule in the legislature after the B.C. Liberal landslide in 2001 of 77 out of 79 seats.  Voters seemed to grasp the folly of the current system and voted Yes in 2005 to change with 57.7%.  However, the conservative masters in the B.C. Liberal government had set the bar for change at 60% that year and thus the reform failed.

Considering the ambiguous result with a majority voting in favour of change, to his credit, former B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell held another referendum in 2009.  But this time it was a choice between the proposed PR system STV against the current system, First-Past-The-Post.  That year, voters opted to support the status quo with 60.9% of the vote, with only 39.1% voting for proportional representation. 

With the formation of a NDP minority government in B.C. supported by the Green Party in 2017, the prospect of a third referendum came about.

I've been a critic of our current First-Past-The-Post system for years.  Its distortions of voters' intentions, frequently handing the winning party a majority of seats with only a minority of the vote, have irked me to no end.  It has frequently led to the enactment of conservative policies not supported by the majority of voters, like in Ontario right now.  Even worse, First-Past-The-Post sometimes hands the second-place party the most seats, as it did recently in New Brunswick, leaving voters with a government that looks nothing like what they voted for.

The best solution has seemed to move to a proportional representation system so that voters' intentions are reflected in the seat count.  However, there are no PR systems that are easy to understand, including how they use formulae, percentages, or regional lists of at-large candidates to arrive at final seat counts.  All of them look incredibly convoluted next to the current system.

I had hoped for a victory this year.  If not that, I had hoped to see some growth in the support for PR among voters. 

Yet nine years on, the margin against change is even slightly stronger.  This year, 61.3% of B.C. voters opted for First-Past-The-Post.  Despite excellent arguments and years of discussions, there was no growth in support for PR among voters who actually participated in the vote. 

Proponents for reform have argued over and over that 1 + 1 should equal 2 in our voting system.  We've said over and over that 2 + 3 should equal 5, not 2 + 3 = 3 as it does under First-Past-The-Post.  We've argued that 3 + 4 should equal 7, not 10 or 12 as it does sometimes under our current system.

Simple enough.

But voters keep rejecting this argument, opting instead for a system that frequently distorts voters' intentions, handing one party all the power in the legislature. 

It's hard for me to understand this reality.  I'm an idealist perhaps who thinks systems should be primarily just and fair to all, or to as many people as possible.

But sadly, I've also come to realize that the majority of my fellow citizens see life quite differently, particularly those who are more conservative in their values.  To them, life is not about fairness for all, but is winner take all.  To them, life is a race and those who finish first get the spoils and that's how it should be.

First-Past-The-Post rewards mainstream, middle-of-the-road voters who would never describe themselves as radical.   It's fair to say that 70 to 80% of Canadians would largely be found in the centre / centre-left / centre-right area of the political spectrum.  I would consider myself to be centre-left, for example.  While I didn't vote for John Tory this year, I consider him to be centre-right.  So rarely am I overly offended by most of what he does as he's a fairly moderate conservative.

If my moderately progressive side loses an election, as long as the winners aren't too radically conservative, I can live with it for a few years.  It's when our current system rewards a radical conservative do the faults of First-Past-The-Post become more glaring to me.

Canada in some ways has embraced the concept of the collective good.  Our universal health care system is a shining example of this.  Most Canadians do adhere to the notion of basic equality under the law.   

Yet when it comes to our voting system, the majority of Canadians seem to have a block.  A majority of us don't seem to care much that the votes of many have zero impact on the make-up of the legislature.  So cynical are we perhaps about politicians and government, we don't see much upside to a system that produces a more proportional result.  The impact will likely be much the same, I presume many believe.  So why change to a more convoluted system which would have two types of elected representatives (those representing districts and those representing wider regions or perhaps the province as a whole elected from lists)?  I suspect most voters believe life would be little different under PR than under the current system.  Furthermore, most Canadians probably believe that things in Canada, while not perfect, are pretty damn good.  Especially compared with other parts of the world (including other countries where they have proportional representation.) 

There is one more chance for change in the near future in Prince Edward Island.  A non-binding plebiscite was held there in 2016 where voters did pick PR by well over 50%.  But the Liberal government there decided to ignore the results as turnout in the plebiscite was only 36%.  They are instead going to hold another plebiscite in conjunction with the next provincial election in October 2019.  (Incidentally, the pro-PR Green Party in Prince Edward Island currently seems poised to make major gains if not win outright that election.) 

But even if PEI does embrace PR, while it would be a rare Canadian victory for change, it's unlikely it would provide much momentum to the PR cause in Canada.

Especially after such huge defeats for PR in British Columbia, perhaps the most progressive of English-Canadian provinces.

Quebec's new CAQ government did promise to change to a system of proportional representation.  But I'm betting that new premier Fran├žois Legault will figure out a way to abandon that promise and keep the current system which handed him a majority government with only 37% of the vote.

Had the B.C. vote showed growing support this week for PR, there might be cause for optimism.  If we had seen generational change with more voters moving toward change, one could argue that reform is only a matter of time (like it was for so many other social justice issues over recent decades.)

This opinion poll conducted by Angus Reid did indicate that 54% of voters aged 35 to 54 supported PR, as did 67% of voters aged 18 to 34.  It was older voters who massively defeated PR in B.C.

However, I have to quibble with the poll which doesn't seem to jibe with actual voter turnout in B.C.   The poll asked respondents how they voted in the 2017 B.C. provincial election (when overall 40% voted Liberal, 40% voted NDP and 17% voted Green) and compared it with how they say they voted in this year's referendum.

Angus Reid says that 84% of B.C. Liberal voters supported First-Past-The-Post this year, while 70% of NDP supporters voted for PR, and 74% of Green voters voted for PR too. 

But when you do the math, that equates to about 50% for First-Past-The-Post and 47% for PR.  However, the referendum final result was 61% for First-Past-The-Post and only 39% for PR.  Thus, I have to conclude this poll is either inaccurate or supporters of the status quo are simply much more motivated to vote in referendums on this question.

Either way, it's not good for PR.

It may be time to give up on the PR dream in Canada. 

Constantly putting forth the same strong arguments yet getting crushed in favour of the status quo is getting very tiring.

Yet I expect advocates for change won't give up.  In life, anything worth having never happens easily.  The arc of history does bend toward justice as long as those who want justice continue to fight for it.

Because fundamentally, the distorted results and injustices of First-Past-The-Post can't be allowed to stand forever.   

Regardless of poll results, there is strong reason to believe that younger generations (currently aged 18 to approximately age 54) do strongly value true equality and fairness - values that First-Past-The-Post constantly offend.  That younger demographic will continue to get bigger and bigger.   

Eventually, the older generation will die off, let's be honest.  When Canada is 99% Generation X and younger, it's reasonable to assume that - should strong arguments continue to be made in favour of a voting system that produces results in line with the population's wishes - change is not only possible but likely.

In the mean time, let's keep our eye on PEI.

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