BALDREY: Referendum on electoral reform looming

The stark urban/rural divide that has cleaved its way onto our provincial electoral map may be about to play a pivotal role in shaping the outcome of any attempt to change our voting system.

There will be a referendum in the fall of 2018 on whether to move to some kind of proportional representation system. The Greens love the idea, the NDP supports it (sort of) and now it seems the B.C. Liberals are dead set against it.

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Seemingly out of nowhere, B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark has now made it clear her party is against the idea because pretty well any form of PR would rob the vast non-urban regions of the province of a large number of elected representatives.

In an interview last week with Kamloops radio station CHNL, Clark said a move to PR would “tilt the balance of power so dramatically in favour of the cities” and said that “we should all be really worried” about the referendum.

B.C. has long employed a policy of “protecting” ridings that have nowhere near the voting population of most Metro Vancouver ridings, to ensure the makeup of the B.C. legislature reflects the interests of the many people who live outside the more populated urban centres.

For example, there are about a dozen ridings such as North Coast, Stikine, Skeena, Peace River South and North, Nechako Lakes, the two Cariboo ridings, Fraser-Nicola and Columbia River-Revelstoke, that have less than 25,000 voters. But many Metro (and Okanagan) ridings have well more than 40,000 voters).

But pretty well any form of proportional representation would end any such protection of those ridings. The B.C. Liberals, who pretty well own almost all the ridings outside of Metro Vancouver and Vancouver Island (which would also lose MLAs in a PR system), now clearly sense their political interests are not well served by a change in the voting system (Clark had tepidly endorsed the referendum idea when her party was trying to woo the Greens to prop up her government, but that has evidently changed).

The NDP has backed changing the voting system for some time, but the party hasn’t exactly been very vocal about it. That likely reflects the fact that not all New Democrats want to change the system at all.

In fact, it was clear in the last two referendums on electoral reform that a number of prominent NDPers were dead set against the idea. Party activists like communications consultation Bill Tieleman were key players in the push to reject the “yes” option for change, and likely will be active in the upcoming campaign as well.

The Greens like moving to a model of some kind of proportional representation because it pretty well guarantees an ongoing presence for their party in the B.C. legislature.

Our current first-past-the-post system is likely a major hurdle to the Greens gaining significantly more seats in elections.

But a voting system that gives a party a number of seats roughly based on how many general votes it gets would inflate the Green count in the legislature. If it received about 16 per cent of the vote in an election (as it did in May) it would get about 16 per cent of the seats.

So the Greens have a vested self-interest in changing our voting system, and it is why it has made that referendum its number one policy priority.

No, the party’s top priority is not stopping the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, or halting the construction of the Site C dam, or greatly and quickly increasing the carbon tax, or expanding road tolls, or raising all kinds of other taxes.

All those things were in the Green Party platform, but they now take a distant back seat to this looming referendum. The confidence agreement between the Greens and the NDP does not at all guarantee meeting the Greens’ positions on those various other issues, but it does make it clear there will be a referendum on electoral reform.

And it is becoming increasingly apparent that a referendum may further entrench our rural/urban divide.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

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