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40 was a travesity but 58 was not a fluke

May 16, 2009

As we all recover from the shock and disappointment of the referendum result on tuesday we need to take a step back and look at what happened.  There was a great article by Andrew Coyne on Macleans a few days before the vote which now has a few insightful comments a day being added, its worth taking a look.  One in particular that went up today jumped out at me which I’ve reprinted below (hope that’s ok Benoit!).  Its angry, and it hurts a bit to hear it because its harsh but mostly because its true.  I personally think the superheroes were great unlike Benoit but I think we also suffered from a bit of isolation that BC-STV was such a reasonable system that it was not really a huge uphill battle.  Especially considering the 58%, but I’ll let Benoit say it. 

How did that happen ?

Well, first of all, there was no need for a referendum. Voting system got changed in 1952 and 1953 in BC without the need for a referendum. Also, in 1991, BC saw its last multi-member riding disappear – again, with no input from the public.

Gordon Campbell got elected in 2001 on the promise to fix that broken electoral system that costed him the victory in 1996. But eh, you don’t saw the branch on which you’re sitting. The Citizens’ Assembly was a great political feat. However, their propsal meant utter disaster : no more unchecked majority government ! Yes, that’s right : it’s been more than 56 years that we have majority governments, where opposition can do nothing but whine in the microphone. All but one had less than 50 of the votes. Read that last sentence again. Now ponder what it means : for more than 56 years, a majority of the people had near zero power ; “minority rules” has almost always been the norm.

Gordon Campbell had the power to legislate the change recommended at arm’s length. Heck ! 77 seats out of 79 – who would oppose him ? But why shoot himself in the foot ? So he sidestepped the proposal, and called for a referendum. But while 50% is enough for BC to leave Canada, he legislated that this one referendum needed 60% of approval to be binding.

And then came the surprise : the 2005 referendum obtained 57.7% of the votes – more than the BC Liberals obtained for their last landslide victory in 2001, when they certainly did not feel rejected. Yet, Gordon Campbell understood that the people of BC had decided to stay with FPTP.

To calm the crowds, the BC Liberals decided to “give it another chance” 4 years later. This next referendum would be equitably funded – the pros and cons would receive the same support from the Government. This time, however, Elections BC, would not educate the citizens. What an odd decision !?

In 2005, Elections BC had spent 1 million dollars to advertise and impartially educate British Columbians on the referendum. As a comparison, the BC Liberal party spent 10 million dollars on electoral expenses.

The ratio of approval per dollar spent was overwhelmingly in favor of STV, especially when considering that a poll conducted shortly after the referendum found out that most of the people who voted “No” did so because they had not been properly informed.

Was it because this very little impartial information yielded so much support that the majority BC Liberal Government (elected with only 46% of the votes) decided to revoke it ?

Anyhow, this time, while maintaining the threshold set for the referendum at 60%, the BC Liberals legislated that two opposing partisan sides would be responsible for educating the public of the pros and cons of the proposed change – each of which would receive half of that same 1 million dollar budget expanded in 2005.

The BC Liberals, who ran in 2001 on the pledge of fixing a broken system, would be forced to remain silent on the issue. The NDP, whose only recent victory was a false majority allowed by that same broken system, followed suit.

The BC Liberals ruled that the “No” side would be a very well introduced organization of political insiders, professional columnists and pundits. In contrast, the “Yes” side would be an amateurish society of volunteers. The budgets would be granted in February, 3 short months before the referendum.

While Elections BC was requested to be impartial and factual, neither of the “Yes” and “No” sides were required to be objective or ernest.

In fact, the very effective “No” side inundated the press with fear-and-loathe tactics, calling STV a “scheme”, a “scam” or a “con” ; disparaged the Citizens’ Assembly ; spread false rumors on the robustness of the system – basically saying it was not working anywhere ; insisting that the results would spell doom and chaos over BC, and that the politicians would go amok, unchecked and unaccountable.

While they were doing so, and mostly for free in most BC newspapers, the amateurish “Yes” side scrambled to build a last-minute grassroots campaign, picturing silly super-heroes, and relying on letters to the editor to react to the smears of the “No” side.

Surprizingly, the public’s answer was a massive, uninformed “No”. That is, only for about 50 percent of the citizens. The other half of them did not even bother to cast a vote.

While canvassing for the “Yes” side, I was surprized to see how few citizens had even noticed a referendum was imminent, and how many of those had already made up their mind on the sole advise of the press. No question, whatsoever : if it’s in the newspaper, it must be true. “You are a con artist, and I will do everything I can to prevent you from sabotaging our world’s finest democracy” – that sentence was all too often readable in people’s sneers. Our signs were trashed, and we were given fingers.

Now the referendum is over, and we are called “losers”. In this country, we don’t grant losers any representation. That is the way our democracy works.

Benoit DE BORGGRAEF
North Vancouver

Benoit points out something about that 58%/40% difference, support of 58% is way above any party ever gets these days in a combative election.  There has been some discussion that given this 40% that the 58% support in the first referendum was a fluke, that people voted yes even though they didn’t understand it.  But maybe they did understand it enough and maybe they trusted the source more because it was presented in a neutral way, not as two sides arguing each other.  There may be a maximum level of support you can achieve in a head to head battle where the choice is more about who the voter trusts than about who is right.

The discussion about electoral reform should not be a partisan issue, it should not be a battle between those for it and those against it.  It should be a reasoned debate about a complex and important issue.  That’s why the Citizen’s Assembly came to such a strong conclusion to support electoral reform.  So the question going forward is not how to prepare for the next battle of Yes vs. No or what snazzy mascot or spokesperson we can grab for the cause.  The question going forward is how trigger a national debate about this issue, how to educate the public of the flaws of FPTP and the benefits of various voting systems so that we can make an informed decission.  Electoral reform is not about one party or interest group against another except in one important way.  It is a battle between those who benefit from the current system and everyone else who doesn’t benefit, who doesn’t get a vote, who doesn’t bother voting because they are tired of their vote being wasted.

It’s Us against Them, but They are those in power and the next time They give us a chance to have a ‘fair fight’ between Yes and No we must reject it and demand instead a vigorous discussion and a clear question on wether any change at all is needed.

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