Yesterday, I rose to speak against an amendment put forward by the BC Liberals on Bill 6. This bill is about setting up a conversation about whether our current electoral system is the best system to advance the values that British Columbians share.
I rise to speak to the amendment to Bill 6.
There are few topics that are more important to receive a full conversation than changes to our electoral system. For the past couple of months, this House has been having exactly this discussion on Bill 6.
Despite what members across the way have been saying, this bill in and of itself does not provide for any sweeping changes to our electoral system or the way we practice democracy.
What this bill is fundamentally about is setting up a conversation for this province about whether our current electoral system, first-past-the-post, or single-member plurality is the best system to advance the values that British Columbians share. Although this specific conversation started in the Legislature just over two months ago, I think it’s important to remember that this is a conversation that has been ongoing in B.C. and in Canada for a long time.
In a democracy with any type of electoral system, discussion is always healthy. We should never be complacent about democracy. We should never forget that it is hard-earned, and we should never shy away from improving it.
Democracy evolves. We see that in our own province’s history, where the right to vote had to be extended to women, to Indigenous people. For a few decades now, we’ve been having discussions about how to ensure that everyone in our province feels that their vote counts.
Bill 6, by design, is a bill that invites British Columbians into this conversation. Rather than government making unilateral decisions about the details concerning a referendum on proportional representation, this bill leaves many of the decisions to a consultation process that just got underway.
The process asks British Columbians to weigh in on everything from what the question or questions should be to what system best represents their values to how funding should work this bill leaves many of the decisions to a consultation process that just got underway. The process asks British Columbians to weigh in on everything from what the question or questions should be to what system best represents their values to how funding should work for opponent and proponent groups.
For the next three months, British Columbians will be involved in helping to make these decisions. Once this process ends, the Attorney General will be writing a public report based on what he heard and providing recommendations to cabinet about what the referendum process and question, or questions, should look like. All of this takes place before we even start the actual referendum campaign.
When it does finally begin, the referendum campaign will take this conversation to the next level. I expect we will see individuals, in groups across the political spectrum, engage with voters and give their perspective on changing to a system of proportional representation.
This is what Bill 6 sets up: a conversation about our democracy. I know the member who introduced this motion is concerned about ensuring that this discussion can take place, so let’s look at what we’ve already covered in the House up to this point. The debate we have had in the Legislature this fall has provided us with considerable time to consider all manner of arguments about our electoral system and the merits and consequences of changing it.
My colleagues and I have provided our thoughts about the challenges we see with our first-past-the-post system. We think that in a modern democracy like B.C., when a system consistently produces majority governments with only 40 percent of the vote, effectively disenfranchising 60 percent of voters, there is room for improvement. That’s why we campaigned on proportional representation, and that’s why we believe it’s essential to be engaging British Columbians in this important conversation about the future of our democracy.
Let’s look at the 2013 election, for example. The B.C. Liberals got 44.4 percent of the popular vote, which gave them 59 percent of the seats in the Legislature and 100 percent of the power. Every decision, every piece of legislation was made and passed without needing the support of a single MLA outside of the Liberal caucus. The 55.6 percent of voters represented by the rest of the MLAs — 33 NDP, 1 Green, and 1 independent — could vote together on everything, and it made no difference.
So 44 percent of the vote gets you 59 percent of the seats and 100 percent of the power. No wonder the B.C. Liberals want to keep this system. But let’s dig a little deeper.
There was a 55 percent voter turnout in 2013. Of that 55 percent, 44.4 percent voted for the B.C. Liberals, which means that absolute power was given to one party based on only 24.4 percent of eligible voters in B.C. casting their vote for that party. Three out of four eligible voters did not vote for the party that had 100 percent of the power. I ask: does that sound like a success story for democracy?
By routinely sweeping parties to absolute power with less than 50 percent of the vote, first-past-the-post creates a winner-takes-all mentality to governing. It fosters a polarized political environment, and it enables parties to wield their power to force through their policy agenda without needing a single vote of agreement from any other party. Our system discourages cooperation and encourages politicians and candidates to focus on what they oppose, rather than what they support.
I believe we need an electoral system that incentivizes a very different type of politics, one that gives our politicians the tools to work together. Our province’s first minority government in over 60 years shows us what’s possible when we commit to a different approach, one where MLAs from different parties work together.
We frequently have different approaches than the NDP to the issues. That’s no surprise. But what this system forces both of us to do is to focus on the shared values that we want to advance. It drives us to find a way forward together.
Take the new ban on corporate and union donations. In only a few months, this minority government has brought forward what this system forces both of us to do is to focus on the shared values that we want to advance. It drives us to find a way forward together.
Take the new ban on corporate and union donations. In only a few months, this minority government has brought forward and passed a landmark piece of legislation that was gridlocked under the previous false majority government. It’s these sorts of accomplishments that this approach makes possible.
Here’s what I’ve heard from constituents in the Cowichan Valley. “Thank you for working across party lines.” “Thank you for putting aside your differences and working together.” And: “We are so happy with the outcome of the election.” But most importantly, what I’ve heard over and over again from people, “For the first time in a very long time,” they tell me, “I feel hopeful about politics in B.C.”
I am really grateful for these positive messages, but I’m also saddened. How is it that we get to a point that people in this province stopped feeling hopeful about politics? Politics should be inspiring. Politicians should be presenting a hopeful vision for the future and then working hard to bring that vision to fruition. If we as politicians are failing to inspire hope in the citizens of this province, then I would suggest we’re failing as politicians.
Proportional representation, on the other hand, requires parties to learn to work together. It creates an inclusive form of politics where parties have to collaborate to fix the issues that matter most to British Columbians. Power isn’t an absolute exercise. It requires compromises that ensure more people’s views are represented.
Proportional representation will ensure that every person’s vote counts, and it will enable people to vote for what they believe in. Even if your neighbours all vote differently than you, your vote still counts. I think a more reflective, more responsive system is an exciting prospect for many British Columbians who right now feel that their voice isn’t heard at the polls.
The complexity of the problems that face our province today are ill-matched with a system where we sweep one party in and out of power, removing both institutional knowledge and policy direction. In many jurisdictions, proportional representation is associated with higher voter turnout, because people feel that their vote matters — and indeed, it does. When people know that their vote won’t be wasted and that they can vote with their hearts, they turn out to vote. This makes our democracy stronger and makes all of us in this place more responsive to the needs of our citizens.
All members of this House should be engaged and should be leaders in this process of debate about changing our electoral system. This debate is extremely important, and it’s why we’re having a more than three month long consultation.
But let’s go back even further. Both the B.C. Greens and the B.C. NDP had electoral reform in their platforms. This was something that was actively campaigned on by both parties. With over 57 percent of voters having cast ballots for one of our two parties, there was a clear mandate to bring this forward. The B.C. Liberals even had a referendum in their throne speech read out this past summer.
This isn’t a surprise. This has been talked about in B.C. for over a year. We don’t need to delay the bill for six months to examine the merits of the arguments put forward by the members opposite. We can do that in the chamber and in consultation process and referendum campaign that will follow. Engagement is important, and I hope that people on all sides of the debate will continue to make their voices heard.
I do think it is important to address some of what we have heard from the members opposite over the course of this two-month debate. For me, these arguments have really broken down into two parts. Some of these arguments raised concerns that I believe many people across our province, including myself, share about the state of democracy.
Other arguments amount to divisive, self-serving rhetoric that is only intended to polarize and divide us into camps.
Let’s look at the concerns that have been raised about the rise of extremism globally and in our own democracy. It is easy to see that extremism in many forms is on the rise all across the world. What is often that is only intended to polarize and divide us into camps.
Let’s look at the concerns that have been raised about the rise of extremism, globally and in our own democracy. It is easy to see that extremism in many forms is on the rise all across the world. What is often overlooked by the members opposite is that this is happening regardless of electoral systems, not because of them. The rise of extremism is a societal problem we must all confront together. Its source is most often inequality — a growing gap between those who have opportunities to live healthy, fulfilling lives and those who do not.
The United States uses a first-past-the-post system like Canada, and yet they are one of the main sources of instability facing the world. We can see how inequality has driven a wedge in their society and how that is now exploited by parties for partisan gain. Their system is a caution for every country that allows divisive partisan politics and out-of-control rhetoric to fester.
Avoiding this type of divisive extreme politics is actually one of the reasons I am such a strong supporter of proportional representation. I believe that a system of proportional representation, one that brings people together on those values that we share to advance solutions to the issues that we all face, is preferable to our current system that puts the emphasis on the differences between us. We need a political system that is inclusive and that allows us to take challenges like inequality head-on in all regions of our province. We don’t need a system that pitches regions against each other. This is the discussion I hope we can have with this referendum.
However, one of the things I have been genuinely surprised about is the willingness of some of the members opposite to use their opportunity, in this House speaking to this bill, to compare a democratic conversation about the best way to elect representatives in our democracy to the steps that lead to extremism.
These haven’t been just passing references to extremism. Speaker after speaker has raised the idea that a force like naziism might take root in B.C. One speaker even alluded to the fact that we are taking steps along the path to repeating the Holocaust. To suggest that, by changing our electoral system to a model used successfully in almost every OECD country, we are enabling this type of extremism is, frankly, insulting and irresponsible, and it greatly diminishes one of the worst moral failures to unfold in modern history.
This irresponsible rhetoric only serves to drive wedges between people in this province. It is fear-based and tries to reduce us to our worst fears, rather than inspire us to build a system that represents our best values. The members opposite may choose not to believe in British Columbians. They may not believe that our system can be improved, but I do.
The other main argument that is worth highlighting — as we consider the amendment before us to provide additional time — is the concern that has been raised about rural representation. I am as concerned as any member in this House about ensuring that all of the distinct community voices across our province can be represented. Across our province, we have extraordinary communities that define themselves on their own terms. I am from one such community on the Island.
It was actually the sense that we were being shut out of the decision-making process that drove me to run for office. It is because that last government felt so comfortable ignoring our voice that I am such a strong supporter of proportional representation. The B.C. Liberals claim that they alone represent rural B.C., but the reality is that almost 50 percent of the voters in these ridings did not vote for them.
No voices should be shut out in our democracy. Our current system doesn’t elevate these voices at all. In the last government, the only way a riding had a voice was if you elected someone from the governing benches. I was disturbed, during the election campaign, to have that reiterated over and over again from system doesn’t elevate these voices at all. In the last government, the only way a riding had a voice was if you elected someone from the governing benches, and I was disturbed, during the election campaign, to have that reiterated over and over again from the Liberal candidate.
Thankfully, this is changing, with a minority government. What I support is a made-in-B.C. system of proportional representation. You want local representation? So do I. You want to make sure the unique contributions of rural B.C. are appropriately weighted? So do I. This is the conversation that Bill 6 and the consultation process creates the space for. Let’s start having real conversations about the values we want our electoral system to represent and put systems on the ballot that do just that.
Let’s imagine it’s possible to improve our system and not accept a status quo that shuts out voices. Enough with the rhetoric that proportional representation steals the voice of the north. Enough with the empty fearmongering, calling this a power grab. How does this inspire? How does it create hope?
The B.C. Liberals are arguing, with this amendment, that we need more time for these conversations. I would argue this entire process has been set up to accomplish exactly that. Rather than attack every aspect of this process, perhaps it is worth engaging substantively in the conversation about the challenges of our current system and the merits of changing to a system of proportional representation.
Ahead of us, we have a three-month consultation process that will inform the government about how British Columbians want the referendum process to work and what they want the question to be. Following that, we will likely have several months of debate, during the referendum campaign, about the reasons for and the reasons against changing our system.
Changing our electoral system is not a decision to be taken lightly, and every British Columbian deserves to be heard and to formulate their own position about what type of system will best capture their values. I believe that the path laid out by government allows for this to take place, and I will not be supporting the amendment.