Yesterday, I spoke in the legislature about electoral reform. The referendum on electoral reform will challenge all of us to consider whether we are willing to change our electoral system to one based on proportional representation—where every vote counts and none are wasted. I look forward to engaging British Columbians across this province in the months ahead and campaigning in support of a new way of doing politics in British Columbia.
I rise today, Honourable Speaker, to speak in support of Bill 6, the Electoral Reform Referendum 2018 Act.
An electoral system has a lot of influence on how we practice politics.
A system that is based on opposition and conflict will encourage politicians and candidates to focus on what they oppose rather than what they can hope for.
For three decades this has been the reality in British Columbia. With only two parties represented we have seen both of them define themselves as the antithesis to one another, rather than clearly defining a broader vision for the province.
I found it so disheartening during the election campaign to hear from so many people that they wanted to use their vote to ensure that the Liberals didn’t get into power. Others said they wanted to make sure the NDP didn’t get into power. Many people felt fearful – “I’m afraid that party x will get in, so I’m going to vote for party y – even though what I really want to vote for is party z.”
For me – this is an indication that our political system is failing. People are not showing up at the polls filled with hope based on a vision that’s been presented by a political party – they’re showing up at the polls filled with fear that the party they dislike the most might get in.
And so we see campaigns based on attacking the the other party. The Liberals attacked the NDP, the NDP attacked the Liberals. It seemed that so much of the campaign effort was put into trying to convince voters that the other party is worse.
All this conflict, the attack ads, the nasty mudslinging – it contributes to disillusionment, despair, and ultimately dismissal of the idea that politics can be a force for positive change. And it contributes to fewer and fewer people showing up to vote.
Looking at the statistics from Elections BC, historically BC has tended to hover around a 70% voter turnout. Between 1928 and 1983, turnout was within a few percentage points of 70, with the exceptions of 1945 and 1956 (both 65%). But then we saw a downward trend. 66% in 1986 and 1991, 59% in 1996, 55% in 2001, and down to 51% of eligible voters casting their ballots in 2009.
51%. Nearly half of voters stayed home – and yet so much depends on elections.
Turnout climbed back up to 55% in 2013, and to 60% in the last election. But 60% seems hardly worth celebrating – even if it was an improvement. 4 out of every 10 voters chose not to participate in their own democracy. For me, that’s worrying.
Let’s look, for a moment, at the 2013 results.
Liberals got 44.4% of the popular vote in 2013. This gave them 59% of the seats in the Legislature, and 100% of the power. Every decision was made, every piece of legislation was passed, without needing the support of a single MLA outside of the Liberal caucus. The 55.6% of voters represented by the rest of the MLAs in the House – 33 NDP, 1 Green, and 1 Independent – they could vote together on everything, and it made no difference, because they only had 41% of the seats.
Let’s go over that again. 44% of the vote gets you 59% of the seats and 100% of the power.
The remaining 56% of votes gets you 41% of the seats and 0% of the power.
Let’s dig a little deeper. There was 55% voter turnout in 2013. Of that 55% of voters, 44.4% voted for the BC Liberals. Which means that 24.42% of eligible voters in BC were able to give 100% of power to one party. Three out of four eligible voters did not vote for the party that had 100% of the power. I ask, honourable speaker – does that seem like a success story for democracy?
This is one of the most fundamental problems with a first past the post system in which there are more than two political parties – often the outcome is what’s called a false majority – like we have seen over and over again in BC for decades.
Do parties and leaders acknowledge this? Are they more humble, more prone to collaboration? Unfortunately, it seems that it’s the opposite, honourable speaker. Parties elected declare that voters gave them “a powerful mandate”. Pundits declare landslides. And false majorities are wielded like a bludgeon for four years, without a whisper of acknowledgement that the party with all of the power indeed represents a small portion of the people of our province.
Collaboration between political parties in this province – until recently – was unheard of, and this reality has lead to a deep cynicism about politics.
I believe that we need an electoral system that incentivizes a very different type of politics – one that gives our politicians the tools to work together to be greater than the sum of the parties represented.
We need an electoral system that is aspirational and hopeful – a system that brings out the best in all of us.
It is for these reasons that I am so proud to be speaking to the Electoral Referendum Act. This piece of legislation is the first concrete step towards providing British Columbians with an opportunity to update our electoral system to one that is more fair and engaging.
The Act in front of us today only establishes a basic framework for the referendum that is to follow. Most of the specifics – including importantly the question – has been left until after the Attorney General’s office has had a chance to hear from British Columbians across the province.
This engagement is one of the most fundamental components of this referendum.
It cannot and should not be political parties tinkering behind the scenes with something like the electoral system. This must be a made in British Columbia process and a made for BC question – and it is my sincere hope that we will emerge with a made in BC electoral system that serves the people of this province and moves all of us into a new era of politics.
The Attorney General has taken on the responsibility for establishing and overseeing this process – one that must be independent of partisan influence. This is a significant undertaking by the Minister and one that he will have to have on his mind every day as he works through the process and the submissions that highlight the ideas and concerns of people across this province about how our system currently works – and how it could work better.
I believe it was a prudent and responsible step for the Minister to recuse himself from all discussions in cabinet where the topic comes up. It is a powerful step to protect the legitimacy of the process he is responsible for. It is also why our caucus sent a letter to the Premier notifying him that our caucus will limit our involvement going forward to the public engagement process.
This means that no consultations as envisioned in the Confidence And Supply Agreement will take place between our office and the office of the Attorney General with respect to the administration of the referendum, including respecting the complete independence of the Minister’s office to draft the referendum question.
Proportional representation is something that the BC Greens proudly stand in support of. It is long past time that we moved to a way of voting that will modernize our electoral system and better represent British Columbia’s diverse voices.
At its core, proportional representation is about ensuing that every person’s vote will count. And it’s about moving beyond a system that no longer serves the interests of democracy, given that 100% of power can go to a party that has earned less than 40% of the vote.
This incentivizes a winner take all style of politics that is far too often on display in this legislature. Proportional representation on the other hand requires parties to learn to work together. This may take some time given the adversarial nature of our two-party system, but if we focus on the values and goals we share, we can achieve much more by working together.
On my trip to northwest BC this last summer, what became clear in every community I visited is that there is far more that unites us in BC than divides us. Each community leader hoped for the same types of things – things that we all hope for: vibrant schools where our kids can reach their full potential; hospitals and health centres that give us the peace of mind we all deserve; opportunities for higher education in our own communities, so that our children don’t have to leave home to pursue degrees or training; opportunities for everyone to have meaningful work that contributes to the well-being of the community.
I did not experience an urban-rural divide in my travels. I discovered that everywhere in BC, we have extraordinary communities that are defining themselves on their own terms. We have towns where people have grown up, raised their children, and want to see generations to come thrive, just as their grandparents and great-grandparents thrived. We have communities that recognize that the economic landscape of the 20th century is not the same landscape we have today – and that in places that used to be “one industry towns” we are seeing diverse and exciting opportunities well beyond the scope of a single mill, or a single mine.
Suggesting that we are divided is to dismiss all that connects us in this province – and I would argue, Honourable Speaker, that it’s our job as elected representatives to focus on those connections, rather than try to drive imaginary wedges between the extraordinary citizens of this extraordinary province. What I see every day, and what I saw on my travels are people filled with kindness, compassion, empathy, and a genuine desire to contribute to their communities in a positive way.
The coming weeks and months will see significant discussion about our electoral system. And these discussions will take place in communities across the province. 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 promote their values. All members of this house should be engaged and leaders in this process of weighing the pros and cons of different options and taking part in the debates to come.
However, some of the Members opposite – especially those seeking leadership of the Party – have taken the opportunity to use all manner of fear and misinformation when they talk about proportional representation. They have been shameless in playing one region of the province against another, even as they seek the position of leader of the opposition.
Fear based on trying to divide citizens is one of the most corrosive and damaging approaches to politics. And this is what we are already seeing from Liberal MLAs. “Be afraid!” they say. To support their position, they divide the province into two – Metro Vancouver and everywhere else. Then they try to drive a wedge – creating a classic “us and them” narrative.
This isn’t the leadership that British Columbians expect from their elected officials. Divisive politics based on misinformation does British Columbians a dis-service.
And I would like to point out, Honourable Speaker, that while the BC Liberals are not using First Past the Post for their own leadership race – they’re using a ranked ballot. So while they are loudly proclaiming that first past the post is great for British Columbians, they don’t think it’s a good enough system for their own leadership race.
Our current electoral system has helped allow this politics of fear and division to flourish. Rather than championing a politics of hope, we see people forced to vote against what they don’t want, rather than feel empowered to vote for what they do. This is one of the perverse incentives in our current first-past-the-post system.
And this kind of campaign – fear-based, negative, divisive – this kind of campaign harms communities. Just look at social media – people being unfriended because of which party they support. Heated arguments became normal. And people who had worked together as allies in their communities can no longer work together at all. This kind of winner-takes-all politics harms communities, which are the foundation of a healthy, thriving province.
Imagine an election campaign where ideas and policy are what we’re debating, rather than “who the strategic vote is in your riding.” Imagine an election campaign where parties put forward their vision for the future of the province, rather than putting out attack ads against other leaders.
Do we really think that an electoral system, created in medieval England under very different circumstances, remains suitable today? 80% of OECD countries have adopted a form of proportional representation – including Sweden, Scotland, Germany and New Zealand. These countries have abandoned a medieval electoral system because it does not serve democracy.
And democracy, honourable speaker, matters. BC Liberals are already decrying that we could see a change to our electoral system with a 50 + 1 result. They ignore that we already had over 57% of British Columbians vote in favour of proportional representation in the 2005 referendum. They also ignore the fact that under first past the post, well over 50% of voters end up with a government in power that they didn’t vote for.
Let me end, honourable speaker, with my election day story.
After months of hearing people tell me over and over that they wanted to vote Green because the policies reflected their values, they were afraid. “I’m afraid I will split the vote,” they would say. And this narrative was certainly a strong one from the NDP campaigns. “A vote for BC Greens is a vote for the BC Liberals,” they would say.
This is only one of the many ways that first past the post distorts election campaigns – rather than debating policy, the airwaves were filled with this type of fear-based messaging.
And then May 9th came along. We’d worked hard. We’d knocked on over 8000 doors. And we’d run an assiduously positive campaign.
It was a beautiful spring day in the Cowichan Valley – and I started the day with breakfast in Duncan at the always busy, and always delicious, Duncan Garage. From there I went with my dear friend Stephanie across the street to Charles Hooey Park. Within moments, we were approached by a friendly, smiling woman. “I just voted for you, and for the first time I felt joy in the voting booth,” she said. We talked, and I thanked her – and I said what I have said so many times before: voting should be joyful.
Voting is an extraordinary moment – a moment when a citizen, when all citizens, can participate in deciding what future they want. And if it is not a moment of joy, then we as politicians, as elected officials, are failing.
For the next couple of hours I stayed in the park, and there was a steady stream of people who came to tell me over and over again – I voted for you, and I feel hopeful, or joyful, or optimistic. There were many hugs, many laughs, and even some tears. At our election night event that evening, the room was filled with love – our campaign team had campaigned with love in our hearts, we’d refused to engage in negativity or attacks, and we’d gotten to the end of a long but invigorating six months feeling proud of what we’d done.
In an era of polarized, sometimes poisonous, often divisive campaigning punctuated by personal attacks – we had chosen a different path. We’d chosen to build community, not tear it down. This is what politics and governance should be about – building, not tearing down. It should be about a hopeful vision for our future and working together to get there. We have everything we need in the province to ensure that all British Columbians can thrive – our job as politicians is to figure out how best to make that happen. Anger won’t lead us there. Neither will fear. Hatred certainly won’t. Indeed – history shows us, over and over, that cooperation, collaboration, and respect are the foundations of the most successful societies.
This referendum will challenge all of us to consider whether we are willing to take a leap of faith and change our electoral system to one based on proportional representation – where every vote counts and none are wasted. As we focus on building BC into a jurisdiction that is ready for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, we need to move to a 21st century electoral system. I look forward to engaging British Columbians across this province in the months ahead and campaigning in support of a new way of doing politics in British Columbia.