The BC referendum on electoral reform is fundamentally a question about the future we want for our province.
A new system of proportional representation would lead to a legislature that reflects the popular vote, with more parties working together to share the role of governing. Our current first past the post system tends to feature single-party governments that are usually elected with less than 50% of the popular vote. BC has only had one government elected with more than 50%: in 2001, when 58% of the vote gave the BC Liberals 77 seats, leaving the NDP with only two, and leaving BC with no official opposition for four years.
The origins of our parliament, modelled on the UK’s Westminster system, go back to the 13th century. Its traditions remain embedded in its physical design: two parties, government and opposition, sit on opposite sides of the aisle. Famously, the distance between them is the equivalent of two sword-lengths to prevent literal duels from breaking out. This is a diametric, adversarial system of governance.
Our neighbour to the south also has a two-party system.
There are many reasons for the divisiveness in American politics: growing wealth inequality, historic and systemic racism, instability caused by technological change and the climate crisis. While the US’ democratic design may not be the root cause of all these issues, its majoritarian two-party system is woefully ill-equipped to address them.
A two-party system makes every issue a battle to be fought over because two-party systems are a zero-sum game. Parties either have all the power, or they have none. As the old adage goes, “the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition.” Majority governments, sometimes elected with as little as 39% of the popular vote, don’t need to work with other parties because they can push through their entire agenda unchecked. This dynamic incentivizes opposition parties to focus on getting back into power, rather than constructively contributing to policy.
Come election time, due to the importance of swing ridings, parties “shop for votes” through highly targeted wedge issues, rather than putting forth a comprehensive vision and set of values. Suddenly, an election that should be about health care is about a migrant caravan 1,000 miles from the US border.
After the adversarial campaigns are over, parties largely see their role as dismantling the work of the previous administration. We see this in Trump’s efforts to undo the work of Obama, and Doug Ford’s reversal of the policies of Ontario’s previous government. Ford’s approach has a led to $3 billion blow to the public treasury due to his cancellation of the cap-and-trade program, as well as a litany of lawsuits. These policy swings are not only costly, but destabilizing, creating uncertainty for citizens and investors.
In contrast, governments under proportional representation see multiple parties forming stable, centrist coalitions that advance policies based on evidence and shared values. When a new government comes in, it is more likely to build on that work, rather than tear it down.
Proportional representation will not solve every issue on its own, but I believe that collaboration, compromise and consensus-building are the best tools that will enable us to address today’s challenges.
A system that forces parties to work together will mean politicians focus constructively on policy, rather than scoring political wins. A system where every person knows their vote counts towards electing someone that will represent their values will give British Columbians more power over and faith in their democracy. A system that recognizes that most issues are not black and white and that British Columbians cannot simply be divided into two partisan camps will enable us to find better paths forward.
Do we want an adversarial, two-party system that pits us against each other, or do we want a collaborative, consensus-based democracy where many views are represented? To me, the choice for BC’s future is clear.
Sonia Furstenau is deputy leader of the B.C. Green Party and its spokesperson for electoral reform.
This article originally ran November 1, 2018 in the Georgia Straight