Bonnie Brownstein, a campaigner in favour of proportional representation, spoke last Thursday at the Museum at Campbell River. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

Campbell River residents mull over options in proportional representation referendum

Electoral reform supporters hold public forum to answer residents’ questions

With a provincial referendum on electoral reform underway, roughly 30 local residents turned out for an event organized by supporters of proportional representation.

Spencer Stubbins and Bonnie Brownstein – co-chairs of Fair Vote Campbell River-Quadra Island – argued that the current system is undemocratic and should be scrapped in favour of proportional representation.

“There’s a lot of people that feel they don’t have a voice,” said Stubbins during the presentation, which took place on Oct. 25 at the Museum at Campbell River. “And whether or not I agree with their opinions, I think their opinions still should be heard.”

He noted that political parties in B.C. routinely form majority governments without the support of most voters. These “false majorities” account for 88 per cent of B.C. governments since 1956, according to the campaigners.

It’s a system that tends to leave voters feeling disenfranchised, especially if they live in a “safe riding” and oppose the party that routinely scoops up that seat, he said.

Brownstein said that countries that use proportional representation – including Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries – perform well on a number of social indicators, including a strong representation of women in office.

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Under proportional representation, parties tend to form coalition governments, resulting in cooperation across party lines, she said.

“That means that parties really have no choice, they have to work together,” she said. “It works very well in many countries, and many countries have been using this system for decades.”

Most of the attendees had received their mail-in referendum ballot and many had questions about the various options.

The ballot – which must be received by Elections BC by Nov. 30 – contains two questions: the first ask voters whether B.C. should use first-past-the-post or proportional representation for provincial elections. The second asks voters which of three proportional representation systems they prefer: dual member, mixed member or rural-urban.

Brownstein stressed that voters can leave the second part blank if they support proportional representation but are unsure about which version to support.

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“All systems on the ballot are better than what we have now,” she said.

All three systems preserve the current level of rural representation and do away with false majorities, Brownstein said.

Party lists

In some versions of proportional representation – including two of the proposed models, mixed member and rural-urban – parties have lists of candidates who get seats based on the votes cast for that party province-wide.

Some party list systems involve “open lists,” which allow voters to cast their ballot for individual candidates on the party’s list, as opposed to “closed lists,” which involves voting for the party’s list of candidates.

A hybrid between the two also exists, where voters have the option of voting for the party list or an individual candidate.

Brownstein said that an open list is the most likely outcome, although that decision would be in the hands of an all-party committee if the referendum turns out in favour of electoral reform and a party list system.

“The Greens are very strongly in favour of open lists, the NDP are most likely in favour of open lists, the Liberals – I can’t imagine that they would want closed lists,” she said. “I highly doubt we’re going to end up with closed lists.”

Some attendees expressed concern about how candidates on regional lists would get to know local voters in large geographic areas.

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Lucas Schuller, a proportional representation supporter who also work on the staff of NDP MP Rachel Blaney, said that regional candidates would go through a normal nomination process, and would then campaign throughout their respective region.

“If you are a candidate on the list, you will be campaigning in that region,” Schuller said, adding that candidates and parties that didn’t show up to campaign locally would likely be penalized by voters.

One member of the audience asked how much the changes would cost to implement, including the salaries for more legislators: the various proportional representation options would add no more than eight MLAs, according to Brownstein.

Nobody ventured to put a price tag on the change, but Schuller and Brownstein said costs for taxpayers would be negligible.

Undecided voters

The crowd included voters who haven’t made up their mind about proportional representation, including Jeremy Maynard, who works at the Quinsam River Hatchery and as a self-employed fishing guide.

“I understand the argument being made against first-past-the-post,” he said. “I’m still not wholly convinced that the alternatives presented in proportional representation are gonna be successful.”

But the crowd also included committed supporters of proportional representation, including Andrea Craddock, an educational assistant at Timberline Secondary and president of the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labour Council.

Craddock said she would vote in favour of proportional representation, but wasn’t yet sure about which of the three models she would choose.

“It’s more important to me that people vote pro rep,” she said. “It’s about having a more democratic system, having a better representation of everybody and also a collaborative government.”

Three systems of proportional representation

Dual-member involves the merger of neighbouring ridings into one riding that would be represented by two MLAs. One of those MLAs would be a candidate whose party receives the most votes, while the second seat would go to a candidate based on province-wide results. The largest ridings would remain single-member.

The mixed-member system involves electing a local MLA in ridings that would be geographically larger but fewer in number, along with regional members from party lists. Those regional members would make the results proportional. The MLAs would be 60 per cent local and 40 per cent regional.

The rural-urban option is somewhat more complex, with voters in merged urban or semi-urban ridings using a ranked ballot to elect multiple MLAs. Rural areas would elect a local MLA along with regional MLAs, as with the mixed-member system.

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