A majority of minorities


Had the pleasure of putting my dulcet tones to good use last week, or was that my nasally whine?

Either way, I was the guest on Kathi Travers’ radio talk show on CFIS Community Radio. We, along with Jo Graber, talked all things politics and quite likely solved the problems of the world.

One of the interesting topics we discussed, of course, was the ongoing B.C. political drama and the prospect/spectre of a minority government. Jo had compiled some interesting statistics regarding the last six provincial elections in B.C. If B.C. formed government based on popular vote rather than a majority of seats, then we would have had a minority government following five of the last six elections (bearing in mind that the first one would have negated the others as the subsequent elections would have been different).

Personally, I don’t think minority governments are all that bad as they force the governing party to make a concession or two. So far the only argument I hear against minority governments is that ‘you can’t get anything done,’ which usually comes from those who want to rule with impunity.

Much of our current discussion around changing the electoral system, which will undoubtedly result in more minority-type governments, comes from the 1996 provincial election. Liberal leader Gordon Campbell was riding high and his party captured 41.8 per cent of the popular vote. The Glen Clark-led NDP only captured 39.34 per cent of the popular vote, but he did it in the right spots and won 39 seats, enough to form a majority government under first-past-the-post. If we had had a proportional representation system in place then, according to Graber’s numbers, the Liberals would have won 31 seats, the NDP 30, the Reform Party would have had seven, the Progressive Democratic Alliance four seats, and the Greens two … and you think the wheeling and dealing going on now are complicated, imagine the permutations involved in forming a minority government with that many parties at the table (although most proportional representation systems require at least five per cent of the vote to be represented which would have eliminated the Greens in 1996 as they secured less than two per cent of the vote).

At any rate, the result stuck in Campbell’s craw and he promised to at least look at changing the electoral system, should he become premier.

He did five years later. In 2001, after the NDP government had imploded, British Columbians turfed them out with an even more dramatic example of how the first-past-the-post system can be inherently unfair.

Campbell’s Liberals captured 57.62 per cent of the popular vote … a true majority. That 57 per cent of the vote, however, translated into 77 of the then 79 seats in the legislature. Graber calculates that under a proportional system, in 2001 the Liberals would have had 46 seats, the NDP’s 17, and the Greens’ 10 … a legislature more representative of the will of the people.

In the subsequent four elections in which the Liberals won the most seats (this year included), they have never won more than 50 per cent of the vote. Thus, we would have had minority governments and, quite likely, something other than 16 years of Liberal rule.

Liberals, of course, think something other than 16 years of Liberal rule is a bad thing, others, not so much.

It comes down to whether our legislature is truly representative of us … the electorate. First-past-the-post gives absolute power to the party that is first past the post.

The biggest problem with first-past-the-post is politicians. They only govern for those who deliver them. That certainly has become more of an issue here in B.C.

There is a misguided (or at least it should be misguided) feeling that the North will now lose out because it doesn’t have MLAs who will be sitting on the government side of the house. That sense has been fostered by successive governments who routinely ignored ridings that elected opposition members.

Here’s a radical thought … if majority governments delivered into power with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote by the first-past-the-post system had given some legitimacy to views other than their own when governing, then perhaps the majority of British Columbians, who didn’t vote for that governing party, wouldn’t be so hell-bent on changing the system.


About Bill Phillips

Bill Phillips is an award-winning journalist and columnist with more than 30 years experience. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He is the former editor of the Prince George Free Press.