Proportional representation – how did we get here?

UNBC political science professor Tracy Summerville gave an excellent talk on proportional representation last week.

As likely only a university professor can do, she explained all four of the voting systems we will be asked to vote on this fall (yes, there are four if you include the current system, single member plurality otherwise known as first-past-the-post) without promoting one system over the other.

She said she is willing to speak to groups and organizations about proportional representation around town, so if you’re group is wondering what’s up, give her a call, her presentation is worth it.

There were about 60 people at the library to hear Summerville’s talk, which was an excellent turnout for a subject that, well, isn’t the most exciting. But the good turnout shows that people in Prince George are interested and they are engaged.

That’s a good thing. Becoming educated about the systems and then choosing the one you like is much better than deciding you don’t like one system or another because of meme you saw on Facebook or because your neighbour, who always rants at you over the back fence, doesn’t like one system or another.

One of the questions that was asked a few times at the presentation was “where is this coming from?” or, more directly, “who’s pushing this?” The inference, of course, is that some special interest group is pushing this agenda.

I don’t believe that to be true. The Green Party stands to gain the most, and are certainly pro-proportional representation, but the root causes go a lot deeper than that. Remember, this is the third referendum we’ve had on this … two were put forward by the Liberals and this one by the NDP, so going down this road isn’t strictly a party issue.

The resurgence of proportional representation, which was used in British Columbia up to the early 1950s, really started in the mid-1990s.

NDP Premier Mike Harcourt was forced to set down because of a scandal that really wasn’t his making, and Glen Clark took over the party. Across the aisle, Gordon Campbell had wrestled the Liberal party away from Gordon Wilson and looked very much like a premier-in-waiting.

When the dust settled on the 1996 election night, the NDP had won 39 seats and the Liberals 33. The kicker, though, was that the Liberals had captured 41.82 per cent of the popular vote while the NDP had captured 39.45.

Even though the Liberals had garnered more votes across the province, the NDP formed a majority government. The NDP were laughing, the Liberals were fuming, and Gordon Campbell started talking about reforming our electoral system. (As an aside, the Reform Party, led by Jack Weisgerber captured 9.27 per cent of the popular vote but took no seats and Gordon Wilson’s upstart Progressive New Democrat Alliance captured 5.74 per cent of the vote and one seat. Under proportional representation each party would have passed the five per cent threshold and would have secured seats).

Flash forward to 2001, the icing on the cake. Clark, after some major scandals was forced out and the premiership became a bit of a revolving door. There was no doubt in 2001 that the NDP were on the way out, the question was how would it be.

Well, it was bad.

The Liberals won 77 of the 79 seats in the Legislature to the NDP’s two. However, the Liberals only captured 57.62 per cent of the popular vote. A landslide, for sure, but their dominance in the Legislature didn’t even closely represent the popular vote. For the NDP’s 21.56 per cent of the popular vote, they won two seats and the Green Party, led by Adrianne Carr, captured 12.39 per cent of the vote but had no MLAs.

Give Campbell credit, he followed through on his promise to reform the electoral system and struck a Citizen’s Assembly to delve into it and BC-STV was born.

Even though our system hasn’t produced wild results like in 1996 or 2001 since then, we’ve seen what can happen and it’s been on and off the backburner ever since.