Why rural and northern British Columbians should vote for PR

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart

BY PETER EWART

Special to the News

As someone who was born and raised in the Interior of British Columbia, I believe proportional representation (PR) will be a refreshing change for northern and rural areas of the province for several reasons. 

Under PR, every rural and northern vote will count

With PR, if political parties are to be successful, they must strive to gather every vote they can from across the province, including northern and rural areas such as ours.  Under PR, unlike first-past-the-post (FPTP), every vote will count towards electing MLAs and be reflected in the composition of the Legislature.  No longer will votes be “wasted.” If a party gets 30 per cent of the vote in a region, rather than being frozen out as is usual under FPTP, it will receive 30 per cent of the seats.

When every vote counts, currently “safe” northern and rural seats can no longer be taken for granted by dominant political parties, nor can they be written off by their competitors who presently see little chance of winning under FPTP. 

Regardless of the electoral system, as the population grows in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, the skewing of seat distribution away from northern and rural B.C. will continue to widen.  PR will not change this demographic trend, but it does mean that political parties will have a built-in motive to compete for every vote they can get in every region of the province.

PR will end “false majorities”

One of the drawbacks of FPTP is that elections regularly result in “false majorities” where a political party obtains a majority of the seats with only 40 per cent of the vote or even less.  This breeds arrogance in government often at the expense of more rural and northern regions where a government can disregard popular opposition to its policies yet still win provincial elections. 

PR will end regional monopolies

In British Columbia, with the current FPTP voting system, elections often end up with regional monopolies where one party has all the seats despite 30 or 40 per cent of the votes going to other parties.  For example, the BC Liberals have a regional monopoly on seats in many parts of the Interior and North of B.C., while the NDP has one on Vancouver Island where the Liberals got 30 per cent of the vote, yet only one seat out of 14.

PR will mean that, instead of all or most of the seats in the Interior and northern B.C. going to the Liberals, at least a couple will go to opposition parties to better reflect the popular vote.  And the same will be true on Vancouver Island where the NDP currently has its monopoly. 

PR means more choice for voters

Instead of being stuck with one MLA, voters in rural and northern areas will have the opportunity to vote for both a local MLA and one or several regional MLAs who may belong to other parties.  This means that, after an election, if they are not satisfied with their local MLA addressing their issues, they can seek out a regional MLA or vice versa.

In addition, PR means that each region of the province will always have a mix of government MLAs and Opposition MLAs.  As a result, voters will have more choice and there’ll be more competition between parties.

Under PR, fewer surprise attacks by government

One of the serious defects of FPTP is that it makes it easier for governments to mount surprise attacks on voters in the Interior and North and the province as a whole, such as was done with the hated Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) back in 2009.  PR most often results in coalition governments which means that policies must have broader support than under FPTP and surprise attacks are harder to pull off. 

Voters to vote their conscience

FPTP means that voters often have to hold their noses and vote for parties they don’t like simply to keep out parties they like even less.  Under PR, voters will be able to vote their conscience and support parties and candidates that align with their beliefs and values.  This is especially true in the Interior and northern areas of B.C. where candidates who champion rural causes often run.  PR means that voters can vote their conscience and have a better chance that their chosen party will win and take rural issues into the Legislature.

Proportional representation will not solve all the problems associated with the rural / urban divide in British Columbia, but it is markedly better than first-past-the-post which deepens regional disparity and alienation.  Each of the three PR options on the referendum ballot would be a significant improvement. That is why, in my view, PR deserves our support.

Peter Ewart is a writer and community activist based in Prince George, BC.  He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca