PR referendum outcome – the issue of voter empowerment remains

Peter Ewart
Peter Ewart

BY PETER EWART

Special to the News

The vote is clear in the referendum.  About six in 10 of voters in B.C. have cast their ballot in favour of keeping the First Past the Post system, rather than adopting Proportional Representation.

Is this the end of electoral reform in B.C. as some politicians and pundits on both sides of the debate are claiming?  Far from it.  The striving of voters for more empowerment remains.

In the referendum, it was interesting that British Columbians on both the PR and FPTP sides of the debate raised the issue of too much party control over the electoral process and not enough power for the citizenry.  This is a legitimate and longstanding concern.  And one that transcends party and factional interest.

For example, back in 1991, in the referendum to adopt legislation that would give citizens the right to recall MLAs, as well as launch Initiatives – in other words giving more power to the citizenry – British Columbians voted overwhelmingly in favour (over 80%).  This shows that for electoral reform to be successful in the province it must transcend party interest.

Vote counting systems like FPTP and PR are just one element – and some would argue a relatively small element – in the overall issue of voter empowerment, of the citizenry having more control over government, the economy and their lives.

In a true democracy, sovereign power lies with the people.  But is that the case today with the current party-dominated system?  Yes, we get to vote once every four years, but the rest of the time – with the exception of a referendum once in a long while – the government and Opposition get to do what they want, often breaking promises or ignoring the wishes of voters.

In effect, sovereign power does not lie with voters, but with the political parties in the Legislature and Parliament who operate like a cartel to maintain and expand that power often at the expense of the citizenry.

Even the mechanism of referendum is flawed in that, often as not, the government in power, rather than organizing broad, non-partisan discussion, splits people into Yes and No camps, as happened in this most recent referendum on PR.  Such splits favour political parties in the Legislature, but not the people.  Indeed, a legitimate criticism of the PR referendum was that it was set up too much on a partisan basis.

Irrespective of whatever vote counting system is in place – in this case it is FPTP – British Columbians will continue to strive to expand and further develop our democratic process.  In that regard, we need to discuss new electoral mechanisms and new ways of doing things, as well other methods of engagement for electoral reform such as the Citizens’ Assembly model which had broad public support. 

The issue of citizen empowerment will not be going away after this most recent referendum.  Indeed, if anything, it will increasingly come to the fore in the province and country.

Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia.  He can be reached at: peter.ewart@shaw.ca