BY BILL PHILLIPS
If you think the upcoming referendum on proportional representation isn’t on people’s minds, think again.
About 175 people gave up a couple hours on a very sunny and warm Saturday afternoon to listen to a debate in UNBC’s Canfor Theatre on whether the province should keep its first-past-the-post electoral system or move to a proportional representation system.
Speaking in favour keeping the current system was former Attorney General and Liberal MLA Suzanne Anton and speaking in favour of switching to proportional representation was local columnist, activist, and member of the Stand Up for the North Committee, Peter Ewart.
“We have a problem with the current first-past-the-post, winner-take-all voting system in this province,” said Ewart. “It creates regional monopolies where one party has all the seats and there’s no other voice for the people, despite other candidates and parties often getting (more) votes … Why is this a problem? Because monopolies breed arrogance in government.”
Proportional representation will “top-up and balance out” seats in the region so there will always be a mix of government and opposition MLAs.
“Contrary to the fear-mongering of the ‘no’ side, we’ll have strong local representation and regional representation,” he said.
Anton pointed to the Cancer Centre for the North as an example of why the first-past-the-post system works.
Before it became a reality there were many who felt it was too expensive and that it wouldn’t be properly utilized according to people in Vancouver and Victoria, she said.
“Your MLAs Shirley Bond and, at the time, Pat Bell, they fought for that cancer centre,” she said. “They heard women were getting mastectomies because they couldn’t take time to go away from their families to go down to Vancouver to get radiation treatment.”
She said Bond and Bell didn’t differentiate political stripes when people lobbied them for a cancer centre.
“Your MLAs, and your MLA offices, who represent you, represent you in a non-partisan way,” Anton said. “They work hard for you. That’s what you give up under proportional representation. You give up some local MLAs and you will get MLAs off party lists. Who will those MLAs care for? Their parties, not you.”
Of the three proportional representation systems British Columbians will be asked to vote on, only one, mixed member proportional, uses a list to top up MLAs. It has yet to be determined how those lists will work, however, all three parties have stated they would prefer regional lists. One form of mixed member proportional also allows for top-up lists to be voted on.
Ewart, however, called Anton out on her assertion that proportional representation will be more party-driven, calling it a “fairy tale,” a comment he would make many times throughout the debate.
“The fairy tale is that somehow under the first-past-the-post system the MLAs are non-partisan, that’s not the case,” he said. “We live in a party dominated system in this province, the parties call the shots … What proportional representation can offer us, is it can break up this darn monopoly we have.”
Anton downplayed Ewart’s assertion that the current system is highly partisan.
“We have 87 elections in British Columbia and 87 individual community representatives go to Victoria,” she said. “When they are here in their ridings and their offices, they are non-partisan. PR people only see one vote, the partisan political vote.”
Anton also claimed that the North would lose representation.
“(Under proportional representation) you will give up some of your local representatives,” she said. “No matter which of the three systems is chosen, there will still be some local representatives, but in order to achieve that blissful state of proportionality, which the ‘yes’ people want to achieve, you get people fed in. You know where they’re fed in from? They’re fed in from party lists. Those lists are created in party headquarters, probably in Vancouver.”
Anton’s claim, however, isn’t accurate. Under dual member proportional, one of the systems proposed, all ridings will have two MLAs both of whom will have run for election in that riding. Similarly, the rural-urban proportional system will use a single-transferable vote in urban areas whereby voters rank their preference for MLA and only MLAs on the ballot will be elected. Only mixed member proportional will use a list to top up MLAs and, as mentioned above, those lists will be regional in nature.
The debate was co-hosted by UNBC and the Prince George and District Chamber of Commerce.