BY PETER EWART
Special to the News
Once again, the October 2020 election in British Columbia shows how distorted the current first past the post electoral system is and how it concentrates power in ways that go against the will of the people.
In the 2020 election, the NDP received just 45.03 per cent of the vote (figures based on unofficial counts with mail-in votes yet to be counted). Under the first past the post system, despite having a minority of the provincial vote, it will now constitute a majority government holding 55 of the 87 seats in the Legislature (which amounts to 63.2 per cent of the seats). In effect, it increased its seat total by 14 seats although its share of the popular vote only increased by five per cent (from 40.29 per cent in the 2017 election).
For its part, the BC Liberal Party has obtained 29 seats with 33.3 per cent of the popular vote, the Greens three seats with 15.3 per cent, the Conservatives zero seats with 2.35 per cent, and other parties zero seats with 1.9 per cent.
Under a proportional representation electoral system, however, the results of the 2020 election would look substantially different. With a PR system, the aim is to have the breakdown of the seats in the Legislature to at least approximate the results of the popular vote. For example, in the 2020 election, having a PR system in place would mean, first of all, that the NDP would not have a majority government. Instead, in the 87-seat Legislature, the NDP would hold around 39 seats (rather than 55), the Liberals around 31 seats (rather than 29), the Greens around 13 seats (rather than three), and the Conservatives around two seats (rather than zero).
After this election, with the existing first past the post system, many voters in vast areas of the province will not have MLAs who represent their political preference. For example, it looks like the Liberals will be completely frozen out of Vancouver Island’s 14 seats despite a substantial number of residents voting for that party. And the same is true for much of the northeast and central interior of the province where the Liberals dominate and the NDP, Greens and Conservatives are frozen out despite substantial support.
After his party won the provincial election in 1972, former NDP Premier Dave Barrett quipped to the press that “the Queen gave us the whole bag” (1). What he meant by this was that, under the first past the post electoral system, the premier’s office takes on great powers and that “once power is bestowed … it is the government’s prerogative to use it.” Once a premier is elected, he or she controls the cabinet, the government ministries, the Legislature, as well as the party itself – and there is little or no check on this power.
As the late former Social Credit MLA Rafe Mair pointed out, these political parties, whatever their stripe, “love absolute power” and the “authoritarianism inherent in the first past the post system, and “would rather wait until they had 100 per cent authority than ever share power with the hated other side.” Yes, one day in every four years we get to vote. But for the rest of those 1,460 days or so, we live under a kind of elected dictatorship where people have no control over the decisions that affect their lives.
The point in all this is that the voters of British Columbia are disempowered by the electoral system and the domination of the cartel parties. Powerful interest groups like this arrangement, including the huge globalized corporations, because it allows them to knock on only one door to get their way. Proportional representation does not solve the fundamental problem of voter disempowerment but at least provides a better reflection of voters’ wishes. British Columbia has had a number of referenda on electoral reform, the most recent being the referendum proposal in 2018 to adopt PR (which was defeated). However, whether one is for or against proportional representation, the problems posed by the first past the post system and the larger issue of voter empowerment remain.
- Barrett, Dave, and William Miller. “Barrett: A Passionate Political Life.” Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 1995.
Peter Ewart is a writer and community activist based in Prince George, BC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org