GUEST COLUMN: B.C.’s proportional representation vote is dishonest, misleading

Veteran of 2005 Citizens’ Assembly urges rejection of new voting systems

By Gordon Gibson

I was born in British Columbia a bit more than 81 years ago and have spent most of my life here. It has been a great privilege to live in this province and, like many, I have done what I could to give back.

My method was via politics. I ran five times, elected twice as an MLA. I was executive assistant to Pierre Trudeau and then leader of the B.C. Liberal Party in the 1970s. I contested that position again in the 1990s, losing to Gordon Campbell. I have since been non-partisan. In the last election the record will show I gave $2,000 to the campaign of NDP MLA Carole James.

Over that time I have learned there are two parts to politics. Most of the year-to-year decisions belong to our elected representatives, including taxation and spending. That is fine.

However some basic things – our rights and freedoms – do not belong to politicians. Central to our rights and freedoms is our electoral system by which we select our representatives.

Politicians are hopelessly conflicted and naturally will seek personal advantage in any change. But democratic elections belong to us, and if the rules are to be changed they should be changed by us.

In 2002 I was tasked by the B.C. government to design the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. That process was unanimously adopted by the B.C. legislature. It has been studied and copied around the world as the gold standard for making such important changes.

All 160 members of that assembly studied, consulted and deliberated for a year and proposed a precise system (it was called BC-STV) that was put to a referendum vote. That is the way to do it: citizen design, citizen approval. Almost 58 per cent of British Columbians voted in favour. That was not enough for the government of the day, though none of its members could even dream of such support personally. So the initiative support dwindled and died.

Now we have a new proposal for electoral change, but with a huge difference. This one is designed by partisan politicians for their benefit, however high-sounding their words.

Anyone who follows sports knows the importance of detailed rules. Even apparently tiny ones can tilt the playing field and rig the game. To all but the closest students of the game the tricks are invisible, but they determine who wins.

That is the basic problem of the current referendum on electoral change. Specific details like community representation, what bosses will choose party list MLAs, how many votes you will have and how counted – these essentials are hidden, to be decided only after the referendum by conflicted politicians. But that is too much of a mandate to give to a saint, let alone your average MLA.

In short, this process is dishonest, misleading and wide open to down-the-road manipulation.

What MLAs who support this referendum are advocating is an erosion of our rights and freedoms, as the politicians write their own employment contracts.

We know the right citizen process in B.C. and have used it in the past. That is the honest way to consider the respectable but very complex question of electoral change. Our current government is following a process that is wrong. I say, for shame.

On this self-serving and deceitful question, “No” is the vote for democracy.

Gordon Gibson was leader of the B.C. Liberal Party from 1975 to 1979. He was inducted into the Order of B.C. in 2008.

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