Sunday, May 17, 2009

No BC-STV: What happened? What's next?

About 38% of the voters in British Columbia supported the Single Transferable Vote (STV). That poor result drove a stake through the hearts of voting reformers in BC and throughout Canada. Will there be no formal progress on voting reform for another generation? Who knows?

What happened in the referendum? The NO STV side ran a nasty campaign. The anti-STV campaigners created doubts about the Single Transferable Vote by using any obscure information they could find. They never mentioned anything good to say about the current First-Past-the-Post voting system. Had I run the NO STV campaign, I probably would have done the same. Voters needed every reason to support STV; they only needed one reason to oppose it.

While the NO STV campaign ran a media oriented political campaign. The pro-STV group which I supported placed a lot of emphasis on running an information campaign that included people stopping voters on the street and going door-to-door to talk with individual voters about STV. We seemed to be the Mormons of political action. We believed in ourselves; everyone else was going to go to political hell. Unfortunately, negative political campaigns work better than information campaigns.

Voting reform organizations tend to be fairly consensual. While there usually main leaders, they need to deal with hundreds and sometimes thousands of active supporters who want a piece of the action. The result is that no one person can clearly speak on behalf of voting reformers when needed. In the referendum, we had no single charismatic person who could rally the supporters and speak directly to the voters through the media. We had no René Levesque or Lucien Bouchard. We had no one leader who could explain why we hated the current voting system, why we wanted voting reform, explain what STV was in 30 seconds, and frame the debate as being one between political elite insiders who wanted to keep the current system versus average voters who wanted more choice and better representation.

What is next under the current voting system?

I predict that voting participation will continue to decline. I don't worry about the actual numerical percentage in decline. I worry that in the future if our legislatures and federal parliament need to deal with a major economic or environmental disaster, or deal with a military situation around the world, the politicians will not have the ability rally the support of an apathetic public. With power being increasing concentrated among the elites in the political parties and most of the political decision making taking place within the prime minister and premiers' offices, there is no effective way for the citizens to engage politically with our elected officials.

During the BC and Ontario referendums/referenda, I read and heard from people who opposed proportional representation explain that PR was for losers who belonged or voted for minor parties such as the Green Party. I don't know if we should call these people "losers." However, I would prefer to see these so-called losers having meaningful representation in our legislative institutions than imagine what could happen in the future.

I worry that if citizens cannot feel engaged meaningfully in our political institutions, they will seek solutions that may not be as pretty as having a bunch of loser elected representatives sitting in the legislatures and federal parliament. Citizens who feel disenfranchised may start by protesting in the streets to get their message out to the public and politicians. If that doesn't work effectively, they may seek solutions that may not be so peaceful. When democracy becomes a charade in Canada, citizens may seek other solutions in order to get heard. I would prefer to have the citizens of Canada engaged politically in meaningful institutions that effectively represent the people--including the losers. Otherwise, the losers may start taking action in less than polite ways. I hope the latter doesn't happen.

If Canada and its provinces and territories do not get some kind of proportional representation, the decline of democracy will continue. In the years to come, citizens may seek not-so-nice solutions in order to be heard.

1 comment:

saskboy said...

We're building toward another Regina Riot I'm afraid.
And electoral reform may be wounded in BC, but it's far from dead in most of Canada.
The trick will be to convince a sitting party to give up some of their elected members in the next election, through electoral reform. We already know NDP governments will not do it provincially, so we're really at our wits end.