Premier John Horgan is facing criticism for removing a version of one of the pro-rep options from consideration halfway through the referendum.
Rob Shaw | November 15, 2018 | Vancouver Sun
VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan denies he’s trying to manipulate the outcome of the referendum on proportional representation by altering one of the options in the middle of the campaign.
“I don’t believe I’ve amended anything, other than to put forward what is self-evident: Closed lists aren’t in the interests of British Columbians,” Horgan told reporters on Thursday.
Horgan told Postmedia News this week that if the mixed member proportional model wins support in this month’s mail-in referendum, he will make sure NDP MLAs on a post-referendum legislature committee block the so-called closed list version — the model in which voters don’t cast ballots to rank individual candidates on party lists.
The premier defended his comments Thursday at a press event.
“It seems to me we could give that one a pass,” Horgan said of closed list approach. “There’s no one in the legislature that thinks it’s a good idea, so why would we proceed with it?”
The NDP and Greens both oppose closed lists, preferring instead the open list model in which voters vote for individual candidates on party lists. That means that when additional seats are allocated based on popular vote, the candidate on a party’s list with the most votes is chosen first.
The NDP and Greens have a majority on the legislature committee charged with setting the details for whatever option wins after the referendum.
Horgan said the Liberals also support his position. But Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson blasted Horgan’s move. “Horgan and the NDP have no mandate to dictate the choices for our voting system,” he said. “Who appointed him to tell us what’s good for us?”
The Liberals have said there are almost two dozen key details about the voting systems left unresolved until after the referendum.
“The NDP can’t change the rules halfway through the game to try and encourage people to vote,” said Wilkinson.
The declaration that one version of mixed-member is effectively off the table comes after Elections B.C. has already received more than 243,969 ballots, or 7.4 per cent of all registered voters.
“He’s trying to sort of fill in some of the blanks at the late stage,” said Hamish Telford, a political-science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley. “This is not changing the rules, but it is sort of pre-determining what was presumably supposed to be an open and impartial committee.”
The technical clarification might have helped the Yes side mobilize voters toward mixed-member if it was made earlier, said Telford.
“I think it’s going to be too little, too late,” he said. “The announcement by the premier is relatively technical, I don’t think that will sway a lot of ordinary voters.”
If voter turnout remains low, Telford suggested government should take the most supported pro-rep option, study it for two years, produce detailed information on how it would work in B.C., and then present it to voters as another referendum question during the 2021 provincial election.
“My advice to the government would be if this adopted by a slim margin with a low voter turnout, then perhaps we should take this referendum as indicative rather than binding, draft up the new system which was endorsed, fully flesh it out, and then put it to voters again at the time of the next provincial election and try and get better public engagement on a single completely-worked-out option.”
The main criticism of closed list systems is they allow parties to stack their lists full of patronage candidates that become MLAs, not because voters endorsed them, but simply by virtue of being chosen by a party for a list.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, said University of B.C. political science professor Max Cameron. Allowing the parties to set closed lists could increase the diversity and type of people who become MLAs that might otherwise fail to get elected by the general population, he said.
“Closed lists allow parties to construct lists of candidates to achieve goals like improving diversity in the legislature,” said Cameron.
“Affluent white men, and to a lessor extent affluent white women, are still heavily over-represented in our legislature. Parties can increase the representation of women and minorities by placing them at the top of their lists. New Zealand has seen a big increase in Maori representation since they adopted (mixed member) with closed lists.”
The mail-in referendum ballot asks voters whether they want to keep the current first-past-the-post system or change to one of three proportional representation options. In addition to mixed member, the other two options include dual member and rural urban proportional.
The deadline for Elections B.C. to receive the ballots is Nov. 30, requiring voters to put the ballots in the mail several days earlier to ensure they arrive on time.
The changes to mixed member, lack of basic details about the three models, lack of a requirement for a minimum voter turnout, and overall confusion about the process continue to point to major problems in the referendum, said Telford. The NDP government set the rules, including a tight timeline to bring in the system by 2021, and a promise of a referendum after two elections to decide whether to keep any changes.
“I think this speaks to the basic problem here, which is the government adopted a highly flawed process from the get-go and they’ve put themselves in a bad situation,” said Telford.
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