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The Yes side of the pro-rep referendum has to decide soon whether to shift strategies as the Opposition leader made gains for the No side in the TV debate.

Rob Shaw | November 9, 2018 | Vancouver Sun

VICTORIA — Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson used this week’s TV debate to make big gains in his campaign to spread confusion over the details of proportional representation. His success has left the Yes side with some tough choices as it tries to counter the Liberal momentum in the critical days ahead.

Wilkinson dedicated almost his entire time during a 30-minute debate Thursday on a focused attack on Premier John Horgan for being unable to explain the practical mechanics of how the three pro-rep options on the referendum ballot would work in the real world.

It was a devastatingly simple but effective argument, because Horgan can’t explain the three systems in short and simple terms. Almost nobody can. Two are not in use anywhere in the world. And the third, mixed member proportional, has so many important details left undecided — the format of party lists, what voters will actually be voting upon, and the structure of ridings — to be near-impossible to explain in any detailed way.

“I think the key point, John, is that you’re the one who wants to change the system and it’s important for you to tell people how this is going to work,” Wilkinson said during the debate.

“Twenty-three different features that you haven’t revealed to people. You’re in control of this process. We want to know and the people at home want to know how many MLAs they’re going to have, how many votes are they going to have, and how are these votes going to be transferred all over the province after they’ve cast their vote to get the proportionality you want to have in place?”

Again and again Wilkinson delivered a variation of this theme. It seemed to flummox Horgan, which is odd because the NDP must have seen the attack coming.

For weeks, Wilkinson and Liberal MLAs have been hammering the NDP in the legislature over all the details the public won’t know about the pro-rep systems until after the vote. The TV debate simply served as a chance for Wilkinson to hurl more pointed versions of those questions at Horgan in front of a live TV audience.

“I have more confidence in the people of B.C., clearly, than you do, Mr Wilkinson,” Horgan offered at one point. “I believe they’ll be able to work through this.”

Horgan’s difficulty highlights the shortcomings in the official Vote PR B.C. strategy. The Yes side isn’t campaigning specifically for any of the three options. It isn’t even trying hard to explain them. Pro-rep supporters long ago decided to run a campaign that simply focuses on change, with an added defence that “anything will be better than what we have now” and a further backstop of “don’t worry there’s another referendum to change back in two elections if we make a mistake.”

That strategy may have been a winning combination early in the campaign. But Wilkinson ripped through it on TV. His point likely rang clear in the minds of undecided voters: If the three pro-rep options are so difficult to explain and understand, how can you vote for change?

Wilkinson’s TV performance should give the Yes side pause as we reach the critical point of the campaign in the next few days. Should pro-rep advocates change their strategy to start encouraging people to vote for just one of the three options? Should they devote their energy to countering Wilkinson’s attack on the lack of detail by trying to give on-the-fence Yes voters a safe harbour in at least one option?

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