First Past The Post Mortem

by Peter Sircom Bromley

ON MAY 12, British Columbians voted against a new system of proportional representation by a majority of 61 percent to 39 percent. Yet less than half of BC’s eligible voters showed up at the polls, meaning that less than a third of BC’s electorate rejected a proposal that might have made such displays of apathy and imbalance a thing of the past.

Is voting a sacred cow?

Where were all the other voters? Some have speculated that they were more concerned about the playoff fortunes of the Vancouver Canucks than the pros and cons of some arcane government regulation. Not hard to believe – but maybe a little hard to accept, especially if you are partly to blame. Provincial elections are now permanently set to occur every four years during the spring playoff season; when questioned about this after the May 12 vote, Premier Campbell was reported to have said, “I think people are quite capable of dealing with hockey and an election.”

But this wasn’t just an election. The concurrent Referendum on Electoral Reform was about a complicated governance issue. The public required unbiased, non-partisan information in order to make an important decision. People were offered an opportunity to improve how things work.

And God knows there’s a lot to improve. While our transportation and communications systems have developed with staggering speed in the last hundred years, we continue to organize our civic affairs in a way unchanged since the days of the horse and buggy. Voting, the singular act that props up government, has remained a primitive instrument while social issues have become multi-faceted and complex. While voting is a sacred right, it also seems to have become a sacred cow.

Since World War II, more than 70 countries worldwide – including Norway, Ireland, Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Austria, New Zealand and Germany – have developed and adopted systems of proportional representation to help modernize the way they govern themselves. There was a recognition that voting systems can contribute to problems in the political system. If British Columbians have any interest in following suit, they will need a better understanding of the forces that affect social change. It might help to review some of the key events that carried us through this latest attempt at electoral reform.

Politics as usual

After two bitter BC election results in 1996 and 2001, the provincial government admitted that the first past the post voting system had some clear disadvantages, most notably that majority governments could be elected with a minority of votes. Gordon Gibson, a prominent author and former politician, was therefore appointed to find a way out of the conundrum. Gibson proposed setting up an independent body to make recommendations on electoral reform. An assembly of randomly selected citizens, two from each of the province’s 79 electoral districts, would study the issue and come up with a solution. His recommendations were adopted, and in August 2003, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was created.

The Assembly held public hearings every second weekend for 11 months, examined the fairness, representation and proportionality of the current voting system. They and came up with a “made in BC” single transferable vote (STV) system. Party politics were absent from the discussions and the social and geographic realities of BC were taken into account.

The Assembly’s recommendations were put before the people in a referendum on May 17, 2005. At that time, the Referendum Information Office, a branch of the Ministry of Attorney General, was responsible for informing the public about the new voting system. Although the system was complicated in certain ways, 58 percent of eligible voters and a majority in all but two of BC’s 79 ridings cast their ballots in favour of proportional representation.

The numbers, however, fell just short of the required 60 percent. Those who had actively promoted fair voting in BC were perturbed. Sixty percent is a rather high proportion considering that the 1995 Quebec referendum – which could have split up the country – only required 51 percent. In 1993, a referendum in New Zealand approved of electoral reform by a margin of just over 53 percent.

Four months later, the government of British Columbia pledged to take action on the close result in the Speech from the Throne. A throne speech is typically drafted by the premier, with the assistance of high-level ministers, deputy ministers and staff. It’s essentially a business plan, laying out a general vision along with a budget. The speech announced another referendum, acknowledging that “a solid majority” supported proportional representation. It then went on to discuss what it called a “troubling” issue: why had so many people voted to change the electoral system?

“…and yet that was not enough to pass, according to the rules this Legislature unanimously established. Your government has been clear that it does not intend to rewrite those rules after the fact, or pretend that the vote for STV succeeded when it did not.”

Interesting choice of words. Substitute the word “recognize” for “pretend” and we might see a crack forming in the stone tablets. Is there a note of defensiveness here? Were the results of the referendum making our political leaders question the rules? Were the premier and his associates concerened about the constitutionality of setting the bar too high at 60 per cent?

Whatever the reason, a clear preference for politics-as-usual could be surmised when the throne speech went on to say how public education would be improved in preparation for the next referendum: “Equal funding will be provided to support active information campaigns for supporters and detractors of each model.” According to sources at the premier’s office, the idea was “to stimulate debate.” Evidently, many other politicians agreed. In due course, the idea to fund “active information campaigns” was tabled, passed unanimously by the Legislative Assembly and enshrined in Section 4 of the Electoral Reform Referendum Act.

Let the games begin

What happened next represented a sharp shift in approach, one that distinguishes the 2009 referendum from the first one. Whereas the neutral Referendum Information Office handled the task of public education in 2005, two opposing advocacy groups – British Columbians for BC-STV, and the NO-STV Campaign Society – would now each be given $500,000 to run what the government called “information campaigns,” supposedly to complement the work of the Referendum Information Office which also received $500,000. The two groups – now with clearly defined partisan roles – were expected to come up with their own campaign strategies. In other words, public debate would be played out like a kind of sporting event. The task of education would be combined with the tactics of winning.

Some of those who volunteered with British Columbians for BC-STV were alumni of the Citizens’ Assembly. For them, it must have appeared that months of non-partisan work would be subsumed by the very political machinations everyone had managed to avoid earlier.

For the few who volunteered with NO-STV, things were looking up. NO-STV was an updated version of KNOW-STV, a group that opposed the single transferable vote in the 2005 referendum. KNOW-STV was a bit of a rag-tag group in 2005. Revitalized, and with $500,000 to play with, NO-STV had experienced leadership. The organization would continue to be led by Bill Tieleman, a skilled political strategist, communications professional, and former communications director in the BC premier’s office.

As the referendum campaign lurched into gear, it looked like the pro STV team might coast to an easy win. In mid-March 2009, Angus Reid conducted an online poll indicating that 65 percent of British Columbians, especially younger voters, supported proportional representation. There was a sour note in the festive news, however. The same poll revealed that only 44 percent of British Columbians were aware of the referendum.

Meanwhile, game plans on both sides were being developed, reworked and implemented on the fly. And the plans were very different. It seemed that BC-STV organizers were not clear on the concept of social marketing, a discipline that uses methods similar to advertising but which, out of necessity, focuses on unbiased, clear information. Social marketing audiences just need the facts. So it might not have been a good idea for the BC-STV campaign to use a cartoon super hero theme that trivialized the rather sober issue of social reform. Their slogan may also have been ill advised. “Power up your vote” skewed the concept of proportional representation, a system that simply makes all votes count; it doesn’t give voters special super-hero powers.

For its part, NO-STV presented its case against the single transferable vote in straightforward terms. Its website featured a banner with smiling, ordinary people. However, its message played on fear and ignorance. One of its main arguments was that the new system would be too complicated. It made a highly misleading comment about how votes would be unaccountable, saying, “You may never know where your vote went.” To emphasize its point, NO-STV cleverly presented a rather amateurish video produced by the Citizens’ Assembly. The information in the video was good; presentation was not. Point scored by the no side. Perhaps NO-STV’s most effective strategy was to use television and large print advertising just days before the referendum. Their slogan “don’t take a chance with British Columbia’s future” sowed seeds of doubt but conveyed nothing of substance.

It was left to the Referendum Information Office to provide information in a way that would allow people to make an informed decision. It placed a few newspaper ads and had a website. The website provided a quick comparison of the existing and proposed voting systems and had links to the Electoral Reform Referendum Act and to the BC-STV and NO-STV campaigns. Perhaps they thought that was enough. Was there more? Not sure. One thing is for certain: the Information Office had a low profile.

A non-partisan issue

In the final analysis, achieving electoral reform in BC – or anywhere for that matter – is as much about the way the issue is perceived and handled as it is about the issue itself. And bringing change to government seems to require an extra, and perhaps unnecessary, level of effort and debate. Other kinds of social change, such as the replacement of typewriters by desktop computers, happen all the time. People adjust. What’s so precious about a voting system?

New Zealand’s experience with proportional representation was no less difficult than ours. It had similar numbers and was hotly contested, but unlike BC, New Zealand had a two-step referendum: one in 1992 and one in 1993. The first allowed voters to decide if they wanted a change and, if so, which type of proportional representation they would prefer. A year later, the second referendum allowed voters to decide between their old first-past-the-post system and the new system chosen in the first referendum. Turnout for the first referendum was just over 50 percent, but the result was 84 percent in favour.

The second referendum brought in proportional representation with just 53.4 percent of the vote, a plurality of five percentage points less than that achieved in BC’s first referendum. New Zealand also had special interest groups campaigning for and against reform. However, voters were treated to a massive non-partisan government-run information campaign. The difference between success and failure seems to have been a lower bar and a higher level of education.

In BC’s case, one million dollars divided between two partisan groups could have been better spent by the neutral, and experienced, Referendum Information Office. If we are to grant free speech to special interest groups, then voters at least need to be literate about the subject at hand. According to Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, the quality of information delivered to the public was not only poor, but there also wasn’t enough of it. A damning enough assessment in itself. But there was also a basic lack of understanding of process set in motion by the premier’s office, followed without question through the Legislature and followed with resignation by those who supported positive change. After all the expense, time and effort put into the work of the Citizens’ Assembly, the rug was pulled out and the issue divided into opposing camps. The referendum was run like a contest rather than an educational process.

And to some, it seemed unacceptable that, in order to win, the yes side required 60 percent of the vote. In a postmortem letter to his fellow campaign workers, BC-STV organizer James Douglas Roy wrote that his group “played by the unfair, blatantly self-serving and illegitimate rules set down by the same political establishment that benefits from the current electoral system.”

Social reform is, and always will be, a non-partisan issue. It can be dramatic, especially if there are extremes of opinion involved, but it has to be handled dispassionately and with respect for due process. Differences of opinion can’t be left to the tactical skill of one side or another. If there are legitimate reasons to doubt the value of the single transferable vote, and if the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations need a fresh perspective, then revisit the issue and broaden the scope of the debate.

Proportional representation is not a new idea. It has been around for more than a century and since the Second World War has come to dominate European politics. It’s not perfect, but it can be fine-tuned as it is put into practice – an important point to remember. And it is certainly more democratic and inclusive than a voting system based on good guy/bad guy, winner-take-all values.

Partisan contests are fun if you’re a hockey fan. Definitely not fun if you’re serious a voter.

Peter Sircom Bromley has worked as a journalist, designer, writer and art director. He also fulfilled the role of communications consultant with the non-profit sector for 10 years and served on several boards, including the Sierra Club of BC and the Stanley Park Ecology Society.

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