Skeena Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen and Prince George MLA Mike Morris weighed in on proportional representation July 18 in a public debate in Terrace, organized by citizens’ grounp, The North Matters. An estimated 100 people packed into the Days Inn banquet room to hear Cullen argue for the change to B.C.’s voting system and Morris argue against, in favour of the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.
In a referendum this fall British Columbians will vote on whether to keep the status quo or change the provincial voting system to a form of proportional representation. Voters will be mailed a ballot asking first if they want to see a change at all, and if so then choose from three forms of PR — dual member proportional, mixed member proportional or rural-urban proportional.
Morris used a “constitutional-based” approach to argue the change would not fit within the country’s existing framework. In addition, he said, the FPTP system has worked well since confederation to build the parliamentary democracy Canadians have today.
“[FPTP] is constitutionally valid, it’s withstood several challenges in the Supreme Court of Canada over the many years since the Charter came in in 1982, and I don’t think proportional representation even begins to meet the thresholds that our charter imposes on us to remain such a strong, and the best country, in the world.”
His argument stemmed from the imbalance of voters in the Lower Mainland compared to the north. FPTP he said guarantees constitutional rights for representation in sparsely populated areas like Northern B.C.
Cullen countered, saying FPTP was built for a system with only two political parties, when a majority vote makes sense. With more than two options, he said, not every person today is represented with FPTP and either feel their vote doesn’t count or are too often using it strategically to stop someone from taking office.
“We just have too many examples in which very few votes cast in concentrated areas have swayed huge parts of public policy and excluded vast numbers of Canadians, who are the public,” he said.
“Strategic voting is such a misnomer, it’s so rarely actually strategic. You try and you get all the messages from the party — ‘you know you don’t love us but you’re really terrified of those guys, so you should vote for us anyways.’ And what that actually contributes to is the politics of division and fear, because the more I make you afraid of that guy, the better chances I’ll get you to hold your nose and vote for me because the person you want to vote for doesn’t have a chance. And I’ve seen it, in election after election, across the country and across B.C.”
Morris turned Cullen’s position to suggest people sometimes don’t feel represented only because their party wasn’t voted in. He said it’s their elected MLA’s responsibility to represent their constituents equally and the federal court’s responsibility to protect voter equality.
“The Supreme Court of Canada said that there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. They said, the fact that your party or your individual didn’t get elected just means that they didn’t have the policy or the goods to sell the people, and somebody else was voted in instead,” Morris said.
The models of proportional representation, he said, are based on mathematical group formulas that reduce representation in less populated areas like the north, and impact voter equality and. Party leaders, not voters, he added, will decide which of their elected MLAs will represent a specific riding.
Cullen shot back, saying allegations that PR would get rid of local representation for rural B.C. isn’t true, and the preservation of that representation was a key factor for him when considering these new voting systems.
“[There’s] a natural resistance to change…and [there’s been] mistruths about what the change might represent. What I was looking for in these [PR] systems is that the local representative is maintained. That’s important to me. Yet I’ve heard people argue on television and radio saying if you approve proportional representation you’ll lose your local representative entirely. There will be just a bunch of candidates picked by the party leader and that will be B.C. But that’s not true. All of the systems try to account for rural B.C. One of them is called the Urban/Rural voting system.”
To Cullen’s argument that a PR system would help prevent false majorities – where one party holds a majority government with 39 per cent of the vote – Morris denied their existence altogether.
“There’s no such thing as a false majority, the people vote and the people are always right,” he said, eliciting some disagreement from the audience. He went on to say a PR ballot has the potential to confuse voters.
“The simple ballots that we are using with first-past-the-post system in every riding in British Columbia — you get a couple names, you might get four names on the ballot. With that simple ballot system, we have on average about 11 or 12 thousand ballots spoiled because people don’t understand it, they make a mistake on it. Can you imagine the mistakes we’re going to be making on some of these ballots that have 24 names on them?”
Cullen said the three systems aren’t all that difficult to understand.
“People say it’s too complicated — ordering coffee at the Starbucks for my friends is complicated,” he said.
“People can understand voting twice. Once for a local candidate and once for a party. And that the parties that get a certain percentage of the votes, what we’re trying to do is say that if the BC Liberals get 45 per cent of the votes, they’ll get about 45 per cent of the seats. What we’re trying to avoid is the false majorities.”
Attending the debate, Skeena Liberal MLA Ellis Ross sided with his party’s stance against proportional representation.
“Both sides said some really good points, very good points,” he told the Terrace Standard. “[But] I understand Mike’s point of view, he feels that fundamentally it’s a breach of the constitution.”
The North Matters chair, Dave Johnston, stopped short of declaring a winner of the debate, saying the intent was only to encourage conversation.
“We’re a group of northern community members who came together to fight for opportunities for northern residents. We feel this is a major topic in B.C. that people need to address. We don’t want people [voting] based on party allegiance…we want them to really know what proportional representation really is.”
Watch the full debate here: