It’s not news, of course, that the electors of BC will be offered the chance to vote again on changing the method of voting in the province from first-past-the-post to the single transferrable vote (STV) at the next election in May, 2009. What is news is that we’re starting to hear about it early enough, this time, to make a difference — well, that and the $1,000,000 fund the Province is providing to be shared out amongst both groups pro- and a’gin- the change. The rules are pretty much the same: the referendum vote must get at least 60% positive response across the province as a whole (last time was 57%) and a majority of ridings must vote in favour (last time, all but a handful did so). Good conditions, I think, and, what’s more important, a change on offer to vote for.
There’ll be a lot said about STV and proportional representation in general over the year ahead. First of all, if you’re not familiar with STV itself, Wikipedia does its usual good job of laying out the facts, both as to how it works and where it’s in use (a growing and surprising list); the group-built encyclopaedia also comes through with an article about the specific form of STV proposed for BC by the Citizens’ Assembly for the 2005 Referendum.
Why the Single Transferrable Vote?
In a word, to decrease the power of political parties. This won’t happen overnight, of course: many of us are deeply conditioned, at the moment, to “vote the party” rather than give the candidate on offer much scrutiny. STV attacks the centrality of parties in two ways. First, because each riding becomes a multi-member constituency (the number of members varying by the geographic size of the riding and the population that encompasses), some ridings could have as many as seven members: however, even in the northern ridings, which are geographically large and thus (by population) have only two members on offer, the voter can now throw one vote toward his or her party of preference and still have one (or more) to consider. Although parties can, under STV’s rules, offer enough candidates to “take all the slots” in the riding, this — as with wardless municipal systems (such as Vancouver has) — is more likely to see some selection of “opposition members” of quality, and perhaps even an Independent member or two. When parties must offer candidates of quality, these candidates, in turn, have support beyond the caucus, and thus can become a little less dependent and slavish. The second reason this weakens parties is that gaining a party nomination becomes less “fraught” with meeting the terms of the process. It’s harder, for instance, to pack the nominating meeting for five candidates. Party leaders who override the riding association to parachute in a candidate now are more likely to see that candidate “flame out” if they’re not wanted locally, as the choice is not reduced (as it is today) to “vote for the party and suck up the candidate, or deny the candidate and fail to support the party”. Both of these mean that, over time, more diversity of positions amongst candidates should emerge: candidate platforms, as opposed to party platforms, take on some meaning.
What’s Wrong with Other Types of PR System?
Ontario, last fall, turned down a common form of proportional representation called Mixed Member Proportional Representation. Unlike STV in BC — which missed only on the popular vote criterion (and that by 3%) and was widely supported in all regions of the province, the electors of Ontario heavily defeated the move to MMPR. In this system, the traditional “one member elected per riding” is supplemented by members drawn from lists created by political parties in proportion to the parties’ popular votes. This, unlike STV, strengthens the hand of party administration and discipline: a high position on the party list can seat a member, so slavishly following the party’s line is amply rewarded. (Riding-based members, of course, would face the same conditions as today.) What is worse is that should the electors of a riding association vote down an incumbent, or should the voters on election day in that riding defeat an incumbent, placing them high on the party list simply overrides the popular result and returns them to the House. There are already far too many institutional supports to incumbency, from fund-raising, to name recognition, to rules about not having to face challengers: we do not need to add to these by ensuring that electeds have a job for life.
The other failing of MMPR, in my view, is that it perpetuates the simplistic view of political support we already “enjoy” with first-past-the-post. Voting for a candidate in a riding still looks like needing to vote for a party. There is no more scope for Independents to succeed than exists today. (STV breaks this connection by requiring that multiple candidates become elected, thus signalling that there are choices to make beyond a “my party” or “not that party” binary.) MPR systems can, of course, ask for two votes — one for a local candidate, and one for a party of government (which becomes the source of “list” member selection) — but party affiliations for riding candidates keep that part of the system unchanged from what we currently have.
Is There a Reason to Keep First-Past-the-Post?
I’m not a huge believer in the notion that the failing of FPTP is in the divergence of results between the popular vote and the ridings won. What FPTP does do, however, is over-reward parties that can concentrate their vote, plus one party of pan-region (province or national) scope. It is a system that serves best with a minimal number of parties. When parties with roughly-equal prospects across all ridings compete against parties that can concentrate their vote into just a few ridings, the resulting House is often highly divided — and with a high concentration of members who have slim-to-no chance of reaching government, and therefore need feel no responsibility for the traditions of governance nor the health of political institutions. (One need only think of the destruction of the Mulroney-era Progressive Conservative coalition at the hands of Preston Manning and Lucien Bouchard to see the results of that type of outcome.)
Coalitions and Minorities
The fundamental difference between parties in coalition and a minority government is in how Cabinet roles are handled: Coalition partners generally get one or more Ministries (and nominate the minister); in minority government, legislation must be crafted that can avoid a loss of confidence. On the whole our Parliamentary system would work best when some form of functioning minority government was created. This can be done by setting rules for “party recognition”, seating members elected on a party label that fails to meet the “cut” as Independents (in effect). As coalition experience shows, the same coalitions can stay in power for decades without real change, although there is a steady froth of governmental collapses and re-formings that occur. Ideally, the new House could meet immediately after an election, not months later while the partners bicker over the spoils. The point here is that moving to a PR system need not lead to “European style government” (which isn’t Queen-in-Parliament in any case).
Where I Stand
I’ve previously shared my disdain for the system as it currently exists. Yet, true Tory that I am, I do not promote change for its own sake. I would vote down MMPR in a heartbeat: FPTP is not that broken! — and I do not want to see us change our basic tradition of responsible government (Ministers responsible to the House, in other words). STV, on the other hand, strengthens that tradition (in my view), without requiring legislation to do the impossible, i.e. ban factions banding together (i.e. parties). I support, therefore, the Campbell Government’s putting STV back in front of BC voters in 2009 — and this time, may it pass.