B.C. NDP referendum plan sparks legislature battle

David Eby says public will decide on proportional referendum

Tom Fletcher / Victoria News

As B.C. Attorney General David Eby launched a public consultation on changing B.C.’s voting system, opposition MLAs were ramping up their attack on what they call a “backroom deal” to take away rural representation and favour the B.C. Green Party.

The consultation is to decide on the question to be put to a province-wide referendum next fall on changing the electoral system. B.C. Liberal MLAs have focused on the NDP government’s decision to make the vote a simple majority, which they say would erode rural representation and have the decision made by Lower Mainland voters.

B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver initially wanted to impose proportional representation without a referendum, but then agreed to a mail-in vote as part of his deal to support the NDP minority government. That trade-off included the NDP agreeing to offer more than one alternative to the winner-take-all voting system that B.C. has used for most of its history.

In the legislature Thursday, Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok led off debate with a blistering attack on the plan, accusing Premier John Horgan of breaking his promise to give voters a simple choice between two voting systems.

Clovechok joined other critics in listing the effects of proportional representation in other countries, with unstable governments such as the just-collapsed coalition in Germany and the rise of far-right parties in Europe. They argue that B.C.’s current minority government would become the norm under proportional representation.

“Again, the small Green tail continues to wag the bloated orange dog,” Clovechok said. “Voters who choose first-past-the-post as their first choice will have to choose between multiple proportional representation systems for their second and third choices. If their first-past-the-post doesn’t win on the first ballot, then victory is unlikely.”

Eby said he will not take part in government’s decision on how to shape the referendum, but he noted that the B.C. government could go ahead and change the system without a referendum.

“There’s no obligation on government to do this,” Eby said. “In fact there’s no legal obligation on government to hold a vote at all. The Constitution Act can be amended without this process.”

Until midnight Feb. 28, 2018, British Columbians can visit the consultation website engage.gov.bc.ca/HowWeVote to give feedback on the referendum question. Eby said as options for the vote are developed, they will be added to the website.

B.C. Liberal critic Andrew Wilkinson said the website survey is “massively biased in favour of proportional representation.”