Northern MLAs divided on electoral reform

Ellis Ross says reform is bad for the north, Jennifer Rice says change would improve government.

Major change could soon be coming to B.C.’s voting system, and as the attorney general launched public consultation last week, northern MLAs remain divided on how electoral reform could impact the north.

Skeena Liberal MLA Ellis Ross says reform could devastate the northern voice in government, while North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice says the change would improve things.

But it’s up to voters to decide whether to change the system, with a referendum via mail-in ballots coming in the fall of 2018.

Unlike the prior two votes on the issue, the decision will be made by participating voters, without support required from a majority of constituencies. Without regional support, some say the referendum will be decided by the southwest corner of the province, where three quarters of the population resides.

But how the referendum is done is still being decided and a public consultation is open until Feb. 28, 2018, where people can give feedback. The site to visit is engage.gov.bc.ca/HowWeVote

Electoral reform has been debated in the legislature over the last two months, and is contested even among northern MLAs. The debate is between the current first-past-the-post system, and a system of proportional representation that hasn’t yet been defined.

Ross opposed the change, saying it would devastate northern representation in government. Speaking in legislature Oct. 25, he said that several models of proportional representation remove individual constituencies.

“Due to a smaller population, we would be overwhelmed by the voting power of the Lower Mainland,” Ross said. “For example, the people of my riding of Skeena would no longer elect a representative. Their votes would be cast in a pool instead…the Legislature would be based on the number of votes cast for each party. From a rural and northern perspective, the loss of regional representation would have devastating consequences.”

He went on to say that similar government systems are used in Europe and the result is deal-making between fringe parties and dysfunction. He also indicated that the push for reform is a Green party power grab and the recent Bill 6 on the topic was a rushed, ill-thought process.

But North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice from Prince Rupert says she favours the changes to the electoral system, and believes it will improve government representation.

“The political theatre and partisanship fostered through the winner-takes-all nature of our current system unquestionably affects the way parties govern. On the other hand, governments with proportional representation are by their very nature more collaborative, as one party rarely has the type of broad range support needed to form a majority government,” said Rice in Legislature Nov. 9. “This has the potential to lead to more diversity and less partisanship in our political system,” she said.

“I come from a rural riding, and I want to make sure that my constituents are well represented in this House. I am cognizant of the implications of proportional representation in my geographically large riding with a comparatively small population. But after 16 years of one party with a bare majority of the votes in this province having all the power in this House, I know there needs to be change in our system, and there are many options to better represent the diversity and unique characteristics of this vast province,” she said.

For non-partisan descriptions of electoral systems, including pros and cons, visit aceproject.org, an online network about election systems.

The site also shows which countries use which election system. First-past-the-post is used in the UK, Canada, India, United States and many countries in eastern Africa, and different proportional representation models are used in most of Europe, and most of South America and western Africa.

– With files from Tom Fletcher

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