Letter: Proportional representation means better local representation

Have you noticed the “No” side ads? One of them features a kindly old lady who learns that her local MLA has been replaced by some anonymous person in Vancouver. Unfortunately, this story is completely opposite to the truth.

In reality, local representation would be significantly improved under a proportional system.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. My friend Ian has participated in every election since he was old enough to begin voting over 60 years ago. Although his vote has never actually served to elect anyone, he still goes through the motions. “I’m going to vote for the candidate I like best, and I don’t care if that person doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected.” You need to know Ian – he is stubborn and he stands on principle.

Then there’s my other friend, Linda. Linda also votes every time, but she takes a more pragmatic approach. “I don’t want to throw my vote away, so I’ll vote for the person who has the best chance of keeping out the party that I detest”. Linda is never entirely happy with the outcome of the election, but she figures her success rate at voting strategically has been about 40/60 over the years. “It’s not very satisfying, but it’s better than the alternative,” she says.

I respect Ian and Linda for not giving up. Sadly, about 40% of our fellow citizens have given up, and the toll has been particularly high among young voters. Only 28% of eligible 18 to 24-year-olds voted in BC’s 2017 election. Only 28%!

Part of the issue with low voter turnout is that voters often end up with an MLA who doesn’t share their worldview. Both Ian and Linda feel that their elected MLA does an adequate job on constituency matters, but they share a sense of frustration at the lack of effective representation when it comes to policy issues in the Legislature. “I don’t even bother contacting my MLA anymore on policy matters. There’s no point – they always listen politely, nod their heads, and then proceed to tell me why they won’t vote the way I ask.”

I get it. There is a diversity of opinion in every riding, and it’s a logical impossibility to expect MLAs to reflect that when they only have a single “yea” or “nay” in the Legislature.

However, if BC shifts to a proportional system, both Ian and Linda are likely to have an MLA who votes the way they want on policy matters. In the central interior, Ian and Linda could be NDP, Green or Conservative party voters. On Vancouver Island and elsewhere, they might be Liberal voters.

Under first-past-the-post, only about 50% of voters cast ballots which end up electing someone. In New Zealand, which adopted a proportional system in 1996, that number goes up to 95%. So, on an individual level, far more voters would feel effectively represented under a proportional system because they would have a team of MLAs from different parties representing them.

“I don’t care if the boundary moves or if my riding gets a bit bigger—I’d rather have an MLA based a bit further away from me than have one who lives next door but always votes with a party I don’t agree with,” says Linda.

Regional representation would also be improved with the adoption of a proportional system. Let’s take the ridings in the central interior as an example. All of the ridings in this region are currently represented by BC Liberal MLAs, who are currently sitting as members of the official opposition. So the entire region has no voice in government decision-making, with neither a seat at the cabinet table nor even on the back benches of government. Our MLAs can do little but offer criticisms from across the aisle, and we know how that usually goes. Governments in BC have a long tradition of dismissing out of hand any idea brought forward by the opposition, regardless of merit. This is what first-past-the-post gives us in terms of regional representation: a sort of all-or-nothing scenario.

Under proportional representation, each region of the province would elect MLAs to both sides of the aisle, because each of the major parties enjoys significant support in all areas of the province. This means that no area would be completely frozen out of power for four years or more, as frequently happens now.

So proportional systems improve local representation in two significant ways: a) they provide far more voters with an MLA who shares their priorities, and b) they ensure that government includes representatives from all regions.

What would this look like under the three systems on offer? Under Dual Member, voters would have two local MLAs, usually from different parties. Under Mixed Member and the rural portion of Rural-Urban, we would have one local MLA plus a few regional ones, giving us a mix from different parties. And under Rural-Urban, voters in urban and semi-urban areas of BC would have a team of MLAs from different parties representing their multi-member riding.

Under the systems that have been proposed, BC can have both stronger local representation as well as proportionality. So my friends Ian and Linda and hundreds of thousands like them, as well as the growing number of non-voters in BC, would feel that their votes actually mattered.

And the kindly old lady from the “No” side ads can rest assured that she will always have at least one local MLA ready to hear her concerns.

Gisela Ruckert

President, Fair Vote Canada BC

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