The murky future of BC-STV

I confess to reading, with great disappointment, Gordon Gibson’s comments about the upcoming referendum on STV:

“I have watched and taken part in our politics for more than 50 years,” former Liberal leader Gordon Gibson said.

“I have never seen such an opportunity,” he added.

I have. It was about 4 years ago. Something, Gibson briefly began to acknowledge before drifting back into platitudes:

“the last chance in the lifetimes of anyone in this room … a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we must not miss.”

Actually, this would be a twice in a lifetime opportunity, which is the problem.

Unlike in America, where ballot propositions are immediately binding, in Canada referendum’s have no legal relevance. That said, they remain an important source of legitimacy. Which is why the upcoming referendum on BC-STV is troubling. How legitimate is a referendum whose question was asked – and answered – a mere 4 years ago? Why is this referendum more valid than the last one? Why not – for example – take an average of the two?

Collectively, Canadians have endured this dilemma for decades. I remember being at a formal dinner, sitting beside a friendly Quebec sovereigntist who joked about how he would play squash with his good friend who happened to be a federalist politician. Sadly, he said, he lost every time. However, he quipped, he liked to remind his friend that he only had to win once…

Issues like the sovereignty of a province, or the structure of our electoral systems are not squash games, they are core questions about our identity and how we govern ourselves. Any proposal to alter or change them must be made through a process that bestows as much legitimacy as possible unto the new system. Pursuing a process in which you give yourself multiple kicks at the can, and deem valid the one time you reach the threshold does not accomplish this.

At least in Quebec the referendum question was separated by 15 years. This period of time meant it was possible to argue that there had been a generational change (true), that conditions had changed (also true), and that a similar, but new question could be asked once again (again, true).

The same cannot be said for BC-STV. It has only been four years, little has changed in terms of context and the exact same question will be asked.

While it supporters will claim that BC-STV is a better system (a topic for another post) derived from a legitimate process (something I believe to be contestable), the simple fact is voters rejected it a mere 4 years ago.

And herein lies the problem for BC-STV. It’s not clear there can be a positive result for its supporters. If they lose, they will be unhappy. However, if they win, what does it mean? Will the result carry sufficient credibility and legitimacy? What if it barely passes? Say 60.1%? My sense is that, barring an overwhelming or near unanimous vote – say 80% the result will be, at the very minimum, tainted. An ominous beginning for a process which all citizens should feel was enacted in a fair and legitmate manner.

20 thoughts on “The murky future of BC-STV

  1. Pingback: » Trying to move the goalposts Scott’s DiaTribes: My personal opinions on social and political issues from a progressive standpoint.

  2. Scott Tribe

    A 60.1% result is tainted, David, when we elect our current governments with nowhere near 50% of the vote? Where a majority government can usually be reached by reaching 40%?I haven't seen any blogposts from you calling those results “illegitimate' or “tainted”.If 60% is reached, that is a solid mandate for change to the electoral system.

  3. Pontificator

    While our electoral system(s) is extremely important, I venture that it pales somewhat when compared to a “motion” to secede in the seriousness of its consideration. 60% is a reasonably significant (more than in the cases of referenda in Quebec) threshold for such significant change, and wasn't the last result very, very close to reaching it? If it's reasonable for voters to change their minds over 4 years when electing new governments (fixed date in BC, correct, David?), why is it not reasonable to expect a change in this instance? A slight positive change would make a major change in a democratic institution that much more real and closer to the actual views of the public, while a significant negative change could put the question to rest once and for all.

  4. Partisan non- partisan

    Do you live in a bizarro world where something is rejected by voters when over 57% of them vote for it?!?Because in the real world, that would indicate that they SUPPORT it.

  5. Lord Kitchener's Own

    Yeah, I've got to say, while this question may have been “asked and answered” four years ago, what you fail to mention is that when asked, the majority of voters said YES. Now sure, it was legally an insufficient majority, but more people voted for STV than against it and given our current ludicrous electoral system and it's notions of “legitimacy” I'd hardly call 57% support a stunning loss. 57% is a higher level of support than you can get on a vote on nearly ANYTHING for Pete's sake. I mean, 57% support in a FPTP election gives a party what? 127% of the seats in the Legislature? It's something like that I think. (lol)I would never question the legitimacy of a proposal supported by 60.1% of the voting population. What's illegitimate, is rigging the system to turn 57% support into a “loss”. Bringing in to question the legitimacy of a 60.1% win for STV just seems beyond the pale to me. The real hue and cry will come not if the referendum passes with 60% support, but if it “fails” with 59% support.

  6. david_a_eaves

    The answer to Lord Kitchener's question is that 57% is actually not that unusual. A quick trip over to wikipedia reveals that Canadians have agreed (either in favour or opposed) in referenda by more than 57% or even 60% numerous times.PEI for examples has had two referenda one assessing if Islanders were in favour of a fixed link to the mainland – it passed 60% to 40%. More recently, there was plebiscite over a mixed member proportional representation. It lost 64% to 36%.Nationally there was the conscription referendum which saw 64.5% vote in favour and 35.5% opposed (notably however, only 27.9% of Quebecois voters favoured and 72.1% opposed).Indeed, it is striking is how frequently, on a province by province basis, the 60% threshold is actually met.Probably the most notable instant where the threshold was not met was the vote which determined Newfoundland would join Canada. It succeeded by on 52% to 48%.As an aside, I think it is problematic to conflate the BC-STV vote with a regular election (despite Scott Diatribes misleading post, I'm actually quite comfortable with governing majorities that only receive 37% of the vote). But the main reason I am comfortable with such an outcome is because every 5 years (or less) there is an opportunity to select a new party or reaffirm the choice. The same cannot be said of electoral reform – once in place, it will be in place for, what was the word Gordon Gibson used…? A lifetime.

  7. Lord Kitchener's Own

    Well, I don't love this logic: “The same cannot be said of electoral reform – once in place, it will be in place for, what was the word Gordon Gibson used…? A lifetime.”To me, this sounds an awful lot like “we have to keep terrible electoral system X forever, because if we change from system X to system Y we'll be stuck with system Y forever”. Seems to me that the people with the stronger argument that a system is entrenched and unchangeable are the people trying to change the entrenched (and as of yet unchangeable) system.Changing our electoral system doesn't make future changes to our electoral system less likely, it makes them MORE likely. We'll be stuck with FPTP for a lifetime until someone shows that we can change. We won't be any more wedded to a new system of electoral politics than to the old, in fact, we'll be less trapped by the new system given that enacting the change will show that enacting a change is possible, and establish a precedence.

  8. david_a_eaves

    Hi Lord Kitchener – this is helpful – my sense is that we have very different assumptions about how frequently an electoral system should change. I don't want to put words in your mouth – but you seem happy if the rukes changes regularly – or at least not infrequently. I, admittedly, am more conservative: I believe we should be careful about altering the rules by which we run our democracy. Those are both legitimate positions with legitimate differences. In part I'm cautious because I believe any change will have unforseeable, unintended consequences and it is wise to see what those are before making further changes (hence the lifetime statement). But more importantly, I suspect that lowering the bar for changing the rules will both weakens the strength of those rules and makes it easier for someone to change them in a manner that might benefit a specific group or interest. This is far more disturbing an outcome.Finally, my post is not about whether FPTP or BC-STV is better – it is about the process by which we go about changing our election rules. I think we have a collective interest in ensuring that any new system has conferred upon it the most legitimacy possible. The point of my post is that I believe back to back referendums makes that outcome more difficult to achieve.

  9. Charles Tsai

    We should have a referendum on STV until it passes. In fact, I think we should vote on our electoral system every time we vote. Just a simple check box to indicate whether you're still confident in the system. If more than 50% say no, then that will set in motion a process to choose another system.

  10. DG

    1) The UN/EU recognized 55% as the target for succession. 2) STV was used in Manitoba and ALberta and was abolished without a referendum. A lot of people were unhappy, but could do nothing.

  11. DG

    1) The UN/EU recognized 55% as the target for succession. 2) STV was used in Manitoba and ALberta and was abolished without a referendum. A lot of people were unhappy, but could do nothing.

  12. JD

    Considering that 57% voted for the change to STV in a context where there were virtually no funds allocated to make the proposed change communicated and discussed at large throughout the population – I'd say that we are not really giving the question a second chance: we are giving it a first valid chance.Of course, getting our members of parliament elected via a different process may ensure that the various platforms the population supports are more fairly represented. But – this does not mean that the governance of parliament will be more intelligent, less partisan, and more sustainable. It does not mean that we have changed anything about the fact that an elected official's first mission is to perpetuate him or herself as an elected member of parliament – get reelected. And that, my friends, is the weakness of the system, regardless of how the person gets elected. Until we also change the way decisions get made in parliament, we are condemned to have a governmental structure focussed on perpetuating its own power over the People, it's power to spend the People's wherewithall, and therefore, its power to limit the power and sovereignty of it's citizens.

  13. Matt

    In 2005, 57% in favor of BC-STVThat is a YES vote!The government was too chicken to accept it. They said they needed 60% of votes over 60% of Electoral districts. Were trying again.Also things have changed since 2005. We are all much more aware of our current environmental tailspin and that something needs to be done. If a government won't listen and change, the voters need a chance to change the government.

  14. david_a_eaves

    Matt, just want to be clear for our readers. The government was not to “chicken” to accept the vote. The process was very clear – there needed to be a 60% majority and a majority of districts voting in favour for the initiative to succeed. The initiative failed to meet that bar – that's why the government didn't adopt it. I agree that things have changed since 2005. We've had a government that has been held more to account. It has also been highly responsive to citizen input. A right leaning party has spent more on homelessness than any government in recent memory and on the environment it has proposed a carbon tax and the introduction of smart meters – that feels fairly responsive to me.

  15. thc1100

    david curious if you believe in” one person one vote”. If you do why is a No STV vote worth 1.5 time more than a single YES vote? Shade of Animal Farm!

  16. brookeb

    The BC Citizens' Assembly, in its wisdom, have clearly stated that BC-STV should be looked again after a period of years, and be tweaked, if necessary. That's more than can be said 0f our past and present politicians, who, before Gordon Campbell's courageous edict to at least have it looked at, have never expressed a desire to change the flawed and unpopular First-Past-The Post. I think that says a lot right there.

  17. david_a_eaves

    So I'm hoping that today's (May 12th) result ends the murkiness. A 40-60% defeat is unambiguous and more interestingly, what I think it also shows is that the more BCers learnt about BC-STV the more they disliked it. I remember last election on 33% of those coming out of the polls understood what BC-STV was, I'm wondering if more did this time… would be interesting.

  18. Xeyes

    From the posts I've been reading, no. At least, not more factual information. More people (like D.S.) have been spending more time throwing out disinformation, and doing their very best to confuse and scare people. And, they've been successful. The number of people out there who still believe their vote would go to someone they didn't vote for is scary.That's not to say that all of the concerns I've read aren't justifiable. Some are fixable, some are trade-offs to reach the goal that STV offers. I suppose I'd be comfortable if the government I wanted was elected with only 1% of the vote. My concern is that waiting 5 years to replace a bad government is 5 years too long. They can do a LOT of damage in that time, damage that can last for generations or longer. I'd rather have more discussion and comprehensive evaluation (ie opposition and public input) and less need for an election to fix screwups (BC standard operating procedure).

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