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.