Tag Archives: referendum

Footnote on BC-STV

Had a really nice breakfast with Taylor Gunn of Student Vote yesterday. For those who aren’t familiar with their work I strongly encourage you to take a look at their website. For me, they are a great reminder that citizenship is a learnt skill and responsibility – and they work as hard as anyone to foster it.

Looking over the Student Vote website I was struck by their results for the BC election. I wasn’t surprised by the NDP’s strong and the Green’s (relatively strong) showing as young people tend to lean left. Indeed, if anything I was surprised the Green’s didn’t do better given how much I thought the party was driven by youth. No what surprised me was the referendum outcome – specifically how poorly the BC-STV vote did among student “voters” particularly in comparison to last time.

Gunn was telling me that last time, student “voters” passed BC-STV whereas this time the referendum was defeated 55.59% vs. 44.41% with 64 districts opposed and only 17 in favour. This means even among some of the most idealistic “voters” in the province support dropped at least %15 and likely more (I don’t know the specific results for the last election). My sense is that there are again two reasons for this:

1) that reframing the question to a choice between two systems as opposed to a “yes” or “no” for change may have affected voters more dramatically then people thought. Do people want change? Frequently they say yes. But show them what the specifics of what that change will be and they are often less enthusiastic. I’ve always been struck by an exit poll I remember seeing after the 2001 election in which only 35% of voters who voted “yes” in the referendum actually knew what they were voting for.

2) the second is that I think more exposure to BC-STV – both positive and negative – had a culminative negative impact. BC-STV supporters beleived that the more people learnt about BC-STV the more they would like it. I think they exact opposite occured. The more they learnt, the more questions they had and the less the understood or liked the proposed system. I’m open to the possibility that all these student voters were exposed to a negative add campaign that shifted their opinions but it feels a little like a stretch.

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.

electoral reform: maybe people just don't care

Yesterday, the Toronto Star had this fun story about the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. My favourite part was the beginning:

To find out what people think about the Ontario referendum being held a month from today, the Toronto Star stopped some 50 people at Yonge and Bloor Sts.

Just one person knew about it.

Only three others were interested enough to listen to what was being proposed.

Clearly this issue represents a burning platform for the electorate… Or not.

And let’s be fair – it is not like Canadians can’t get passionate about issues: The Charlotte Town Accord, Meech Lake, Free Trade, all caught voters attentions. If electoral reform hasn’t, maybe that means something…

Of course, proponents of Electoral Reform will claim this is because of a lack of press coverage and/or awareness on the part of the public. But then, this is the same bitter claim of any group whose issue isn’t dominating the news agenda.

Problematically, they’ll keep making that claim until their issue makes the news agenda and pierces the public’s consciousness. The basic precept being – everybody would care about this as much as I do – if only they were as well informed as I am.

Perhaps, or perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Maybe electoral reform is not a pressing issue to most people. Certainly a system the strengthens the power of the parties and the backroom boys isn’t easily going to inspire people I know…