The British Columbia provincial election approaches. With it we will have the referendum on the Single Transferable Vote recommended by the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. The reform certainly does not reach the full extent I would envision. The transferability does not include a distributed vote and it provides for larger, multiple member, constituencies than may actually be necessary. My views on constitutional reform were, of course, outside of the Assembly's mandate. The recommended reform is a compromise of many people's views and no one person's view should ever hold sway in a democracy. I remain quite amazed at just how closely the Assembly's recommendations did match my own wishes for electoral reform and I heartily support this reform and will vote, "Yes!"
For general interest, my own submission to the British Columbia Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform, as I presented it on 2004, May 31 with a constitutional reform element in line with my earlier post on Senate reform included, follows:
Let me begin with the things I respect about our electoral system and my participation in it. Firstly, I deeply respect our model of responsible representative government. In this, the Westminster model, the government is responsible to the legislature and the legislature is responsible to the electorate, each member responsible to the electors in that member's own constituency. Electoral reform must strengthen this basic model. I have voted in every provincial election since I became old enough to vote and I pride myself in saying that I vote for the person. I do not vote vote for the party; in fact I have never held any party membership.
In my view, party politics corrupts responsible representative government and supplies the source of the distortions that have spurred creation of this electoral reform process. Our Members of the Legislative Assembly are, in reality, held responsible, not just to their constituents, but also to their respective political parties. This split in the direction of responsibility creates an undue conflict for each and every MLA. Unfortunately, the power of the party currently overrides MLAs' responsibility to constituents. I agree with others who have expressed reservations about the role of political parties; this is the grave distortion of responsible representative government that we live with today. The answer lies less with change in the way we vote and more with breaking of the authority of party whips within the legislature, even eliminating party politics altogether from our broader political life. If every elector voted only for the person and each MLA felt responsibility only to that MLA's own electing constituents, the distortions currently being addressed would not even exist.
Is politics possible without political parties? Certainly it is; just look to our two recently constituted sister legislatures in the Northwest Territories and Nunavit. Better yet look at our own history. For over thirty years after our confederation with Canada, British Columbia governed itself without political parties. Although this period often gets cited as turbulent, with too many short-term Premiers (the position of Premier or any other single personality in government just did not have the power significance accorded it today), on closer examination the underlying themes of provincial governance were actually more stable than superficial appearances. In fact, this was the time when our MLAs were most truly responsible solely to their own constituencies. Responsible democracy actually thrived and far less power resided in the Premier's office than at present; more power resided in the legislature as a whole. Unfortunately, Richard McBride very deliberately brought an end to our freedom from the distortion of democracy wrought by political parties.
Of the alternatives currently under consideration, I have to say that I oppose any form of proportional representation based on political parties. Make no mistake, whether party lists are open or closed, members placed (I dare not say elected as no voter could actually make a direct judgment on the member as a person apart from party affiliation) off a party list would see themselves as responsible to no constituency but their own party. This may succeed in including minority voices but such minority voices will feel no responsibility to anyone but their own parties. The most marked effect of having any MLAs in the legislature who are responsible to only their own parties and not to any other identifiable constituency can only be to further strengthen the power of each party over all its MLAs, including those elected from geographical constituencies. This can only increase current corruption of responsible representative government in favour of party politics.
Not only would proportional representation based on political parties enhance the current power of party over person among our MLAs, I suspect it would also increase the longevity of parties. We are fortunate in that we can, and do, "get rid of the rascals" for good. How long has it been since the British Columbia Conservative Party formed a government? Where is the British Columbia Social Credit Party today? Decades ago, before New Zealand brought in its MMP, I visited that country during an election. I was impressed at how New Zealand political parties came and went over the course of its history to that time. No party had ever come back to power after more than two stints as government. Parties whose time had come and gone no longer existed or had withered to minor participants. Today, in contrast, the same two parties routinely alternate in power. I suspect that, with any form of proportional representation, we will lock ourselves into a near unchanging set of alternatives that may allow addition of new minor parties but not prune parties that have had their day.
The other idea getting the most consideration, that of the single transferable ballot, has my wholehearted support. Although it was before I was old enough to vote, British Columbia did use a single transferable ballot in the past and I regret I have not had opportunity to exercise this sort of vote. This is obviously more fair to the candidates within their constituencies. When people vote for people rather than parties, the single transferable ballot does not imply multiple member ridings as has been claimed. Today we have the technology that the counting should not impose the burden on the electoral process that critics hold against this type of ballot. Let us bring this reform back.
In fact modern technology may well permit us to enhance and more accurately reflect voter preferences through a single distributed vote. For instance, among candidates A, B, C, D, and E, voter 1 may prefer candidate D but have some liking for candidate A and, thus, assign a 75% vote to candidate D and a 25% vote to candidate A. Voter 2 may give a 100% vote to candidate C only. Voter 3 may find two candidates indistinguishable and grant candidate D 40% and candidate E 40% while leaving 20% for candidate A. Voter 4 may wish to rank all candidates giving 50% to candidate B, 25% to candidate A, 15% to candidate D, and 10% to candidate C. Each voter could express that voter's choice in any of a diverse variety of patterns (in this example, at this point, candidate A has 0.70 votes, candidate B, 0.50 votes, candidate C, 1.10 votes, candidate D, 1.30 votes, and candidate E, 0.40 votes for a total of 4.00 votes cast). A plurality would remain sufficient to elect.
What about giving expression to the diversity of points of view that go into our diverse society? I suggest a constitutional change would serve far more effectively than electoral reform. We should consider changing to a two chambered legislature that serves both our common interests and our diverse identities. In fact we could call them the Chamber of Our Common Interest and the Chamber of Our Identities. The Chamber of Our Common Interest would be largely indistinguishable from our current legislature (except, I would hope, it would be free of political parties), the source of the government responsible to the legislature and the senior of the two chambers, elected from geographical constituencies by openly scheduled general vote for terms of no more than four years. It could still question its own confidence in the government and precipitate an unscheduled election (nothing is more vital for truly responsible democracy than the power to question confidence in the government!). This chamber needs no further elaboration in this discussion. The Chamber of Our Identities, able to review legislation initiated in the Chamber of Our Common Interest and initiate its own legislation, is a novel concept (that could also apply federally with Senate reform), in response to our diversity. It also could question its confidence in the Chamber of Our Common Interest and precipitate an election for that otherwise senior chamber.
I suggest we identify the five most significant distinct elements of identity to which British Columbians hold. These may be by gender, age group, mode of making a living, ethnic derivation, level of education, religious affiliation, generation count since immigration to Canada, etc. through the entire selection of identities by which all of us live. Every twenty-five years a commission, very like this forum, would examine British Columbia society and identify the five areas of identity British Columbians currently regard as most significant. The Chamber of Identities would be divided into five caucuses with equal numbers of members, one for each of the accepted significant areas of identity. Each Identity Caucus would include members elected to constituencies defined by the identities that make up that caucus with the number of members of each constituency in direct proportion with the numbers of British Columbia citizens who self-identify with that specific identity. Self-identification at voter registration would be vital to avoid having caucuses hijacked by external identity related organizations. For instance, if ethnic derivation were considered a significant identity, the Ethnic Derivation Caucus of the Chamber of Our Identities would consist of elected members from constituencies such as British Columbians of British Origin, British Columbians of Han Chinese Origin, British Columbians of French Canadian Origin, Native British Columbians etc. through the entire diversity of ethnic origins within our current population, including British Columbians of Broadly Mixed Ethnicity. If gender were considered a significant identity, the Gender Caucus of the Chamber of Our Identities could consist of two large constituencies of men and of women or of an appropriate number of paired geographic caucuses for men and for women. In the case of age grouping being considered a significant identity, constituencies of children, elected by children, could exist. The actual membership structure of the Chamber of Our Identities would be defined and reviewed every twenty-five years to keep the chamber relevant to British Columbia society.
Each identity caucus within the Chamber of Our Identities would be elected for a fixed five year term, one caucus at a time in succeeding years. This would give a fixed schedule election every year and a turn over of chamber membership independent of of the membership turnover in the Chamber of Our Common Interest. The first five years after each identity review would be a transition period with each previous identity caucus giving way to its successor identity caucus at each identity caucus election. The system may be more complex than our present legislature, but it would give real voice for us to express both our common interests as British Columbians and our special interests within the various identities we hold to make up our diverse population.
Electoral reform alone cannot resolve the very real problems that brought this Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform into being. These problems require us to curtail the power of political parties over our Members of the Legislative Assembly. We also need constitutional change to permit us to express our diversity and special interests within our legislature, separately from our common interests.