Thursday, May 07, 2009

Final Thoughts on the 2009 B.C. Election

Congratulations to NDP leader Carole James for winning the TV leaders' debate. Now, after she loses the election next Tuesday I don't expect a headlong rush to replace her. Indeed, if she can improve NDP standings in the Legislature even slightly I would encourage her to stay on for at least a couple more years. But there are a couple of lessons that I hope are not lost on New Democrats and small "d" democrats as they sift through the debris of this electoral defeat.

First, let me make one last comment on the NDP's approach to the environment and the carbon tax issue. The best policies made in this province by the NDP arose during the 1980s and 1990s when the party drew on its deep roots in both the labour and environmental movements to thrash out compromises which informed the CORE process, the Land Use Plans, the parks and Forest Practices Code, the Treaty process and so on. They didn't come from some operatives in the premier's office reading political opinion polls. Making policy to appeal to average voters when gas prices and party approval ratings are fluctuating up and down is a bit like playing the stock market. It would have been wiser to forge a compromise that would have kept the red-green coalition together. I have suggested a carbon tax that would serve as an effective floor price rather than as a regressive duty on all fuel in all situations. Might environmentalists have gone along with such a proposal? Probably enough to have prevented Campbell from splitting the progressive vote.

Second, a last comment on electoral reform. It appears likely that for the second election in a row, electoral reformers will win a moral victory (i.e. between 50% and 60% of the vote). A large number of voters and representatives of minority groups have been torn in this election between the potential for greater representation of diversity allowed by BC-STV and the greater local representativeness and stability promised by our current system. I have suggested that what these election results mean is that there is a mandate for a more moderate type of electoral reform. What I have called "STV lite" would give MLAs manageable constituencies, give voters a manageable size of ballot, and ensure continued majority government most of the time. But it would also force parties and governments to worry about the majority of voters' preferences. And it would improve the representativeness of the legislature.

3-member STV in the major metropolitan areas , 2-seat STV in the southern interior and smaller cities, and single seats with preferential ballots in the North would be a far cry from perfect proportionality, to be sure, but that would be a good thing. For the demand function for proportionality is not the same as the demand functions for voter choice and local representation. Ideally, voters would like to represent themselves if time and resources permitted; they would also ideallly like an infinite variety of choices. But proportionality is an indubitable good only in small amounts; extreme proportionality backfires in the parliamentary context by giving small parties too much leverage and blurring accountability for decisions.

Another simple reform is suggested by the growing size of the legislature (now up to 85 seats). Just have 60 seats elected as they are now (when I entered college there were 57 seats in the legislature, so this represents an historically normal level of constituency representation)--and have 25-30 seats from open lists. The open lists could be split into 4 or 5 geographical regions (greater Vancouver, Island & mid-coast, southern interior and north). These at-large members would afford voters a greater degree of choice in casting their ballots and a greater degree of proportionality and fairness in the results.

No comments: