By Richard McGuire
Special to the Chronicle
MLA Linda Larson has a simple answer for those confused by the referendum ballot on proportional representation – if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it.
“You vote to keep what we’ve got unless you have a clear understanding of what is on that ballot besides what we’ve got,” Larson said in an interview after mail-in ballots began arriving in people’s mailboxes last week.
The referendum allows British Columbians to choose between the current “first-past-the-post” system for electing MLAs to the legislature and one of three proportional representation (PR) systems.
The provincial NDP government agreed to hold the referendum as one of the conditions set by the BC Green Party for maintaining Green support in the legislature to allow the NDP to govern.
“The literature is complicated,” Larson said of the information from Elections BC about the various PR systems. “It’s not something that the average person can just open, understand easily, mark and send back knowing that they have made the choice that they genuinely have been informed about.”
Voters who don’t support or understand the different PR systems have the option to simply mark Question 1 to indicate that they prefer the present system. It is not necessary to answer the second question.
The deadline for Elections BC to receive ballots mailed back is Nov. 30.
Larson said she has no objection to a proper referendum, like the previous ones in which citizen assemblies looked at different options and showed people what the different options would look like.
“People were then able to make a choice, and, in both cases, it was turned down,” Larson said, referring to previous votes in 2005 and 2009.
Of the three PR systems proposed, Larson notes that two of them are used nowhere else in the world.
The other, mixed member proportional, would only allow voters to elect about 60 per cent of the MLAs. The other 40 per cent would be appointed by parties, whether voters support them or not, Larson points out.
“Right now, people don’t necessarily like the system that we have, but you have the ability to vote somebody in or not,” said Larson. “That’s your choice and nobody is going to appoint somebody to represent you. That’s what people will lose, and I don’t think they understand that fully.”
By allowing parties to appoint about 40 per cent of MLAs, Larson adds, it could diminish the voice of rural British Columbians.
“The population in the Lower Mainland certainly far outnumbers us,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that. A very small geographic area in the Lower Mainland really can control the entire province on sheer population.”
Under PR, parties would not necessarily have to pick local people when they appoint MLAs, Larson noted.
“To set up a system whereby rural BC does not have equal voice, or at least good representation, is really wrong,” she said.
Larson also points out that proportional representation would cost more and involve more seats in the legislature.
“It is a more expensive government to operate,” she said. “So that is another thing. If people want to pay more, I guess that’s also their choice.”
Larson thinks the mail-in ballot is going to skew the vote towards people who are especially committed on this issue.
“If your heart is in it, you’re going to make sure that you get your vote in,” she said. “If you don’t understand it and you can’t figure out what the hell is going on, are you going to put your vote in?”
There is absolutely no reason the referendum could not have been a ballot with the municipal election, she adds.
“That in itself is another thing that you can question the motive of,” she said.
The B.C. Liberals have been seeking a debate on the issue between their leader, Andrew Wilkinson and Premier John Horgan, Larson said. But the NDP government has been stalling, she adds.
“I think it will probably happen, but by the time it does, three quarters of the people would have either thrown the ballot into the garbage or sent it in already, uninformed,” Larson said.
Both the NDP and the B.C. Liberals are parties that are coalitions between MLAs of different viewpoints who come together because they are looking at the bigger picture, she said. The Green Party “is kind of a standalone. It’s only got one focus,” she added.
In the 2017 provincial election, the Green Party elected three MLAs, but under PR they would be able to appoint 15, bringing their total to 18 seats, Larson said.