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Free the MLAs! Vote STV!

Vote reform would give reps spine – instead of the Liberals’ appalling enviro record.

Rafe Mair 25 Apr

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The Single Transferable Vote ought to win the referendum hands down if voters understand the consequences. It will not produce anything like perfect government but it will be a huge improvement. It’s not my purpose today to analyze the system and the argument except to say that MLAs from major political parties will have much more freedom, minority parties like the Greens will elect members and solid independents will have a good chance of winning a seat.

This means that even with a majority government, the government will have to listen to MLAs.

Let me give you an example of why. Suppose the Liberals, in 2009, have a majority under STV. It will certainly be a small majority and without doubt the Greens will have members. While on paper, the Liberals can’t be voted down, their members will feel much freer from the party whip. They will have been selected because they have broad perspectives and they will have won their seat (assuming a five member riding) not just from Liberal supporters voting for them but from people who will now vote the person, not just the party, knowing that the MLA will finally have some clout.

Because MLAs will know that not only are they running against opposition parties and independents but against the other candidates from their own party, they will soon understand that obeying the party whip contrary to the wishes of their constituents will carry with it a large risk. The Premier will know that he can’t be sure of any vote from his own caucus unless it has approval from that caucus. As matters are now, party discipline guarantees that the premier and Cabinet always have their own way.

Weakening government?

Another likely outcome if STV is implemented, is there will be no majority party and the largest party will either have to rule as a minority or with a coalition partner. Either way, the Premier’s dictatorship is reduced to an office where statesmanship and a willingness to listen and compromise are critical to his political life. Because of this, all votes will likely be “free votes”. It will no doubt take a while but MLAs will get used to actually being someone entitled to respect, with the result that all constituents, no matter which if any, party they belong to, will feel connected to their MLAs. Why? Again, because the MLA cannot afford to be a “party” man in a, let’s say, 5 MLA riding where there are so many shades of opinion which they must acknowledge if not cater to.

Let’s look at the environment issue in the light of STV. The Campbell government record on the environment is appalling. They have condemned runs of wild salmon to extinction, returned fines leveied against fish farmers and have promised to expand this pernicious industry. They have been able to do this without opposition because there hasn’t been an opposition in place. After 2009, no matter what the result, there will be a large opposition. They would be forced to actually look at the issues and the evidence and the Premier would know that. Liberal MLAs would know that the Green Party and independents would be eminently electable on this issue. STV would likewise mean that an NDP government would have to be very careful what it proposed as policy knowing that legislating party dogma could cost them seats. It’s easy to see from this that governments would have to sell their policies not only to Members of the Legislative Assembly but to the public itself.

Would this mean that government would be weak?

It depends upon what you mean by weak. If having to reach consensus before passing laws is weakness I suppose it is – in which case, give me weakness.

Let’s look back to the fast ferries scandal for an example. A premier, going by the seat of his pants as Glen Clark did, wouldn’t have a chance of getting the fast ferry scheme past a legislature elected under STV. He could not rely upon a pliant caucus to back him because caucuses wouldn’t be nearly so pliant any more. Such a scheme would have to be openly debated where the weaknesses would become obvious.

Hated by backroom boys

There is a consequence of this that must necessarily follow, about which I’ve heard little. The politics of the province would be far less polarized because no longer would there be a “them and us” mentality.

There are lots of points to debate before the referendum vote but we should all understand that the main virtue of STV is that, because the MLA becomes more answerable to the voter, the voter has a much greater and more direct influence on public affairs.

Those who don’t like STV dislike it because they like the old backroom boys' system. They hate the thought of sharing power or building consensuses and would rather sit 20 years in opposition to gain 4 years of absolute power than sit down with people of a different persuasion and work out solutions.

If you like absolute dictatorships controlled only by an election every four years, STV is not for you.

If you want public involvement, vote STV.

It’s as simple as that.

Rafe Mair, a regular columnist for The Tyee, can be heard every weekday morning from 8:30-10:30 on 600AM, His website is  [Tyee]

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