Canadian democracy is not a matter of fairness. Since European invasion, Canada has had 200 years of colonial autocracy, then 50 years of elections without votes for women, and an additional 50 years without votes for Indigenous people. In every form democracy has taken since Confederation, it has been used to defend the interests of capital – the ultra-rich – over that of Indigenous people and the working class. British Columbia’s democracy is inseparable from this larger picture and the country’s electoral past and future are tied to that of the provinces.
Around the world, expanding voting rights and re-structuring the democratic system has been an ongoing struggle on the part of those without power. The most important changes to Canadian democracy have been the product of outcry and organizing from the people, not benevolent gifts from above. This includes British Columbia, where growing portions of working people have been calling for changes to the province’s democracy for decades.
On May 30, BC’s Attorney General, David Eby, presented a report and recommendations for a referendum on proportional representation in British Columbia. Mr. Eby has recommended a two-part ballot, asking first if British Columbians wish to switch to proportional representation. The second question asks voters to choose from three proportional representation systems.
The capitalist response to the Attorney General’s recommendations was immediate. “More fair? Or less accountable?...” read one headline from corporate media. The BC Liberal party, self-styled champions of free market capitalism, called the recommendations a “stacked deck” and accused the BC New Democratic Party’s cabinet of holding all the cards. It is contradictory for the BC Liberals to oppose popular democratic reform by accusing cabinet of having too much power. The accusers don’t care about fairness, they care about power, and that is what this is about.
Under First Past The Post (FPTP) it is easy for the powerful to game the system. In a three party race, a party only needs about 35-40 percent of public support in half of the electoral districts to hold absolute majorities. Through FPTP, parties with less than 50 percent of the total vote routinely form majority governments. Whole geographic areas and demographics are ignored because they don’t factor into winning a majority.
If adopted, proportional representation would increase the chance that a voter has to influence the outcome of an election. By allocating seats according to the proportion of votes received, it ensures every vote factors into the outcome. This both increases the likelihood of a socialist party gaining seats in the legislature, and increases the chances that large capitalist parties will fracture because of internal divisions. It is harder to maintain big umbrella parties when smaller voices can win their own seats without them.
The chance of one party being able to govern in a stable majority government is greatly reduced by proportional representation, which is one of the main benefits. Stable majorities are far less susceptible to the demands of the public. The more delicate a minority government, the more that working people can influence the political process from outside the legislature – from the streets. Stability only serves those who are already satisfied by the same old parties, the same old policy, and the same old excuses.
There are problems with the Attorney General’s recommendations (although when it comes to the referendum, they are outweighed by the value of the reforms). Mr. Eby has recommended a five percent threshold for seats, meaning the smallest parties will be prevented from attaining a seat or two. This strengthens the position of established political parties and makes it more difficult for socialist parties to use the legislature as a platform. It will also make it more likely that parties will be able to win stable majorities, without support from smaller parties. This is a great loss!
Many who are rarely represented, by party platforms or elected officials, are calling for the change. Representatives of the BC Federation of Students have come out strongly in favour of proportional representation. Students support the switch because they recognize that, if all votes matter, political parties will be forced to recognize student issues. The same truth could be spoken about many other social movements representing voices that are marginalized under FPTP.
British Columbia’s democracy will still have many problems after the referendum regardless of the outcome. Canada is a colony run for capitalists. Constituent nations have little avenue to exercise national self-determination within the democratic system. Working people, despite being the vast majority, are sidelined in favour of decisions that favour the wealthy (Kinder Morgan buyout, anyone?). The only way to address these underlying issues is to abolish the dictatorship of the wealthy, entrench national self-determination, and put working people in charge.
Success in the referendum will at least temporarily frustrate the electoral goals of the ultra-rich and provide opportunities for socialist organisers to exploit. It is time to stop worrying about what the wealthy consider fair and take a step to empower BC’s working class majority. With all this in mind, working people can only approach the upcoming referendum on proportional representation with enthusiasm. For the working class, democratic reform is not about striking a better balance between the powerful and oppressed. Democratic reform is an ongoing process that only ends when the powerful capitalist class is usurped and socialist democracy established. In British Columbia, proportional representation is a strategic step in that process that can amplify working people’s voices.
Santanna Hernandez is the Chairperson of the Selkirk College Students’ Union. The Students’ Union stands for reshaping Canadian democracy and building a society based on peace and co-operation. Zachary Crispin is the Students’ Union’s Executive Director.