COMMENT: What ails B.C.'s democracy?
Trivia time: who was the last leader of the BC NDP to lead his party to more than 45 per cent of the popular vote in a provincial election?
One would have to go back six leaders and eight elections to 1979 when Dave Barrett won 45.99 per cent of the popular vote and still lost the election to Bill Bennett and the Social Credit party.
And even though NDP leader Carole James won a higher percentage of the popular vote in both 2005 and 2009 than either Mike Harcourt or Glen Clark did when they went on to form government in 1991 and 1996, James never got the chance to call herself premier.
In fact, B.C. elections are traditionally so tight between the two main parties that only twice in the last eight elections has the difference in popular vote between the two parties exceeded five per cent: in 1991 and 2001.
There’s also the “pox on both your houses” vote to factor in. The roughly twelve per cent of the electorate that consistently turns its back on the two main parties. Sometimes it’s been sufficiently concentrated to put a candidate or two in the legislature.
It helped elect Vicki Huntington in 2009, Gordon Wilson in 1996, and Gordon Gibson in 1975. And this time round it may very well elect a handful of independents and a candidate from the Greens or Conservatives to boot. B.C. will survive.
But the vote that should truly leave everyone aghast is the “stay at home” vote: the 1.5 million voters that have simply tuned out.
Over the past three decades, the percentage of British Columbians who actually vote has steadily fallen, from more than 70 per cent to a little over half last time out, when nearly one out of every two voters seemingly slept the day away and never bothered to cast a ballot.
And despite all the political venom it generated for over two years, nearly half of all voters couldn’t be bothered to render a verdict on the HST in 2011, even though they didn’t have to go further than a mailbox to do so and had weeks to make the trek.
In fact, B.C. has the dubious distinction of having some of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, which says a lot when you consider that some of those other provinces don’t have much to boast about either.
So what ails B.C.’s democracy?
It’s not a lack of passion. British Columbians are nothing if not passionate on the issues, albeit too much passion does turn some folk off. Note to party militants: not everyone sees the world quite as black and white as dyed-in-the-wool true believers sometimes do.
And while politics will never be a match for hockey, it is telling when the Vancouver Canucks have over 800,000 Likes on Facebook, and the best that any provincial party can muster is 8,544 for the NDP. The B.C. Liberals are far behind at 2,163. There are over two million British Columbians on Facebook.
Christy Clark’s personal page has 22,749 Likes, but a quick scan of the comments left behind shows that those aren’t all Likes in the true sense of the word.
Some non-voters lean on that well-worn crutch: “my vote doesn’t count.” Tell that to Dave Barrett who lost his seat in 1975 by 18 votes or Gordon Campbell who won the popular vote in 1996, but because of 1,769 possible Liberal voters who never showed in five ridings was unable to eke out a victory.
Then there’s the trust factor. Let’s face it, politicians have fallen out of favour with the electorate, and often for good reason. But not voting isn’t going to make politicians any more honest. In fact, it just makes it easier for them to feel less accountable. It’s almost a reward for bad behaviour.
And that excuse that political parties are all the same, isn’t valid this time round.
There are notable differences between the parties on major policy issues facing the province: from pipelines to campaign finance reform to public finances.
One example: if you’re open to the Northern Gateway pipeline with a few face saving conditions and see nothing wrong in Enbridge giving $95,800 to the B.C. Liberals, then you should consider voting Liberal. If you support the pipeline outright, but don’t like the idea of those donations, then vote Conservative.
And if you oppose both the pipeline and the donations then consider a vote for the NDP or Greens.
But if you do nothing else on May 14th vote. You might not feel warm and fuzzy all over, but B.C. will be the better for it.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca