VICTORIA — Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson used this week’s TV debate to make big gains in his campaign to spread confusion over the details of proportional representation. His success has left the Yes side with some tough choices as it tries to counter the Liberal momentum in the critical days ahead.
Wilkinson dedicated almost his entire time during a 30-minute debate Thursday on a focused attack on Premier John Horgan for being unable to explain the practical mechanics of how the three pro-rep options on the referendum ballot would work in the real world.
It was a devastatingly simple but effective argument, because Horgan can’t explain the three systems in short and simple terms. Almost nobody can. Two are not in use anywhere in the world. And the third, mixed member proportional, has so many important details left undecided — the format of party lists, what voters will actually be voting upon, and the structure of ridings — to be near-impossible to explain in any detailed way.
“I think the key point, John, is that you’re the one who wants to change the system and it’s important for you to tell people how this is going to work,” Wilkinson said during the debate.
“Twenty-three different features that you haven’t revealed to people. You’re in control of this process. We want to know and the people at home want to know how many MLAs they’re going to have, how many votes are they going to have, and how are these votes going to be transferred all over the province after they’ve cast their vote to get the proportionality you want to have in place?”
Again and again Wilkinson delivered a variation of this theme. It seemed to flummox Horgan, which is odd because the NDP must have seen the attack coming.
For weeks, Wilkinson and Liberal MLAs have been hammering the NDP in the legislature over all the details the public won’t know about the pro-rep systems until after the vote. The TV debate simply served as a chance for Wilkinson to hurl more pointed versions of those questions at Horgan in front of a live TV audience.
“I have more confidence in the people of B.C., clearly, than you do, Mr Wilkinson,” Horgan offered at one point. “I believe they’ll be able to work through this.”
Horgan’s difficulty highlights the shortcomings in the official Vote PR B.C. strategy. The Yes side isn’t campaigning specifically for any of the three options. It isn’t even trying hard to explain them. Pro-rep supporters long ago decided to run a campaign that simply focuses on change, with an added defence that “anything will be better than what we have now” and a further backstop of “don’t worry there’s another referendum to change back in two elections if we make a mistake.”
That strategy may have been a winning combination early in the campaign. But Wilkinson ripped through it on TV. His point likely rang clear in the minds of undecided voters: If the three pro-rep options are so difficult to explain and understand, how can you vote for change?
Wilkinson’s TV performance should give the Yes side pause as we reach the critical point of the campaign in the next few days. Should pro-rep advocates change their strategy to start encouraging people to vote for just one of the three options? Should they devote their energy to countering Wilkinson’s attack on the lack of detail by trying to give on-the-fence Yes voters a safe harbour in at least one option?
We’ve seen early signs that Horgan may be the one to try to bail the Yes side out by backstopping the mixed member proportional option.
“I voted to select the option of mixed member because it is the most used internationally and gives us a baseline to work from,” said Horgan told media recently.
But the premier wasn’t content to just pick the system. He zeroed in on one of the key criticisms of mixed-member, which is that one possible version involves parties naming “closed lists” of candidates that voters don’t get to vote directly for, but who become MLAs anyway when parties are topped-up with extra seats to achieve a seat count that’s proportional to their popular vote.
Imagine the kind of F-level patronage candidates parties will put on lists if they know voters don’t get to vote for those individual people. We won’t know if B.C. will get this closed list version of mixed-member until after the election, when an all-party legislature committee decides upon those kinds of details.
However, the legislature committee will have a majority of NDP-Green MLAs. So Horgan could, if he wanted, flex his majority muscle and announce he’ll take the closed list version of mixed-member off the table in advance, to ease the mind of voters.
He’s hinting he’s leaning in that direction already.
“I don’t support closed lists,” he told reporters in a passing comment during an unrelated media scrum recently. “I support citizens voting for people and electing them to the legislature.”
This presents the Yes side with an important strategic choice: Should it continue to run a “change” campaign and hope the details don’t matter? Or should it unite behind mixed-member, throw all its explanatory efforts behind that one system, and use Horgan to make crystal clear publicly that the least-democratic versions of mixed-member are off the table?
Any shift in strategy will have to come soon. The deadline for ballots to be in is Nov. 30.
Vote PR B.C.’s Maria Dobrinskaya said it could help to have people like Horgan clear a safe path to one of the options.
“I do think people are looking for direction so it is helpful for the premier to provide that direction,” she said.
But Dobrinskaya said it’s possible that some voters will simply never get enough detail to be comfortable with change.
“For people who are sort of not interested, or question all these unanswered pieces that we don’t know, is there a point that there’d be enough information for people to be satisfied?” she asked. “Part of the thing about making a change is we’re making a change.”
“The bigger fear the No side is trying to create is less about specifics and more about the change in general,” added Dobrinskaya.
A key part of the Yes campaign is telling voters there will be a second referendum, after two elections, where British Columbia can go back to first past the post or to another pro-rep system if their choice isn’t working, said Dobrinskaya.
And the Yes side is also pinning some of its hopes on the youth vote, calculating that younger voters are more receptive to the idea of changing the electoral system. The Yes side’s official youth campaign, called Pro Rep is Lit, received a shout-out by Horgan during the debate in what has since become a viral comment. “Young people like the idea of working together,” said Horgan. “If you were woke, you’d know that pro rep is lit.”
The official No side has argued there should have only been one question on the ballot — as Horgan promised during the 2017 election — to offer a clear choice between first past the post and one detailed proportional representation model.
“The result now is they’ve confused voters completely,” said Bill Tieleman, who is heading the No B.C. Pro Rep group. “Instead of one having one system with details, they have three systems with no details. That’s a recipe for having their referendum defeated. Nobody can make heads nor tails of this thing.”
Tieleman said he doesn’t think voters will accept Horgan and the Yes side zeroing in on one of the three options to try to funnel voters toward that choice.
“You can’t have it both ways, you can’t go out and say to voters it’s up to you except we’re only going to let one of the systems go through,” said Tieleman. “That’s completely hypocritical. That would cause their entire side to destruct.”
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