In 11 days, British Columbians will decide whether to abandon Canada's antiquated "first past the post" electoral system. Four other provinces are in various stages of wrestling with reform.
B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell became convinced that change was overdue when, in the election before the last one, he actually got the most votes -- but the NDP won the most seats.
B.C. chose a bold way to select a new system. One hundred and sixty members of the public were chosen at random from hundreds of volunteers. They were balanced in age, gender, occupation etc. and, last year, they studied various systems, listened to experts and travelled across the province. Most presentations they heard favoured change; the most recommended system was some form of proportional representation.
Under proportional representation, candidates run for individual ridings just as they do under our current system. But some seats are reserved and awarded to parties according to the number of votes they actually receive. Candidates for these seats are drawn from lists that each party draws up. Unlike our current system, if a party gets 40 per cent of the vote, it gets 40 per cent of the seats -- not, say, 60 per cent, which has happened in the past in Canada.
But, in B.C., a small determined group of people both inside and outside of the Citizens' Assembly pushed hard for another system called the Single Transferable Vote.
Never heard of it? Neither have most other people. The enthusiasts in B.C. presented it as a "made in B.C." system -- which might account for its attraction to that highly individualistic province.
But, far from being a B.C. product, it has been used for decades mostly in municipalities, where there are no parties. So far, only Tasmania, the Isle of Man, Malta and Ireland use STV.
Even among those countries that have switched from colonial rule to democratic government since the Second World War, none chose either our system or the STV model.
The appeal of STV is that it gives an accurate allotment of seats. Academics and mathematicians adore it. But it is complicated, difficult to understand and it often takes days to get the results.
Ireland has tried to get rid of it twice. According to Michael Laver of Dublin's Trinity College, STV tends to focus elections on local issues rather than national policies. Elections often become a free-for-all with candidates from the same party running against one another. It also produces a high number of independents. That, Prof. Laver points out, doesn't work particularly well under our party system.
One of STV's greatest drawbacks is that it won't help -- and may even decrease -- the number of women in the B.C. Legislature. In most European countries using proportional representation, the number of women in parliament ranges from a third to almost half of the deputies.
Under Canada's first past the post, despite monumental lobbying by women's organizations, we are stuck at 21 per cent for women federally. Canada now ranks 37th in the world, far behind many South American and African countries. Britain and the U.S., the only other two modern industrialized democracies still using first past the post, are even worse (at 18 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively).
As for STV, after 80 years, Ireland has only 13 per cent women, and Malta 9 per cent. In fact, Prof. Laver rates first past the post and STV as equally bad for women.
Our problem is not the voters. In a recent poll, more than 90 per cent of Canadians said we need more women in Parliament.
New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have both held commissions on changing the electoral system and have come out strongly in favour of proportional representation. B.C. will go its own way, of course.
But what should concern voters in Ontario is that the current Liberal government has declared it also intends to hold a referendum on changing our electoral system. And it is also considering setting up a citizens assembly.
We must not make the same mistake as B.C. We should at least give clear directions to our citizens assembly that we want a system that will represent Ontario's makeup in terms of gender and minorities, which B.C., in its mandate for the assembly, neglected to do.
Doris Anderson is past president of Fair Vote Canada, a multipartisan group seeking to change Canada's electoral system.