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Norman Spector

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Often, during the course of a career that's taken me from sea to sea, I've been asked to explain British Columbia's penchant for polarized politics and unpredictable premiers. Twice, as ambassador to Israel, I was nonplussed when Labour Party ministers, shaking their heads, asked about B.C. New Democrats they had met at the convention of The Socialist International.

I'm happy to report, therefore, that when British Columbians elect a new government tomorrow, the result will converge with the rest of Canada -- whichever party wins.

Not everyone is as pleased. While the television debate two weeks ago was marked by civility and infrequent interruptions -- in contrast to the heckling match last June among federal leaders -- the networks reported poor ratings.

If Premier Gordon Campbell was to be believed that evening, British Columbia emerged from a decade of decline and is now prospering, thanks to his leadership, and only the election of an NDP government stands in the way of a golden future. Yet there stood Mr. Campbell, supposedly a hard-hearted politician leading the most right-wing government in our history, stressing the need for us to eat our fruits and veggies.

If NDP Leader Carole James was to be believed, our economy improved thanks to good fortune, not good government. Her predecessors in government weren't half as bad as Mr. Campbell pretended and, as a "listener," she would avoid their shortcomings. Listening to the leader of the socialist hordes vaunting the NDP's attachment to a balanced budget and promising not to raise taxes, one had to be impressed.

Frankly, I have little sympathy for reporters who've been complaining about a boring election campaign. British Columbia has long suffered from its reputation as a slightly wing-nutty province. Though investors have been attracted by our weather, they've always been wary of our climate.

Working with premier Bill Bennett in the 1980s, I had the impression that we were not seen as a serious player in Confederation. After moving to Ottawa to manage federal-provincial relations, I understood why.

My colleagues would regale me with stories of shouting matches in the 1970s between premier Dave Barrett and the deputy minister of finance, Simon Reisman, the cigar-chomping tough guy who later negotiated the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement. During the Meech Lake discussions of the late 1980s, the joke in Ottawa was that Alberta premier Don Getty's role was to explain the hard parts of the Constitution to premier Bill Vander Zalm.

In the '90s, premier Mike Harcourt made serious efforts to change that perception, but our reputation carried on through the tempestuous years of Glen Clark, whose ministers were barely on speaking terms with their federal counterparts.

That's all changed since Mr. Campbell came to office. Rarely, if ever, have relations between Ottawa and Victoria been as sound and productive.

Unfortunately, it's too soon to conclude that B.C. has given up its distinct ways. Tomorrow, the first province to legislate recall and fixed election dates will be voting on a new electoral system -- in a process launched by Mr. Campbell himself.

There being no facts in the future, no one can say for sure how the single transferable vote (STV) would work out in practice. Few countries use it, few people understand it, and fewer can explain one of the most complex and least transparent voting systems in the world. Mr. Campbell has not funded "yes" and "no" committees to explain it to British Columbians, and 80 per cent say they know little or nothing about it.

To play down the risks, advocates say we should look at Ireland's experience. However, Ireland is a small island, its population is very homogeneous and it has had one dominant party throughout its history.

A better comparison was offered recently by the editorialist who analyzed STV for the Vancouver Sun (which endorsed the system): "Much as we are seeing in Ottawa now with Prime Minister Paul Martin's Liberal minority government, the governing party will have to achieve majority support across party lines on an issue-by-issue basis."

I find it hard to believe that anyone would want to transplant the mess in Parliament to Victoria. In effect, British Columbians are being asked to adopt U.S.-style government and the Irish voting system.

In homogeneous Ireland, a party with 5-per-cent support holds the balance of power. With fragmentation on the left and right, and with ethnic groups -- heretofore famous for mass membership signups -- forming their own parties, B.C. could easily become ungovernable if STV is approved.

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