VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan says he’ll instruct his NDP MLAs to block an unappealing version of one of the proportional representation models, if it wins in this month’s referendum.
Horgan told Postmedia News on Wednesday that if British Columbians vote to replace the province’s electoral system with mixed member proportional, he will order NDP MLAs to oppose the so-called closed list approach when a legislature committee decides the details of the new system.
“The direction from me will be that the members of that committee not support a closed list,” said Horgan, describing a model in which voters don’t get to select candidates from party lists. “And I think that’s the general view of all of the members of caucus who I’ve talked to about it.”
Mixed-member proportional is one of three pro-rep options available to voters on mail-in ballots. Many of the details on the options would be decided by the legislature committee after the referendum, with new ridings boundaries set by an independent boundaries commission.
The NDP and the Greens would have a majority on the post-referendum legislature committee. The premier’s direction, combined with the Greens’ previously stated opposition to the closed-list model, means that system is effectively off the table.
Under mixed-member, sixty per cent of MLAs would be directly elected using the current first-past-the-post system in ridings. The other 40 per cent of seats would be distributed to people on party lists to ensure seat totals are adjusted to reflect the popular vote.
With a closed list, the public sees, but doesn’t vote on, the candidates on the party lists. The main criticism is that it allows political parties to stack their lists with patronage candidates who might not be popular enough to win a vote but nonetheless become an MLA by being on the list.
Horgan said if mixed members wins, he’d direct MLAs to support the “open list” model, where voters get to indicate their preference for individuals on party lists with direct votes.
“With an open list under MMP you’d have the local names, nominated by the various parties, and another list of names nominated again by the parties,” said Horgan.
“My view would be that you put your preferences beside those as you would prefer them. I think that’s easily achievable and would maintain the transparency I think everybody wants. I’ve been pretty clear everybody elected to the legislature will be just that, elected as an individual, representing a point of view.”
Horgan said he voted for mixed member because it is already used in other countries.
Horgan’s declaration that he’ll try to block closed lists in favour of the more democratic open lists is significant because it could help the Yes side direct supporters to the mixed-member option.
The Yes side has been focusing its campaign on change, without recommending one of the three pro-rep options. But it could alter its strategy in the final days of the campaign. The other two models are rural-urban and dual member proportional.
Voter turnout in the mail-in referendum sat at 6.5 per cent on Wednesday, with 16 days remaining.
Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson accused Horgan of trying to manipulate voters into supporting pro-rep by restricting one of the options in the middle of the campaign.
“The turnout for this referendum has been so poor so far we have to start wondering about its legitimacy,” said Wilkinson. “And the NDP are trying to simplify the choices so people will be more comfortable voting.”
The deadline for mail-in voting packages to be received to Elections B.C. is Nov. 30, meaning they must to be mailed several days earlier. Completed voting packages can also be returned in person to Service B.C. Centres or a Referendum Service Office. Voters who still haven’t received their ballots must ask for one before Nov. 23.
Horgan said he thinks the Greens and Liberals will support his opposition to closed lists if mixed-member comes to a vote on a legislature committee.
” I’ve heard the Liberal party is opposed to closed lists as well,” he said. “So the committee that will be struck after a Yes vote, should that be the will of the people, will consist of half NDP, half Liberal and a Green — that’s how the committees will be struck so far because it is an evenly-balanced legislature. And I believe that the majority of members will say yeah I agree we should have an open list.”
Wilkinson rejected that.
“John Horgan is trying to anticipate the decision of the all-party committee that he controls, so he might as well tell us all the answer right now rather than playing games with us,” said Wilkinson. “We’re not inclined to support what Mr. Horgan puts forward at the last possible moment to try and save the legitimacy of his referendum.”
It was Horgan’s government that set the rules for the referendum, including originally leaving the possibility of a closed list as an outcome. When asked Wednesday if that was a mistake, and why he didn’t specify the acceptable versions of mixed member from the beginning, Horgan said he was tied to the recommendations of Attorney General David Eby, who he had charged with being independent in setting up the referendum rules.
“He did that independent of government and he presented his report and we accepted the report,” Horgan said. “It’s easy after the fact to say I would have done it differently. But I believe I’ve had the opportunity, and I’m reinforcing it now in this interview, to say this is my preference, I’m the leader of the government, and should there be a Yes vote here is where we’re going to go.”
Horgan said the No side of the campaign has attacked the lack of details in the referendum, but have not defended the current first-past-the-post system.
Horgan sidestepped the question of low voter turnout and legitimacy on Wednesday, but said he’s been told the returns are on track with the 2011 mail-in referendum on the harmonized sales tax, in which 53 per cent of voters participated.
“I don’t want to prejudge people’s views on this,” he said. “I don’t want people to hold their ballots in the view that if they don’t vote they will get the outcome that they want. I want people to engage in as high a number as possible.”
Horgan, who has campaigned with Green Leader Andrew Weaver for a Yes vote on PR, said he’s disappointed with some of the rhetoric and fearmongering in the debate but he thinks the public is comforted by his promise to hold another referendum, two elections from now, on whether to keep any changes should PR pass.
“I also believe that if people don’t like it we can always go back,” he said.
“There’s an opportunity to do that in legislation and I believe that gives the safety valve that people may want if they are fearful they are going away from something they know to something they don’t know.”