VIDEO: Tom Fletcher recaps debate on proportional representation

VIDEO: Tom Fletcher recaps debate on proportional representation
Horgan, Wilkinson spar in debate as fate of B.C.s electoral system hangs in the balance
In what may have been a preview of B.C.’s next provincial election campaign, voters got a chance to watch B.C. Premier John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson go head to head in a televised debate for the first time.

The two leaders were facing off over the province’s referendum on electoral reform, which could see B.C. switch from the current first-past-the-post voting system to a system of proportional representation.

The crosstalk got so intense at one point that Horgan was able to slip in one of the debate’s early zingers:

British Columbias Premier and Opposition Leader sparred in a feisty broadcast debate Thursday about whether or not British Columbia should proceed to proportional representation in electing members of the legislature, a clash that came as voters are casting ballots in a referendum on the issue.

“I think at this point in the evening, if I’m just going to listen to one guy yell over top of the other guy, I’m going to go watch Wheel of Fortune,” he said.

Through much of the 30-minute debate, NDP Premier John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson were talking loudly over each other, with the Premier asking voters to endorse change and Mr. Wilkinson raising concerns about the fine details of the proposals.

No leader scored a clear knockout blow, and by the end of the combative debate, each had made several key points they hoped to communicate.

The Premier has said he voted for Mixed Member Proportional in which at least 60 per cent of provincial officials would be elected by first past the post with the rest chosen from party lists and allocated depending on their partys share of the popular vote.

[email protected] says why do you keep speaking over me when you invited me here for a debate. If you were hoping to be informed during this debate about PR, so far a little short on that. #bcpoli #prdebate

But the provincial Liberal Leader said voters are confused by their choices in the mail-in ballots they have been sent, and that the NDP has not been clear about how the proposed choices would transpose into the actual province.

Unanswered questionsAndrew Wilkinson wasted no time going on the attack, directing the bulk of his firepower to the multitude of unanswered questions that still surround a switch to PR.

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Wilkinson argued that there are at least 23 features of a proposed PR system that won’t be decided before people vote, likening the process to handing a blank cheque to a used car salesman.

Taking the electoral-reform issue to voters for the third time since 2005 was part of an agreement after the 2017 election that saw the BC Greens support the NDP, enabling the New Democrats to govern B.C.

“How many votes will people get under your proposed system,” Wilkinson asked Horgan repeatedly in one particularly combative segment, accusing Horgan of evading the question. “How many MLAs will they have in their riding?”

Voters are being asked, Yes or No, whether they support electoral reform, and then offered the choice of three systems – Mixed Member Proportional, Dual-Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional.

It was a question Horgan didn’t directly answer — assuring listeners that voters would still vote in their regular polling place for a real human, but deferring the technical details of a PR system to an as-yet convened electoral boundaries commission.

LISTEN: Both Premier John Horgan and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson held media scrums after their heated debate.  We get some reaction from Global BC’s Richard Zussman to last nights debate on electoral reform.  

In the 2017 election, the Liberals and NDP each won about 40 per cent of the popular vote while the Greens, with almost 17 per cent of the vote, ended up with only three of 87 legislature seats.

Wilkinson is asking how many votes will people get. Horgan is not answering specifically. Wilkinson is badgering him. Not a lot of info for people here, but does show there are a lot of unanswered questions around potential PR change. #BCpoli #PRdebate

Were not asking to experiment with our democracy, said Mr. Wilkinson, noting that the government chose three systems for voters to consider, two of which have yet to be used anywhere.

“He’s in charge of the results after you vote,” Wilkinson said. “He gets to fill in all the blanks, and it puzzles me why he’s not filling in the blanks tonight.”

Throughout the debate, Wilkinson returned again and again to argue that the PR systems on offer are confusing, arguing the NDP had chosen untested systems behind closed doors and that the party had failed to communicate how people’s votes would be “transferred around the province” to get proportional results.

Wilkinson also pounded on the referendum process, calling the ballot a confusing “dog’s breakfast,” and pointing to the less than two per cent of ballots that have been returned so far as a consequence.

The Premier suggested that if voters tuned in to see the pair of them yelling at each other, they would change the channel to watch the game show, Wheel of Fortune.

Horgan’s key point throughout the debate: switching to PR is about creating an electoral system that is fairer by ensuring a party gets the same percentage of seats in the house as its percentage of the popular vote.

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The premier argued that just once in B.C.’s history has a party come to power with more than 50 per cent of the vote, and he pointed to recent election results around Canada to make his point.

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“In Quebec, 37 per cent of the vote gave 100 per cent of the power. In Ontario, 40 per cent of the vote gave 100 per cent of the power,” Horgan argued.

Thursdays debate comes ahead of the Nov. 30 deadline for voters to mail in their ballots. A majority of 50 per cent plus one is needed to change the system.

“And in New Brunswick, explain this to people, the party that got 38 per cent of the vote got fewer seats than the party that had 32 per cent of the vote. That’s first-past-the-post.”

MMP has been used in Germany and New Zealand. The other systems, Dual-Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional, have not been used anywhere.

Horgan argued that PR would increase public participation and voter turnout, and that it would result in a system that was more inclusive and co-operative — pointing to Germany as an example of a country that was governed by a “grand coalition” of parties on the left and right.

Wilkinson argued that none of what Horgan is promising is guaranteed, and could come at the cost of the simplicity and stability of the current system.

To Mr. Wilkinson, he said, I dont understand why youre frightened about trying something new.

“It’s important that you get to hire your MLA and you get to fire your MLA,” he argued at one point.

“Everybody understands the system we have right now, because it’s familiar to all of us,” he argued at another.

“Whoever gets the most votes wins. The names are on the ballots. The people in the communities know it’s their community that’s voting for a particular individual.”

While Wilkinson did defend the current first-past-the-post system as simple and easy to use, he also acknowledged that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In fact, Wilkinson floated the idea of another Citizens’ Assembly, like the one that crafted B.C.’s 2005 and 2009 referendums on the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

READ MORE: Just 1 per cent of ballots have been returned so far in the B.C. electoral reform referendum

“It’s been 14 years since the last one. They would come out with a straightforward yes/no question for people to vote on,” Wilkinson argued.

Wilkinson argued such a process ensures the electoral system remained firmly in the hands of voters, and said it should also be paired with a general election to ensure maximum turnout.

There was no question that at least one of the leaders had the youth vote on the mind, throwing out terms like “hip” repeatedly throughout the debate.

“Young people like the idea of coming together,” said Horgan, in response to a question about young people’s disconnection with the political process — and teeing up a quip that lit up social media.

Horgan argued that young people are turned off by a process where they feel like their votes aren’t counted, particularly if they’re in a so-called “safe” riding that reliably goes to one party or another.

Very good question about youth engagement. Wilkinson says Horgan gets to choose everything about PR if it comes in. Horgan says young people would engage because they like the idea of working together #BCPoli #PRdebate

“If you live in a heavily-dominated Liberal area, or a heavily-dominated NDP area, people don’t show up because they know what the outcome is,” he said.

“With proportional representation, people will engage with the system because they don’t know what the outcome is.”

Voters have until the end of the month to make up their mind on which way they will vote, with ballots due back to Elections BC by Nov. 30.