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What do party insiders have against BC-STV?

Interesting fellow travellers

Bill Tieleman, in a recent article circulating online entitled Democracy Denied With STV Propaganda, once again attacks the Single Transferable Vote electoral system (STV) that the Citizens Assembly has recommended British Columbians adopt in the May 17 provincial referendum (1). To bolster his argument, he quotes favourably B.C. Liberal MLA Christy Clark, who criticizes the Citizens Assembly members for having no actual experience in politics and who also attacks the STV system because it will, according to her, make it much harder for women to actually be represented. Interesting fellow travellers. Tieleman is a long time NDP insider (former director of communications for the NDP government) and Clark is a long time Liberal insider. Yet they are making common cause against the STV system. What is getting these two so agitated? Why are they so opposed to the voices of 160 ordinary British Columbians who have worked hard, in a non-partisan way, to choose an electoral system that works for the voters of this province? We will come back to that a bit later in this article.

Cherry picking method of argument

In the meantime, it is interesting to examine the cherry picking method of argument that Tieleman uses to slander STV in his article. Tieleman argues that Malta and Ireland, which both have STV systems, have a lower percentage of women elected than BC. According to him, Malta has just 9.2% women in parliament and Ireland just 13.3%. Indeed, he alleges that STV is one of the worst electoral systems in the world for electing women and that countries with the Party List Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system have a much better record. What he fails to mention is that the two examples he has given, Malta and Ireland, have particularly male-dominated political cultures (for that matter so is ours). He could just as easily cherry pick countries with Party List PR that also have a dismal record for women getting elected. For example, look at another European country with a Party List PR system which also has a male-dominated culture Italy. In 1990, the percentage of seats in parliament held by women was 13% (lower than Ireland). By 2003, the number had actually gone down to 12%. The Italian Upper House was even worse, with 8% of the seats held by women, which is actually lower than Malta. Spain is another example of a country with a Party List PR system which also has a low percentage of women parliamentarians (14.9%) (2).

Women led the campaign for STV in Australia

While Tieleman suggests that Citizens Assembly members deliberately ignored the Malta experience with STV, he himself ignores the fact that Australia has jurisdictions that use STV which have better percentages of women getting elected than here. For example, Tieleman makes the misleading statement that the percentage of women in the BC legislature (22.8%) is significantly better than under STV. That is true regarding Malta, but it is not true regarding the Tasmanian Assembly in Australia which prior to the 1998 election had 31.4 % women, compared to 26% in BC at that time (3). The Australian senate, which uses STV, as of 2003, had 28.9% women members (4).

Indeed, guess who championed the adoption of STV in Australia? It was the suffragette, Catherine Helen Spence, and womens organizations such as the Australian Federation of Women Voters who campaigned for many decades for the more general adoption of STV in Australia (4). Were these women blind for all these decades or perhaps could they see something that Tieleman and Clark are unwilling to acknowledge?

First Past the Post system discriminates against women and minorities

What Tieleman and Clark are both ignoring is that, as stated in the American womens magazine Ms., there is compelling evidence that the current First Past the Post System (FPTP) (which is in place in British Columbia) discriminates against women, as well as racial minorities (4). The same article praises the proportional system in Australia for increasing the number of women parliamentarians. Yet Tieleman strongly defends the First Past the Post System and attacks STV, which is one of the proportional systems used in Australia.

Proportional systems like STV are a step forward for women and minorities

The fact of the matter is that there are a number of factors which influence the success of women in getting elected to parliaments, including what kind of electoral process is in place and what kind of political culture exists. As Australian researchers, such as Marian Sawer, have shown, both Party List PR and STV are better systems for allowing the participation of women and minorities. But political culture plays a big role (5). Both systems are a step to greater empowerment, but only a step. Yet Tieleman would rather retain the current FPTP system with its grotesque distortions than move to STV. Why?

STV weakens the power of party insiders but strengthens power of voters

Why are Tieleman and Clark so agitated about the Citizens Assembly proposals? Could it be that both of them are party insiders? Adoption of the STV system will weaken the power of party insiders, as well as the hated Party whip system that hangs over backbench MLAs like a Damocles sword to keep them in line. STV will give more power and choice to voters, and it will also give MLAs more opportunity to represent their constituents rather than be puppets of the party headquarters. Tieleman and other party pundits try to throw every slander they can at the STV system, that it is anti-women, impossible to understand, bad for the regions, etc. etc. according to them, STV is worse than the bubonic plague. By throwing this mud, Tieleman is diverting from the nub of the issue for both the NDP and Liberals that under STV, party insiders and party headquarters will have a much harder time to muzzle MLAs. Under STV, it will be in the MLAs interests to represent their constituents rather than be puppets of the party brass. This is a very big issue in the province, especially in the Interior, where issues like the BC Rail scandal loom large. Voters are keenly aware that their MLAs refused to stand up to the Premier when he reversed his promise not to sell the railway. For example, polls have shown that the vast majority of voters in Prince George opposed the sale. Yet the MLAs meekly parroted the disinformation peddled by the Liberal Party insiders. The one exception was Liberal MLA Paul Nettleton and he was punished by the Party by being thrown out of caucus.

NDP Committee Discussion Paper praises proportional systems like STV

To underscore this issue, it is useful to refer back to an NDP Discussion Paper, entitled Reform of BCs Electoral System: An Idea Whose Time Has Come which was written by a NDP Party Committee in 2001 before the Citizens Assembly was even formed (6). What does it have to say about STV and other proportional systems? Does it dismiss STV because it is anti-women, anti-minorities, bad for voters in the regions or any of the other reasons that Tieleman and other party pundits have thrown at it? Does it claim, like Tieleman that the First Past the Post System is better than STV? No, it does not. Rather it says that potential advantages of STV and other proportional systems include: fairer election results, fewer wasted votes, higher rates of voter turnout, more policy-oriented debates between parties, better regional balance, and lo and behold, improved representation of women and members of minority groups.

Unlike Tieleman, who focuses on the lack of independent candidates in Malta, the NDP Discussion Paper acknowledges that in principle independent candidates [have] a better chance of winning under STV than other systems. Of course, electoral systems have many features and these can vary widely from country to country depending on the political culture, the history, etc. Using the cherry picking method that Tieleman does, any electoral system can be made to look bad.

The one criticism of STV in the NDP Discussion Paper

Now it should be noted that in its conclusions the Discussion Paper recommends that of all the proportional systems it discusses, the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP) is preferred rather than STV. Why does it do this? Well, this is where it gets interesting. Other than saying that STV tends not to be as proportional as MMP, the only criticism that the Discussion Paper makes specifically of STV is that it may weaken the unity of parties, and that candidates for a given party may be tempted to break ranks with their colleagues in order to win favour with a larger number of voters. In other words (to translate), candidates and MLAs will tend to listen to the voters more than to the party insiders and party headquarters. So this is the issue that has got party insiders like Bill Tieleman, of the NDP, Christy Clark of the provincial Liberals, and others hollering to high heaven. Imagine! MLAs actually listening to the voters who elect them. Imagine! MLAs breaking ranks with their party insiders over issues like BC Rail. Imagine! MLAs having minds of their own.

Who to believe?

On May 17, British Columbians will get to choose whether they want a new electoral system (STV) or keep the old one (FPTP). They will choose whether they believe the 160 members of the Citizens Assembly half of whom are women and half men, who have come from all walks of life and all parts of the province, and who spent a year consulting with British Columbians and deliberating, on a non-partisan basis, about what kind of system they wanted. Or believe party insiders like Tieleman and Clark who are so much a part of the old, discredited political culture in British Columbia and who have a longstanding vested interest in the very party constipated system that so many people are disgusted with. Indeed, in contrast to Tielemans diehard defence of FPTP, the NDP Discussion Paper notes that BC has the highest level of dissatisfaction with the FPTP system of any region in Canada.

Is it party insiders in general who are the problem? No. Indeed, a few party insiders support STV. The problem is those particular party insiders who either are incapable of or refuse to see beyond the interests of their own party. They dont want to change and they dont want voters to have more power. Period. Thus, they raise a ruckus and throw everything but the kitchen sink at STV.

STV a step forward for British Columbians

An electoral system like STV will not solve the issue of citizen empowerment by a long shot. Much more comprehensive and profound change will be required for that. Like any electoral system, STV has its strong points and its shortcomings. But it will be a step forward for British Columbians by giving us more choice and more power, as well as a tendency for more proportional elections. It will also be a step forward for grass roots activists and for ordinary members of the NDP and other parties, for independents, as well as for backbench MLAs. But it will weaken the power of party insiders. As the NDP Discussion Paper points out, a key feature of STV which distinguishes it from other PR systems is the fact that voters choose candidates, not parties. And that is why these party insiders and pundits so vehemently oppose it.

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