Local representation in our democracy matters to most of us, and rightly so.
While our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system has many faults, one of its most popular features is that every member of the legislative assembly represents – and, in theory, is accountable to – a local constituency.
To speak with a political representative or get help with a government matter, we can visit a local MLA’s office.
B.C. voters are taking part in a provincial referendum on electoral reform; their ballots have to be returned in the mail by Nov. 30.
An all-too-common argument against changing the British Columbia electoral system is that a new system will diminish local representation.
In fact, the opposite is true.
The three proportional representation options on the referendum ballot preserve – and indeed enhance – local representation. They also produce results that are proportional – a legislature that reflects our actual preferences. The options we will choose from – Rural-Urban, Dual-Member and Mixed Member – are innovative, made-in-B.C. versions of proportional representation that accommodate the geographic nuances of the province.
In all three models, every MLA will be accountable to either a local riding or region. And in all cases, local ridings will only grow modestly in geographic size.
So why do I contend that these proportional representation models actually enhance local representation?
Because when thinking about what local representation means, what matters is both geographic proximity and political affinity.
FPTP does a good job of meeting our desire for MLAs whose offices are relatively close by (the proximity goal). But political affinity? Not so much.
For example, in 2001, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals won every seat in the B.C. legislature except for two in East Vancouver. The government then undertook a program of devastating spending cuts to core public programs between 2002 and 2005.
In the face of grassroots opposition to these cuts, many MLAs locked their doors and simply refused to grant meetings with their constituents. It didn’t matter if an MLA’s office was down the street – many British Columbians effectively didn’t have local representation.
Our current system produces a distorted and divided political map of the province, as the last election demonstrated. The NDP won most of the seats in the largely urban southwest corner of the province and the Liberals won almost every rural seat. The NDP, with Green Party help, formed the government.
If you’re a Liberal-inclined voter on Vancouver Island, good luck finding a local MLA who shares your political views. Liberal supporters living in the interior likely have an MLA who shares their views, but the entire region is probably frozen out of cabinet. Meanwhile, for a left-leaning person living in rural B.C., it’s a very long drive to find an MLA who shares your political affinity.
Surely we can secure a better system of local representation.
The three proportional representation models on offer this fall fix this problem, each in a unique way. We would no longer see whole regions with MLAs from one party.
Each option ensures British Columbians have both a nearby MLA and an MLA in relatively close proximity who shares your political values. So if you really don’t like one of your local representatives, don’t sweat it, there’s another with whom you see more eye-to-eye.
If you care about local representation – and you should – you have every reason to support changing our electoral system.
Seth Klein is B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.