On May 12, British Columbians will vote in a referendum on electoral reform that will have an enormous impact across Canada.
The majority of B.C. voters already chose STV, the system of PR recommended by a Citizen's Assembly in a referendum in May 2005, but the government set a requirement of a 60 per cent majority so in this election they get a second chance to pass it.
Oddly enough, one of the major arguments being made by the NO side in the referendum is that STV is bad for the representation of women.
STV and women
This is odd for a couple reasons. First, one of the major arguments for PR is that it improves the representation of women. Given the strength of the women's movement in Canada, our record on electing women to office is pathetic. Second, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women was one of the first organizations in the country to argue for PR in 1992 during the Charlottetown Accord when we argued for a Senate elected by PR to ensure equal representation of women.
Bill Tieleman, who has a long history as a back room NDP operative, now a spokesperson for the NO campaign, claimed right here on rabble that STV is bad for women citing Ireland as an example. This reminded me of the arguments about PR in the old days when opponents would claim Israel and Italy (what is it about those "i" countries) prove that PR is unstable, never explaining that both countries have unstable political systems for other reasons and that most democracies use some form of PR.
In fact, Western Australia is a better example because women have 47 per cent of the Legislative Council seats under STV and 41 per cent of the seats in the Australian Capital Territory compared to only 20 per cent of the seats in the Western Australia Legislative Assembly, elected with a single member voting system.
In fact even Ireland, using STV, elected 38 per cent women to the European Parliament while the UK, using a regional party list system, elected only 23 per cent women.
Nevertheless, it's true that one of the country's most respected feminists, Doris Anderson, who was a pioneer supporter of PR, did oppose STV in the last B.C. referendum before she passed away. At first Doris persuaded me that it was not a good system for electing women but I changed my mind once I went out to B.C. and talked to voters who understood the system as one that gave them more power to shape the legislature they want.
Also, it is not a vote to choose which system of PR would be best. The Citizen's Assembly, a representative selection of B.C. citizens half of whom were women, already made that determination. So now the vote is either for PR or against it.
In any case, the debate about which system of PR is best to represent women is a mug's game. MMP, the system rejected in the last Ontario referendum, puts more power in terms of choosing who will get elected in the hands of the parties who get to rank the candidates on their slate; whereas STV gives more power to the voters to rank candidates.
Doris had more confidence in our ability to pressure the parties to have balanced lists. I prefer to trust the voters to vote for women and minorities. If we lived in a country where voters were less likely to vote for women than men, then MMP might be better but that is not the case in Canada. Voters are as likely as or more likely to vote for a woman than a man. In fact, study after study has shown that the primary barrier to the election of women is the nomination process that is run exclusively by the parties today.
Electoral reform: An idea whose time has come
I learned in the Ontario referendum that PR has become such a popular idea that its opponents pick apart the particular system instead of attacking the idea. Frankly, I am not sure which is a better system, STV or MMP, but I am certain that both systems produce a more democratic, more representative legislature that will have more women and minorities, fairer party representation and a chance for significant smaller parties to get elected. And that any form of proportional representation is better than our anachronistic first past the post system.
It is always the parties in power that oppose PR because they like having all the power even when they have a minority of votes.
If this referendum fails in B.C., it will set back the cause of electoral reform for a long time.
Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and was the founding publisher of rabble.ca. She also holds the CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy.