Hot Take on ProRep Referendum Results

Last week, I wrote that First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) would prevail by “a whisker, a few grey whiskers”.  It turned out that it was a full-on Santa’s beard of whiskers as it prevailed with 61% of the vote, far exceeding projections by public pollsters.

The Regional Story

What’s striking about the win for FPTP is its dominance in the Lower Mainland.  It took 63% of the vote in BC’s most populated area.  The Interior delivered a resounding 67% verdict, but it represented just over a quarter of the votes for FPTP.  The Lower Mainland did the heavy lifting.  The Island was a 50-50 split, a disappointment to ProRep supporters, especially the Greens.  However, as I wrote last week, there are a lot of ‘experienced’ voters (hint: old) on the Island and experienced voters don’t care much for ProRep.

Feast your eyes on this table then I will break it down for you…

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  1. The South Island (south of the Malahat) was the best area of the province for ProRep, delivering a 55% win across seven ridings in the Capital region.  Those efforts were cancelled out by the seven ridings north of the Malahat.  As was the case up north, rural, resource-producing areas are very skeptical of ProRep, which partially explains the difference on the Island between north and south.
  2. In the Lower Mainland, Vancouver-North Shore’s 15 ridings were close with FPTP edging ProRep 53% to 47%.  This stands in stark contrast to the rest of the Lower Mainland and should serve as a wake-up call to the NDP.  Richmond-Delta-Surrey voted 72% for FPTP and Burnaby to Mission went 70% FPTP.  This is exactly where Christy Clark’s government met its demise in 2017.  In these areas alone, eight BC Liberal seats flipped to the NDP.  In this referendum, they were clearly not buying what the GreenDP were selling.  The Fraser Valley went strongly for FPTP, as expected, even then, 75% is emphatic.
  3. In the Interior, the northernmost ridings, including the Cariboo, strongly backed the current system with 74% support.  I return to the previous point – it is surprising to me that the suburbs of the Lower Mainland matched the North.  Frankly, it’s shocking, to a guy like me, who obsesses over numbers and ridings.  The Okanagan and Kamloops region were in lockstep at 68-69%.  The Kootenays demonstrate, yet again, that they march to the beat of a different drummer – at least those in the West Kootenay.  Both NDP-held seats there voted ProRep, the only two of the 24 Interior seats to support the proposal.  The region overall was 55% for FPTP due to the East Kootenay BCL-held seats.

Results by Party 

The BC Liberals elected 43 seats on Election Day 2017 and those 43 seats voted 70% for FPTP, nine points above the 61% average province-wide.  The NDP’s 41 seats leaned toward FPTP with 54% compared to 46% for ProRep.  The Green held-seats slightly favoured FPTP, by a margin of 51% to 49%.

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Let’s look at the NDP seats.  ProRep was blown out in Surrey seats with Panorama leading the way at 74.5% for FPTP.  Newton 73%.  Green Timbers 73%.  Fleetwood 72%.  Delta North 70%.  Hop over to Maple Ridge where it was 68-69% for FPTP.

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this referendum to the next election but it’s not great when your initiative, which sucked up a lot of political oxygen, is thumped.

In the Interior, the four NDP held seats did OK, relative to the overall result.  Stikine was 60% for FPTP which is better than Surrey, I guess.  North Coast was close (53% FPTP) while, as mentioned above, the NDP seats in the West Kootenay backed ProRep.  Is there anywhere to grow for the NDP?  When you see 25% for ProRep in the Cariboo, where the NDP had seats not long ago, and 26% in Fraser-Nicola which was held up until 2013, it’s hard to see this referendum as an Interior growth strategy for the NDP.

Here are the 16 of 87 seats that voted ProRep:

  • Vancouver Mt. Pleasant (NDP)
  • Victoria-Beacon Hill (NDP)
  • Victoria-Swan Lake (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Hastings (NDP)
  • Vancouver-Fairview (NDP)
  • Vancouver-West End (NDP)
  • Nelson-Creston (NDP)
  • Powell River-Sunshine Coast (NDP)
  • Oak Bay-Gordon Head (GREEN)
  • Vancouver Pt. Grey (NDP)
  • Esquimalt-Metchosin (NDP)
  • Saanich North & the Islands (GREEN)
  • Vancouver-False Creek (BCL)
  • Kootenay West (NDP)
  • New Westminster (NDP)
  • Langford Juan de Fuca (NDP)

The top four on the list are probably the top four safest NDP seats in the province.  For the BC Liberals, it stands out that ProRep won in False Creek.  Sam Sullivan hung on by his fingernails last election and this riding is evolving.  The BC Liberals held Pt. Grey, Fairview, Saanich North, and Oak Bay up until 2013.  The BC Liberals, strong proponents of FPTP, continue to go against the grain of these type of ridings.

Another riding, which was very close between FPTP and ProRep was West Vancouver-Sea-to-Sky.  This is a riding that should be on the BC Liberals’ “watch list”.  It’s changing, as is North Vancouver-Seymour.  Ridings that used to be safe, aren’t as safe anymore.    The key is the suburbs. There are a lot of seats out there and, like Quebec in federal elections, they can go one way or the other, en masse.

In this referendum, ProRep did not have a broad enough coalition.  It did poorly in the suburbs and the regions, and in ridings with higher proportions of people who do not have English as a first language.  This pretty well sums up the Green Party actually.  While it won in Andrew Weaver’s riding (which hosts UVic) and in Saanich-North & the Islands, where it has two elected Green representatives (Adam Olsen and Elizabeth May),  it lost in Cowichan Valley.  It’s more rural, and it’s less typical of the Green base.  The Greens like PR because they haven’t been able to break through in FPTP because of their limited appeal.  The referendum reinforces the Greens’ weaknesses.

ProRep also lacked meaningful support from BC Liberals.  NDPer Bill Tieleman was extremely important to the FPTP campaign, along with other traditional FPTP supporters in the NDP.  Glen Clark’s support for FPTP was an important signal to an element of the NDP base.  Former Premier Ujjal Dosanjh also made interventions into the campaign in favour of FPTP. There was no signalling from iconic BC Liberal / Socreds-of-old to the free enterprise base that ProRep was ok.

The process

At the end of the day, this was a process that was nakedly designed to support the partisan interests of the Green Party, and to a lesser extent, the NDP (who were more interested in keeping the Greens happy).  There was no secret about it.  The consultation had all the appearances of a sham, especially when compared to the much-admired Citizens’ Assembly process prior to 2005.  Here was a Premier, Gordon Campbell, who had 77 of 79 seats.  He put the power of recommending a new system in the hands of two citizens per riding.  They spent months learning and deliberating.  I didn’t like their recommendation but I admired their efforts and their example.  It was democratic jury duty.  That process also had a much better result for electoral reform than what just transpired.  Is this a lesson learned for David Eby? Too clever by half?

Another sign of a flawed process is that 40% of the voters did not even vote on Question 2. There were 1.391 million voters overall, but only 832,000 chose one of the three PR options, while 559,000 skipped the question. Of the options, MMP had the most with 343,000. That would not have been a resounding mandate and such a gap in responses between Q1 and Q2 would have undermined a positive ProRep outcome.

The players

FPTP supporters, like Bob Plecas, Suzanne Anton, and Bill Tieleman, got started early.  They branched out to bring in other voices in multicultural communities. They had the experience to focus their resources and messaging effectively.  They worked on persuading likely voters and punched through with clear arguments.  The ProRep campaign appeared to focus a lot of effort on getting non-voters to vote.  That is harder to do.  As with many campaigns, followers can get fooled by their echo chamber.  If your social media galaxy is made up of people just like you, then you can be led to believe there is more support than really exists.  Clearly, the ProRep campaign was spanked once it left the cozy confines of Victoria and Vancouver.  It did not have a ground game or a regional game.  This was a similar challenge in the Transit Referendum.  The suburbs rose up and defeated the initiative (though there wasn’t a great deal of support in Vancouver either).  What’s the answer?  Show up, listen, engage.  Get out of your comfort zone if you want to grow your cause.

This is why the system works

As the results indicate, there is dynamism in the system.  I can see in these results how the electoral landscape continues to shift.  It’s not a given how the province will vote next time.  Big-tent parties have to get their arms around the largest swath of voters possible in order to govern.  That requires overarching vision, compromise, and brokering, but all within a unified structure that brings forward a coherent program that that party is accountable for if they win.  Moreover, it is highly competitive.  Elections between two or more big-tent parties bring clarity and a clear choice for the electorate.  Smaller parties play an important role too.  They push issues on to the agenda that big-tent parties must respond to.  If they don’t, big tent parties can disappear and smaller parties can emerge to take their place.  As a Teenage Vote Splitter, that was my story – that of the BC Liberals supplanting the Socreds after 1991 and the Reform Party overtaking the Progressive Conservatives in 1993.  It happens all the time.  We have a highly competitive, dynamic electoral system.  It’s not perfect, but it’s not static either.

The best argument I heard during this debate was that FPTP is the most effective system for throwing out a bad government.  It’s decisive.    In most cases, these parties are the better for it.  Out goes the old and in comes a new generation of leaders that rebuild. ProRep would allow power structures to linger like last year’s salad dressing.  So, I’m obviously happy with the outcome.  Our system largely works.  There are a few changes that could be made that would help, not requiring a referendum, but that is a post for another day.

Now that this is over, next stop for BC politics: Nanaimo.

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