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December 8, 2008

Would BC-STV Produce Coalitions?

Will support for BC-STV take a hit from the backlash against the Dion-Layton coalition?

According to "fact sheet 13" published by the Citizens' Assembly, STV is more likely to produce coalition governments. The question and answer section on the Assembly's website said: "The Assembly believes that minority and coalition governments can in practice be a strength, because they encourage MLAs to work together."

An Ipsos-Reid poll showed only 29% support for the coalition to replace the Harper government. Some objected to not having the coalition on the ballot on October 14th, but in countries where they are common, parties rarely campaign as a coalition. Coalitions are usually formed after an election, although there is an argument that in Harper's case he received a confidence vote on the Throne Speech. It will be interesting to see if proponents of STV continue to promote coalition or minority government as an "advantage" that flows from adopting BC-STV.

Many of the assertions made by proponents of BC-STV cannot be verified, including the claim that STV is more likely to produce coalition governments because it is more likely to elect MLAs from more than two parties. Actual experience with STV, apart from municipal elections, is confined to Ireland, Malta, the Australian Senate and Tasmania. Only two parties have ever had their candidates elected to Malta's parliament, although other parties continually try. By contrast, with our existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, British Columbians elected MLAs from four different political parties (NDP, Social Credit, Reform and Liberal) as recently as 1991 and from three different parties in 1996.

There are 37 registered political parties in BC. They don't all run candidates in all of the ridings, but most of them run candidates in one or more ridings. It is hard to support any claim that FPTP limits the choice offered voters or the ability of small parties to elect MLAs in BC; witness the Reform Party in 1991 or Gordon Wilson's Progressive Democratic Alliance in 1996. The issue for STV enthusiasts is not electing an MLA or two from small parties as much as it is about holding the balance of power in a coalition government.

For no apparent reason, STV proponents are fond of claiming that the voting system would be the same, and yield similar results, in BC as it is in Ireland where coalition governments are common. There are big differences between Ireland and BC: 1) BC is less homogeneous (Ireland is predominately white and Catholic), 2) Ireland has 166 Members of Parliament for roughly the same population for which BC would have only 85 MLAs, 3) Ireland is 70,280 sq km while the Northwest, just one of BC's 20 BC-STV electoral districts, is 367,529 - more than 5 times larger than all of Ireland.

There is no reason to believe that a government formed after an election using BC-STV would be like Ireland's or any other. British Columbians would be rolling the dice with a new electoral system and would have no basis for predicting the consequences. Proponents of BC-STV seem to think that their wish list for curing all that ails politics would be delivered by changing how we vote. The only thing that can be said for certain about BC-STV is not about what kind of government it might deliver but about what the 20 regions with 85 MLAs would look like, how votes are cast and how votes are counted. The counting is frequently glossed over as being too complicated; it doesn't treat all votes equally.

It is a safe bet that with the goings-on in Ottawa, STV enthusiasts will downplay their previous predictions for coalition governments should BC-STV be adopted on May 12th.


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