In what may have been a preview of B.C.’s next provincial election campaign, voters got a chance to watch B.C. Premier John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson go head to head in a televised debate for the first time.
The two leaders were facing off over the province’s referendum on electoral reform, which could see B.C. switch from the current first-past-the-post voting system to a system of proportional representation.
LISTEN: Horgan vs. Wilkinson: Electoral reform debate and analysis
There was no shortage of heat as the two leaders sparred, with both men talking over each other repeatedly early on in the debate.
The crosstalk got so intense at one point that Horgan was able to slip in one of the debate’s early zingers:
“I think at this point in the evening, if I’m just going to listen to one guy yell over top of the other guy, I’m going to go watch Wheel of Fortune,” he said.
No leader scored a clear knockout blow, and by the end of the combative debate, each had made several key points they hoped to communicate.
Want context on the PR debate? Watch Global BC’s electoral reform post-debate special
Andrew Wilkinson wasted no time going on the attack, directing the bulk of his firepower to the multitude of unanswered questions that still surround a switch to PR.
Wilkinson argued that there are at least 23 features of a proposed PR system that won’t be decided before people vote, likening the process to handing a blank cheque to a used car salesman.
“How many votes will people get under your proposed system,” Wilkinson asked Horgan repeatedly in one particularly combative segment, accusing Horgan of evading the question. “How many MLAs will they have in their riding?”
It was a question Horgan didn’t directly answer — assuring listeners that voters would still vote in their regular polling place for a real human, but deferring the technical details of a PR system to an as-yet convened electoral boundaries commission.
LISTEN: Both Premier John Horgan and BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson held media scrums after their heated debate. We get some reaction from Global BC’s Richard Zussman to last night’s debate on electoral reform.
“I don’t know the answer,” he said.
“There are redistributions, maps are redrawn all the time.”
That was a reply Wilkinson pounced on later in the debate.
“He’s in charge of the results after you vote,” Wilkinson said. “He gets to fill in all the blanks, and it puzzles me why he’s not filling in the blanks tonight.”
Throughout the debate, Wilkinson returned again and again to argue that the PR systems on offer are confusing, arguing the NDP had chosen untested systems behind closed doors and that the party had failed to communicate how people’s votes would be “transferred around the province” to get proportional results.
Wilkinson also pounded on the referendum process, calling the ballot a confusing “dog’s breakfast,” and pointing to the less than two per cent of ballots that have been returned so far as a consequence.
A question of fairness
Horgan’s key point throughout the debate: switching to PR is about creating an electoral system that is fairer by ensuring a party gets the same percentage of seats in the house as its percentage of the popular vote.
The premier argued that just once in B.C.’s history has a party come to power with more than 50 per cent of the vote, and he pointed to recent election results around Canada to make his point.
“In Quebec, 37 per cent of the vote gave 100 per cent of the power. In Ontario, 40 per cent of the vote gave 100 per cent of the power,” Horgan argued.
“And in New Brunswick, explain this to people, the party that got 38 per cent of the vote got fewer seats than the party that had 32 per cent of the vote. That’s first-past-the-post.”
Horgan argued that PR would increase public participation and voter turnout, and that it would result in a system that was more inclusive and co-operative — pointing to Germany as an example of a country that was governed by a “grand coalition” of parties on the left and right.
WATCH: Proportional Representation for Dummies
Wilkinson argued that none of what Horgan is promising is guaranteed, and could come at the cost of the simplicity and stability of the current system.
“It’s important that you get to hire your MLA and you get to fire your MLA,” he argued at one point.
“Everybody understands the system we have right now, because it’s familiar to all of us,” he argued at another.
“Whoever gets the most votes wins. The names are on the ballots. The people in the communities know it’s their community that’s voting for a particular individual.”
Another citizens’ assembly?
While Wilkinson did defend the current first-past-the-post system as simple and easy to use, he also acknowledged that change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
In fact, Wilkinson floated the idea of another Citizens’ Assembly, like the one that crafted B.C.’s 2005 and 2009 referendums on the Single Transferable Vote (STV).
“It’s been 14 years since the last one. They would come out with a straightforward yes/no question for people to vote on,” Wilkinson argued.
Wilkinson argued such a process ensures the electoral system remained firmly in the hands of voters, and said it should also be paired with a general election to ensure maximum turnout.
WATCH: British Columbians slow to respond to electoral reform referendum
‘Pro Rep is lit’
There was no question that at least one of the leaders had the youth vote on the mind, throwing out terms like “hip” repeatedly throughout the debate.
“Young people like the idea of coming together,” said Horgan, in response to a question about young people’s disconnection with the political process — and teeing up a quip that lit up social media.
“If you were woke, you would know that pro rep is lit.”
Horgan argued that young people are turned off by a process where they feel like their votes aren’t counted, particularly if they’re in a so-called “safe” riding that reliably goes to one party or another.
“If you live in a heavily-dominated Liberal area, or a heavily-dominated NDP area, people don’t show up because they know what the outcome is,” he said.
“With proportional representation, people will engage with the system because they don’t know what the outcome is.”
Voters have until the end of the month to make up their mind on which way they will vote, with ballots due back to Elections BC by Nov. 30.
Who do you think won Thursday’s debate on proportional representation?