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Richmond councillors are split on proportional representation

Richmond Coun. Bill McNulty calls these options for electoral reform "dangerous," while his council colleague Harold Steves believes they will provide true representation for a diverse community.

Photo by Gabrielle Plonka.
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Richmond’s newly elected city council is divided on partisan lines about whether a move to proportional representation would be a positive change for B.C.

Councillors Bill McNulty and Linda McPhail from the Richmond First party and independent Alexa Loo are against making that kind of electoral reform, which British Columbians are voting on until Nov. 30. They say the referendum ballot is too confusing, options for change are too vague, and proportional representation may leave out minority groups.

Some say reform is necessary to represent Richmond voices

But Councillors Harold Steves from the Richmond Citizens’ Association and Michael Wolfe from the Richmond Independent Team of Electors are in favour of proportional representation because they believe the current system doesn’t accurately reflect the wishes of voters.

“For about 15 years … our provincial representatives have all been from the same parties. So that’s kind of surprising for me to hear that there are Richmond citizens, Richmond voters, Richmond councillors who maybe don’t see that,” Wolfe said.

The referendum, which comes from a campaign promise made by Premier John Horgan, has been hotly debated within the provincial government, with NDP and Green members supporting it, while B.C. Liberals are opposing it.

Steves said that Richmond’s diverse community requires more representation than is offered by the current first-past-the-post system. He is in favour of a proportional-representation system, because he thinks it will ensure that all voices are heard.

“For the last 45 years, my vote hasn’t counted,” Steves said. “My vote doesn’t count towards the overall establishment of the number of votes the government gets, and I think that’s wrong.”

Ballot is poorly laid out, others say

For McNulty and McPhail, a major issue with the referendum is with the ballot itself, which they say is too confusing for voters to make an educated decision.

“They have no plan,” McNulty said. “That is very dangerous. The thing is, you don’t know what you’re approving.”

McNulty is fearful that if the referendum is approved, it may be up to third-party groups to decide how exactly regions will be combined, “not knowing the history and geography of it, not getting input from people who are already [in those regions].”

Wolfe said that some ambiguity on the ballot is to be expected when presenting brand-new ideas.

“These are made-in-B.C. solutions, so we shouldn’t have it all figured out,” Wolfe said. “We’re trying to find the best way to represent a diverse population.”

For Wolfe, the onus is on voters to educate themselves on different types of proportional representation before reading the ballot, a task that should be easy with the abundance of explanatory resources available online.

Alexa Loo, an independent councillor, takes issue with the ethics of the referendum as well as the logistical reality of electoral reform.

“[The referendum] is not democratic as far as I’m concerned,” Loo said. “People are changing the rules who are in power, and that’s not how this should happen.”

Loo believes that electoral reform should be presented by citizens’ committees who can examine the issues from a non-partisan stance.

However, if the referendum had been presented differently, Loo still wouldn’t vote in its favour.

Minority groups may be underrepresented under proportional representation

“[Proportional representation] creates the possibility that your fringe groups are the ones that get to hold the balance of power,” Loo said.

Loo explained, as an example, that an acquaintance recently expressed fear of an anti-abortion party winning seats under proportional representation and changing abortion laws.

“What kind of rights might I lose, or my fellow females lose, or people of colour or Aboriginal people?” Loo said. “[Minority groups] are not the ones being better represented, they’re actually the ones that could lose out.”

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