Horgan talks PR

Premier John Horgan has a ready answer for New Democrats who say his support for proportional representation means the party will never again form a majority government here in B.C.

"Well, we haven't formed a majority government since 1996," replied Horgan when I put that concern to him last week, having heard it voiced by several NDP supporters of late.

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Four consecutive election losses before the minority result this year. Three majorities in 15 tries under the first-past-the-post electoral system. It was that math - plus the powerlessness of several years in Opposition - that turned Horgan in favour of proportional representation.

"In 2005 I voted against proportional representation because I was comfortable with what I knew and I was running for office at that time," he said. "Then I was elected and for four years had zero influence on public policy. In 2009 I had a chance to vote on the very same question, and I voted in favour of it because I thought perfection is the enemy of progress."

Thus he did not, as some of his critics have assumed, embrace proportional representation to satisfy his partner in power sharing Andrew Weaver of the Greens.

"I sit here before you as premier because of an agreement between two parties," continued the NDP leader. "Almost 60 per cent of the people who cast ballots, cast ballots in favour of change in May, and they were given that change in the form of an agreement between two political parties."

Both parties supported the shift to proportional representation, only disagreeing on how to proceed. The self-interested Greens simply wanted the two parties to use their combined legislative majority to bring in proportional representation without further ado. Horgan, to his credit, insisted on giving the electorate a further say via a referendum. The enabling legislation passed on the final day of the fall session, ensuring a ballot-by-mail referendum in the fall of 2018. In the year ahead, Horgan is determined "to work as hard as I can to demonstrate to the people of B.C. that a minority is not a bad thing."

His enthusiasm for minority government catches some observers by surprise, as he discovered recently at a session with the Urban Development Institute.

"They said: you must be disappointed you didn't win a majority. And I thought, well, you'd think that, wouldn't you? But I have to work harder and better and smarter in a minority than I would have otherwise.

"The tyranny of the majority can be, well, we've got the numbers, we're going to do it. In a minority situation you can't just rely on the numbers. You have to rely on the power of your argument."

Horgan, mindful of the mutual hostility he and Weaver displayed before and during the spring election, now turns their once prickly relationship into a laugh line: "No one was more surprised than Andrew and I that we actually get along quite well."

But seriously: "It has been, actually, quite a positive experience getting to better understand Andrew Weaver and how he approaches political life ... because I have to convince him and he has to convince me that his ideas or my ideas are valid.

"I think if we can demonstrate that a minority can work that will bring maybe even Bill Tieleman onside to have proportional representation as the way we elect our representatives."

Tieleman being the longtime NDP supporter, communications consultant and pundit who was one of the leaders of the fight against proportional representation in two previous provincial referendums. He's gearing up for a third fight next year, and not likely will Horgan convert him. But suffice to say Horgan's new-found enthusiasm for minority government puts paid to the notion that he and the New Democrats will softpedal support for proportional representation next year.

"My role is to make the case to support it," vows the boss. "I will be asking citizens to embrace proportional representation because I think it's a better way for the public to have confidence that when we elect someone they'll have a say in outcomes for people."

The premier's straightforward stance confirms that he and Weaver are joined at the hip on changing the electoral system in a way that suits their continued partnership for the next four years.

But it also suggests there is nothing coincidental about the government efforts to minimize the likelihood of a repeat of the 2009 referendum, when 61 per cent of voters rejected proportional representation.

Already the New Democrats have set the lowest bar for passage. There's no minimal threshold for turnout - they say even 10 per cent would be enough to carry the day. The survey of public opinion is skewed in favour of proportional representation. The government is withholding key information about the survey itself.

If the merits of proportional representation are as overwhelming as Horgan and Weaver claim, they should have no compunction about submitting it to a fair, open and independent process. So far they seem bent on stacking the deck to ensure the outcome that suits their political interest.

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