Month: May 2017

Let’s Be Careful What We Wish For

Tough times ahead for our Legislative Assembly remodelled somewhat indecisively in May. Times that will test the true mettle of those so nervously asked to govern our affairs for the next four years in a world of fear and uncertainty.

Members of the Association of Former MLAs of BC who served in the late 1970s will be aware – none more so than those who survived the election of 1979 – that the NDP came within six seats of regaining the right to govern they had lost in 1975.

Social Credit had a majority of five seats, reduced to four with the appointment of Harvey Schroeder as Speaker – but still a seemingly, comfortable and safe majority when push came to shove on a vote in the House. By today’s measure, it would look like a landslide.

But, it wasn’t. There came a day when George Mussallem, a veteran MLA from Dewdney and the government “whip” responsible for making sure in-house voting strength was solid, noted he needed only a couple of MLAs sick, one or two others out of the city on government business or attending to constituency problems for a four-seat majority to vanish.

Whether it was George’s idea or one floated down from a higher authority, he never said. But, early in the 1979 legislative session, George began to maintain what he once told me was his “whereabouts” book. He wanted to know where all MLAs were if they were not in their seats in the debating chamber. Cabinet members were not exempt. If they had business outside Victoria, they needed to give George notice to enable him to make sure key government votes would always be strong enough to resist challenge.

It was restrictive and some felt an invasion of privacy, but it was accepted as essential by the government to maintain its slim majority lifeline.

Lacking the perfect crystal ball to forecast the future, we must now wait with understandable apprehension to see how our new Legislature of 43 Liberals, 41 New Democrats and three Green Party MLAs will handle what could be a daily voting crisis once the new Legislative Assembly gathers in normal session.

Will they remember that in the excitement of the photo finish to the May 9 epic  1,356,668 registered voters opted not to vote? Much has been said and written about the result being an indicator that the voters wanted change. Little has been said about the close to 1.4 million who took the time to register but failed to vote. Could it be that they were happy with the status quo? Or maybe convinced that whoever holds power will do a bad job? Were they just too lazy? Sad, really. Such a great, genuine, balance of power not persuaded to support any party or candidate.

It is something to be considered by the Liberals who could retain the right to govern by such a slender thread; the NDP who came so close to the driver’s seat and now stand ready to take control at the first opportunity; and the three seat Greens holding the enormous power to keep the Liberals in office or send them packing – and all of us back to the polls.

The last time BC had a minority government was in 1952 when the Liberal-Conservative coalition listened to those demanding change and called an election that was held with a new electoral system. It was called the preferential ballot or the transferable vote system. I have mentioned it before but it needs repeating as the cries for electoral reform increase without too much explanation as to how they would work.

In the 1952-53 experiment voters had a list of all candidates in their riding and were required to place “1” for a first choice, “2” for a second choice and so on. The candidate with the least votes in each riding would be crossed from the list with his or her alternate votes assigned as requested to alternate choices still in the race.

On the June 12, 1952, voting day, Frank Calder of Nisga’a native fame made it on the first vote count in Atlin with 56 per cent. Ralph Chetwynd won a first count for the Social Credit League with 52 per cent in Cariboo. Social Credit newcomer W.A.C. Bennett waltzed across the finish line in Kelowna with a first count of 51 per cent and CCF leader Harold Winch swept Vancouver East with 51 on the first count.

They were the only four out of 212 candidates to break the 50+ per cent mark on the first count. Most winners needed at least three counts, a few four and two ridings – Vancouver Burrard and North Vancouver – needed five and six counts respectively before a winner was declared.

The final seat count was Social Credit – 19, CCF – 18, Liberals – 6, Conservatives – 4 and Labour – 1. The CCF topped the popular vote with 34 per cent; Social Credit won with 30 per cent; and Liberals got 25 per cent. It’s an old story in BC … the party with the most seats wins elections, not necessarily the party with the most votes.

In its few weeks of life the government of 1952 featured crackerjack exchanges between Winch and Bennett. On March 24,1953, the government engineered its own defeat on a question of financing for schools. Winch wanted to govern, but Bennett asked Lieutenant Governor Clarence Wallace to dissolve the parliament and let the people decide. Wallace agreed to the dismay of Winch.

Premier Bennett set June 9, 1953 for his re-match of the June 12, 1952 cliff hanger he had won by one seat. It was a gamble that paid off. Social Credit expanded its popular vote to 46 per cent over the CCF at 29 per cent and increased the Socred’s seats from 19 to 28 after innumerable counts and distributions of alternative votes. But, although alternative balloting had undoubtedly helped Bennett and his infant Social Credit Party win two elections over well established rivals, he never again used it during his 20-years as premier.

Whether history is about to repeat itself remains unknown, but there are lessons to be learned from experience by those who govern and those who strive to govern. Waiting to see what they have learned will be fascinating – as BC politics have always been.

 

Were 1,356,668 Voters Status Quo Content or Just Indifferent?

The politicking re-started on May 10, just hours after we got word a final decision on the May 9 vote would not be available until after May 24. Elections BC declared “the Writ” would be returned May 31, the final whistle on sudden death overtime Election 2017.

While we, the great unwashed, wait for those final numbers to find out who’s really holding the key to the executive wing of government, two of our three political leaders are scrambling to control the agenda. And, they’ve been at it since the major polls closed with the Liberals clinging to government and the NDP and Greens pondering whether to extend a temporary helping hand – or stamp on fingers grasping for a firmer hold on power.

It’s an interesting scenario, a made in BC special with the NDP, renowned for its pit bull approach to problem solving, suggesting the Greens join them to force the government to make policy decisions according their “loser’s” agenda. All quite legal of course, even if a little conscience-stretching to see the least supported party on election day denying policy decisions proposed by the party with the most support.

Leaves me wondering how Green Party supporters and the general electorate would react to opposition threats to ‘do it our way or we’ll destroy this government’ and force a replay of May 9.

It is a debating method unrelated to anything we have seen to date from Andrew Weaver. His constant appeals for reasoned debate in favour of rhetorical demands won him much May 9 support. It also garnered sympathy for his party’s goal of being granted official party status in the House, a status that includes financial and legislature staffing benefits. Bully talk doesn’t fit the Green character we have come to know and respect.

Since my retirement from active duty in the political trenches, I am reliant on media reports for knowledge of political happenings – and confess to a diminishing faith in reporting accuracy when I read editorial comment woven into news stories which should be opinion-neutral – opinion being just that and always open to challenge.

I make this point because I have been hearing and reading that, if Andrew Weaver and his three Green seats hold firm in the final tally, they will hold the balance of power in a divided Legislature – and use that balance to demand concessions to Green Party policies. “Demand” is not the best of words to use in a democracy where “compromise” and “cooperation” are the favoured ways to solve problems. I read a few days ago in my local newspaper that Andrew Weaver now had “the muscle” to back up his demands.” Muscle? Demands? Makes it sound like a back-alley brawl is planned. I would hope logic, compromise and cooperation would be his weapons of choice.

However, as the rest of 2017 unfolds in BC, there will be many difficult decisions for the balance of power Green leader to make. Mahatma Ghandi once advised that on such occasions “when restraint and courtesy are added to the strength (of your reasoning) the latter become irresistible.”

Mr. Weaver will do better following Ghandi’s advice than flexing rhetorical muscle and seconding the NDP claim that the tight election result was a voters’ cry for change. It may be so. However, for sure it was also a cry for a change in attitudes when the Legislature is in session, a cry for reason and respect in debate to replace rancour and insult.always, a final sobering thought on the cry of the electorate: Elections BC states BC had 3,156,991 registered voters on as of April 11 this year. Preliminary counts record 1,800,323 valid votes were cast which means 1,356,668 voters remain content with the status quo or are too lazy to change it.

 

Don’t Panic – The Sky Ain’t Falling

 

Oh dear, oh dear, we have a minority government; the sky is falling and, in post-election confusion, British Columbia is collapsing back into the dark ages. Across the country, pundits and news reporters – who should know better – are gloomily wondering what the future holds now that voters have again stuttered in lock-step disarray and failed to appoint a clear-cut board of directors to run their affairs.

The doomsayers fearfully shout that it’s 65 years since we had the crisis of minority government. Yes, it is, and in 1952, many regarded an election result as a cataclysmic collapse of political order but BC soon dusted itself off, cleared away the election wreckage and spent the next 20 years as an envied, well ordered, prosperous province.

I touched on the 1952 general election last week, but it’s worth taking a second look. That was the year the Liberal-Conservative coalition government listened to those demanding change to the electoral process and introduced the preferential ballot –sometimes called the transferable vote system – for a general election tryout.  Voters would place “1” for a first choice, “2” for a second choice. The candidate with the least votes in each riding would be crossed off the list with his or her second votes assigned as requested to alternate choices still in the race. First to reach 50+per cent would be elected.

On June 12, 1952, voting day, Frank Calder, of Nisga’a native fame, made it on the first ballot in Atlin with 56.61 per cent. Ralph Chetwynd won a first count for the Social Credit League with 51.84 per cent in Cariboo. Social Credit newcomer W.A.C. Bennett waltzed across the finish line with a first count of 51.24 per cent and CCF leader Harold Winch swept Vancouver East with 51.42 on the first count.

They were the only four out of 212 candidates to make it through without “alternative vote” support to break the 50+ per cent mark.

Harold Winch’s father, Ernest, a lifetime member of the CCF and one of the NDP’s founding fathers, needed three counts of alternative votes before finally crossing the “elected” threshold with 51.37 per cent in Burnaby.

Most winners needed at least three counts; a few four, and candidates in two ridings – Vancouver-Burrard and North Vancouver – needed five and six counts respectively before a winner was declared. In Vancouver-Burrard, Social Credit won both available seats. Bert Price was declared a squeaky winner with 50.47 per cent after four counts, and fellow Socred Eric Martin garnered 51.25 per cent on the fifth count.

Of interest to electoral reform advocates, it’s worth noting that if the election had been run on traditional first-past-the-post rules, Alex Macdonald and Charles MacNeil would have won both Burrard seats quite handily for the CCF. They were among the few who held healthy leads on first counts but fell behind when alternate votes were distributed.

In North Vancouver, it took six alternative vote counts to push Liberal Martin Sowden over the threshold with 53.40 per cent to defeat CCF Dorothy Steeves with 46.60 per cent. A tight, tight race all the way.

The final seat count as noted a week ago was 19 Social Credit, 18 CCF, six Liberals, four Conservatives and – undefeated whenever he ran – Fernie’s Tom Uphill, Labour. The final popular vote counts saw the CCF well ahead with 231,756 – 34.30 per cent; Social Credit 203,932 – 30.18 per cent and Liberals 170,674 – 25.26 per cent.

It’s an old story in BC that it’s the party with the most seats that wins elections, not necessarily the party with the most votes.

The government of 1952 didn’t last more than a few weeks of crackerjack exchanges between CCF leader Harold Winch and Premier Bennett. The Legislature went into session in early February 1953. On March 24, the government was defeated on a school financing vote. Winch was quick to suggest Bennett should resign and let the CCF, with only one less seat, be asked to govern. Bennett countered with a request that Lieutenant Governor Clarence Wallace dissolve parliament, still formally in session, and let the people decide who should be in charge. To Winch’s dismay, the Lieutenant Governor agreed.

In the subsequent 1953 election, Social Credit won all the marbles. After innumerable counts and distributions of alternative votes, its popular vote expanded to 300,372 – 45.54 per cent, over the CCF’s194,000 votes – 29.48 per cent, thus increasing Socred seats from 19 to 28.

Bennett savoured his victory. However, having recognized the danger to a government of hard-to-sway second and third alternative vote choices, he never again in his 20 years as premier departed from first-past-the-post elections.

In 1952-53, politics in BC were in confused free fall on election day, but the end of the world was not nigh. And, 65 years later, I hope it won’t be for some time. There will be no descent into chaos and economic darkness following May 9 – but we could require a 1953 style final play-off election in the not too distant future to get things back on track.

Expensive, but perhaps needed in order to find a more certain way to govern..

In the meantime, let’s do what we do best in the west where we figure problems are made to be conquered by common understanding and respect, and that governments –elected or pending – need constant reminders of their fragile tenure.

 

 

 

The Year The Party Without Hope Won It All

Just a few days to go and you figure it’s all over. Conventional thinking suggests the undecided have now made up their minds although they have yet to mark their ballots to make it official. It’s over but the shouting – the die already cast.

But is it?

I am reminded of the BC general election of 1952 – my first witness of democracy at work on the western edge of Canada since arriving from the UK four years earlier. Byron Johnson was the premier. He presided over a coalition government comprised of Liberals and Conservatives, but was feeling threatened by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF – that would become the NDP). They would be joined on the ’52 hustings by a motley crew of unelected but noisy and hard to understand “funny money” inconsequential members of the Social Credit League.

Premier Johnson called the ’52 election, confident the result would strengthen the coalition hold in the Legislature. The vote would be held under a new “alternative voting” system which meant a voter could cast a first ballot for the party of choice and list an “alternative.” Instead of an X, the votes would be cast as numbers – 1 for first choice, 2 for second to be counted if the first choice didn’t muster more than 50 per cent of the vote.

The assumption was that with Social Credit holding no seats and displaying confusion in its ranks, the CCF would opt for Liberal or Conservative if a second choice was needed.

Like so many assumptions, not based on fact, this was a bad one and produced disastrous results for Johnson and the Liberals and Conservatives expecting to celebrate a renewed coalition government. In the polling booths, CCF supporters had cast their second ballots in volume to the one party with little chance of survival – Social Credit.

It took at least four “alternative vote” counts to get most of the results; five to get a decision in one or two ridings; and six in at least two ridings. When it was sorted – to the stunned dismay of Liberals, Conservatives, CCF and the electorate – the infant Social Credit won 19 seats, the CCF 18, the Liberals six, Conservatives four and the glorious Tom Uphill from Fernie claimed one for Independent Labour.

First order of business for the Socreds was to elect a party leader who would automatically become the premier. In July, the 19 new MLAs gathered in Vancouver to cast 10 votes for W.A.C. Bennett, a Kelowna hardware store merchant who had previous Legislature experience with the coalition. Two of his challengers garnered two votes each, and Phil Gaglardi picked up a single vote, probably his own.

A year later Premier Bennett – elected by 10 of 19 voters – faced and lost a non-confidence vote in the Legislature. Premiers were expected to resign after such a vote, but Bennett chose instead to take a quick trip to Government House to ask the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the House and call a new election for June 9, 1953.

It was held under the “alternative vote” rules. Once again, it took endless recounts before winners were declared. This time, Social Credit was the clear winner with 28 seats. The CCF won14, the Liberals four, the Conservative party was reduced to one seat, matched by the redoubtable Tom Uphill Labour Party.

All of which brings me back to our countdown to May 9. Do I have a forecast? Never. Just preferences. I think the Liberal government, warts and all, has done a fairly good job keeping us relatively comfortable economically in BC.

I would like to see Andrew Weaver and the Greens replace the NDP in opposition – or what I prefer to call the next “government in waiting.” I think he would bring to that task measured criticism where warranted and praise and support where deserved. I hear what he says and listen to what he means when he appeals for goodwill and regrets “we spend so much time fighting, we have forgotten what we were elected for.”

It’s an all-inclusive, and I feel sincerely given, critique that requires self-discipline and a genuine willingness by government to accept suggestions from others for improving legislation.

The NDP mantra for the May 9 vote has been “time for a change,” but even as they recite it, they cannot believe it applies to their “us versus them” collective belief. They still can’t believe “the fault dear Brutus is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings….”

Is it time to let the Greens have a crack at opposition in preparation for governing maybe four years hence? I’ll leave the pollsters to crunch numbers and predict results. I just dream of a better, kindlier way to govern. It can’t possibly happen on May 9, you say and you’re probably right.

Just be sure to cast your ballot for your own dreams always remembering 1952, the year a political party without a hope and with a premier many derisively called “Wacky” came to power and stayed there for 20 years during which BC prospered.