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Globe editorial: How B.C.’s election has changed everything

B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver speaks to media in the rose garden on the Legislature grounds in Victoria, B.C., on May 10, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito (Chad Hipolito/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The political revolution that remade the right wing of the Canadian political spectrum happened a generation ago, in Alberta. The event that just might remake things on the centre and left in Canadian politics happened on Wednesday in British Columbia. The B.C. election counting and recounting is finally done, and it’s a minority government – with the Green Party, having won a record 17 per cent of the vote and three seats, holding the balance of power.

B.C.’s new political math has some well-understood consequences. The Liberals, in government for 16 years, may be pushed into opposition. They’re one seat shy of a majority, and must consider whether they can bargain with the Greens – and what promises they’re willing to break in order to keep power. The New Democrats, who have a lot more in common with the Greens, and can form government with their support, are undertaking the same calculus.

Neither the Greens nor the NDP back the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion; as a result, what should be Canada’s least controversial pipeline project is now in jeopardy. It spells big trouble for Alberta’s and Ottawa’s plans for moving landlocked oil to the Pacific. That could be a punch in the gut to the oil industry, and a hit for the Canadian economy.

And that’s just the most obvious and immediate fallout from this election. The Green breakthrough, the prominence the party and leader Andrew Weaver will enjoy while holding the balance of power, and the inspiration this may provide to Green parties and Green-leaning voters across the country, has the potential to shake up the political status quo in other provinces, and in Ottawa.

Of course, there are no guarantees in politics – the election of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP in Alberta in early 2015 was expected to boost the NDP nationally in that fall’s federal election, completing the humbling of the then-third-party Liberals. We prognosticate at our peril, because today’s confident forecasts often end up as yesterday’s most risible predictions. Nevertheless, the fact that a record one in six B.C. voters voted Green, in an extremely close Liberal-NDP battle where there was enormous pressure to abandon the Greens and vote strategically – as had happened in past elections – suggests a major shift in the province’s politics.

And if the Greens get their way on the most important item on their list of demands, it will transform B.C. politics and become a model for the rest of the country. Not necessarily the best model, but a model that will appeal to many Canadians.

In negotiations over who will form government in B.C., Mr. Weaver’s Greens have three public conditions to win their support: giving them official party status in the legislature (in B.C., a party normally needs four seats to get it); reforming the province’s corruption-promoting electoral finance laws; and remaking the electoral system according to proportional representation.

The first request is only fair, under the circumstances. The second is necessary and right, and something Liberal governments should have brought in years ago. But the third demand, which is about the fundamentals of the democratic system, is something that politicians should not be allowed to bargain over for political gain.

Electoral reform is something voters should be open-minded to. In fact, given the strong public interest in the idea, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if one Canadian province reformed its electoral system, thereby giving the rest of the country a living experiment to observe and learn from. It might be an inspiration. It might be a cautionary tale.

But the Greens are demanding that B.C.’s electoral system be remade, along proportional representation lines – and that this be done without asking the people’s approval through a referendum. It’s an approach that both Liberals and New Democrats should reject, on precedent and on principle.

The principle is that the electoral system doesn’t belong to the politicians, and they can’t fundamentally change the rules by which they are elected without the consent of the people. In B.C., that precedent is well established. In 2005 and 2009, the province held referendums on electoral reform. Voters were twice asked to approve it, and twice they failed to endorse it. The most recent referendum, in 2009, with just 39 per cent voting in favour, was an overwhelming rebuke.

For those who think the Green Party’s support of electoral reform, and its opposition to consulting the people, is purely a matter of high principle, give your heads a shake. For the Greens, this is a case of self-interest and self-preservation. The party that most supports proportional representation is, surprise, the party that would most benefit from it. There’s no doubt that the Greens sincerely believe in proportional representation; there’s also no doubt that, for the sake of their political future, they desperately need it.

That is precisely why, if B.C. is to have electoral reform, it can’t come at the point of a Green Party gun. The issue has to be put to a referendum. If the Liberals or the NDP agree to remake the entire political system without one, simply because the Greens named it as their price for support, that would be a betrayal. Five out of six voters didn’t vote for this.

If Green leader Mr. Weaver has the courage of his electoral reform convictions, he should have the courage to put them to the people.

But if proportional representation does come to B.C., it will profoundly change the province’s politics. The pressure to vote strategically will be diminished. Small parties, like the Greens, will win more seats. We could easily see a four- or five-party legislature in Victoria.

But as negotiations between the Greens and the other parties are about to demonstrate, PR doesn’t mean that every voter gets exactly the party they want, or that everyone will be governed by exactly the politicians and the platform they voted for. It simply means that the negotiation over values and policies will take place among parties, after an election, rather than within them.