B.C.’s Proportional Representation Referendum: An opportunity to address polarization and stalemate

B.C.’s Proportional Representation Referendum:
An opportunity to address polarization and stalemate[1]


In October 2018, a commentary by Gwyn Morgan, former CEO of Encana, bore the headline: “Courts and inept leaders are failing us.”[2] But I’d suggest his article on the Federal Court of Appeal striking down the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is representative of a stalemate and a wholesale socio-political failure that implicates us all. I’d also suggest that British Columbia’s referendum on proportional representation provides a rare opportunity to start addressing this failure.

Preston Manning, like Morgan, believes “environmental protection now takes precedence over economic development … in an increasing number of cases.” He blames this on “our polarized political world.”[3]

Morgan’s question, “how do you ‘accommodate’ those whose avowed purpose is simply to stop the project?” reflects the either/or dichotomy of polarization and stalemate. At the same time, it also studiously avoids the larger context: the existential threat of climate change and preventing the potential doubling of the tar sands by 2030.[4] That year, just eleven years in the future, is a critical milestone according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, issued October 22: “To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees [Celsius], the I.P.C.C. said, global CO2 emissions, now running about forty billion tons a year, would need to be halved by 2030 and reduced more or less to zero by 2050.”[5]

Even President Trump has modified his position on climate change. “Something is changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax. I think there’s probably a difference,” he said on 60 Minutes on October 14. “But I don’t know that it’s man-made,” he added, contradicting a 2017 science report issued by the White House. That report found that “the likely range of the human contribution to the global mean temperature increase over the period 1951-2010 is 1.1 to 1.4 F (0.6 to 0.8 C).”[6]

A noted German climate scientist has stated that “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”[7]

There appears to be no middle or common ground on this dire issue. We desperately need a holistic social vision that encompasses climate, the economy, and the environment. Former prime minister Stephen Harper recently warned political and business leaders of “the great peril in meeting the concerns of average citizens with dogma and condescension.”[8]

And it’s not just the environment that is imperilled; madness is running amok in other critical areas. Harper has inferred that the “extraordinary, coordinated … measures” taken by the Group of 20 in response to the 2008-09 global financial crisis betrayed citizens who “had been conditioned to believe that they should manage their finances prudently, plan for the future and strive for a life independent of government support.”[9]

In the words of another commentator: “The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street rose up as opposite expressions of anti-establishment rage, nourished by the sense that colluding élites in government and business had got away with a crime.”[10]

To make matters worse, a third commentator tells us: “the too-big-to-fail problem hasn’t gone away; it may even be more acute than before.” Republicans “have eliminated some of the [post-2008] financial regulations [and] reduced capital requirements for all but the very biggest banks.” Moreover, approximately three trillion dollars of U.S. “non-financial debt is rated as junk or one notch above junk [and] is set to mature in the next five years.”[11]

So, how healthy is the balance between capitalism and democracy, between governance and the global economy, between the environment and the strangling “imperatives” of consumerism and “growth,” between our collective future on the one hand and the blinkered status quo on the other? The answer is that there are grave imbalances, that we are badly out of kilter. The interests of the power elite too often trump the social good. Growing inequality is one example; the lengthening shadow of climate change is another; vast and increasing migrations of desperate, needy people is a third.

In contrast to President Trump’s blithe reassurance that climate change will “change back again,” consider Margaret Wheatley, the acclaimed management and leadership consultant and author. Earlier this year, she asked: “How do we apply our spiritual ground or spiritual questing to be useful, to even understand what is going on right now? …. very destructive forces [are] at work …destroying the future, destroying people, destroying personal motivation.”[12]

This bleak assessment is a long way from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, which “ordains” that document “in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” (Note the eight capitalized words.)

That language was and remains a worthy social vision and can serve as a model for others, although, 230 years later, a clause should be added to “steward and sustain the Natural World.”[13]

In British Columbia, we have an uncommon opportunity to switch, on a trial basis, from a first-past-the-post voting system to one based on proportional representation (I like the Rural-Urban Proportional option). This is a precious chance to demonstrate citizen power, to say we can and will do better. By voting for proportional representation, we take a step away from polarization and toward a new social vision and toward redressing the reckless and corrosive imbalances mentioned above. To be represented proportionately is to ensure a measure of balance against those imbalances.

An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  1. This article was posted to the author’s LinkedIn page on November 22, 2018. A link to it was re-posted on the “PR Facebook Discussion Group” page on November 28, 2018.
  2. Gwyn Morgan, “Courts and inept leaders are failing us,” Victoria Times Colonist, October 14, 2018, C4.
  3. Preston Manning, “We must restore balance between the environment and the economy,” The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 20, 2018, O11.
  4. Michael Enright’s interview with federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, “The Sunday Edition,” CBC Radio, March 18, 2018. “Alberta wants to double the size of the oil sands” – 14:00. “Oil sands production is projected to double in the next decade” – 21:34.
  5. Elizabeth Kolbert “Global Warning,” The New Yorker, October 22, 2018, 23-24. See also: “Report warns of catastrophic global warming, Victoria Times Colonist, Tuesday, October 9, 2018, A10.
  6. “Researchers, Trump at odds on climate,” Victoria Times Colonist, Friday, October 19, 2018, G7.
  7. German scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber quoted in: Trevor Hancock, “Political heads stuck in the (oil) sand,” Times Colonist, Sunday, October 7, 2018, D5.
  8. Stephen J. Harper, “The winter of our discontent,” The Globe and Mail, Saturday, October 6, 2018, O1 and O5
  9. Ibid.
  10. George Packer, “Ten years after,” The New Yorker, August 27, 2018, 25-26.
  11. John Cassidy, “A world of woes: A global take on a decade of financial crises,” The New Yorker, September 17, 2018, 54-58.
  12. “Margaret Wheatley: Warriors for the Human Spirit,” interview by Tami Simon of soundstrue.com – syndicated March 29, 2018.
  13. The quotation from the preamble to the U.S. Constitution served my purposes for this essay because it is a concise example of a positive social vision. Justice Rosalie Abella of Canada’s Supreme Court recently expressed a compelling version of Canada’s social vision when she wrote:“Where for others pluralism and diversity are fragmenting magnets, for Canada they are unifying. Where for others assimilation is the social goal, for us it represents the inequitable obliteration of the identities that define us. Where for others treating everyone the same is the dominant governing principle, for us it takes its place alongside the principle that treating everyone the same can result in ignoring the differences that need to be respected if we are to be a truly inclusive society.“Integration based on difference, equality based on inclusion despite difference and compassion based on respect and fairness: These are the principles that now form the moral core of Canadian national values…” Rosalie Abella, “Democracy needs to an independent judiciary,” The Globe and Mail, October 27, 2018, O5.
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