2009 election preview: British Columbia


The Canadian province of British Columbia will go to the polls on May 12, 2009, to elect 85 members of the Legislative Assembly, and vote on a referendum to change the electoral system used in future provincial elections.

British Columbian politics is particularly unusual in Canada. The two major parties are the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party, but they fill very different roles in the provincial political environment. The Liberal Party is the centre-right party, and has no affiliation to the federal party. Many BC Liberals are aligned with the Conservative Party of Canada. The NDP fills a more centrist role than in federal politics.

The Liberals, under Premier Gordon Campbell, have governed BC since the 2001 election, when the ruling NDP lost all but two of their seats, with the Liberals winning 77 of 79 seats. This was the culmination of half a century of volatile provincial politics.

BC’s peculiar political system dates back to the 1940s, when the major Liberal and Conservative parties formed a coalition to prevent the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor to the NDP, from gaining power. The 1952 election saw the coalition split and saw the fringe Social Credit League form a minority government. The CCF was in opposition with the Liberals and the Conservatives reduced to the crossbenches. Social Credit was founded to pursue the policies of social credit parties, who remained a fringe movement in most of the English-speaking world.

The party quickly broadened into a centre-right conservative party, with the CCF, then the NDP, becoming the main centre-left party, and the Liberals and Conservatives almost entirely disappearing from BC politics. This state of affairs continuing for the next thirty-nine years, with the exception of three years of NDP government in the 1970s. In 1991, the Social Credit party was decimated, not only losing the election to the NDP, but being pushed into third place behind the resurgent Liberals. The Socreds disappeared at the 1996 election, and the Liberals defeated the NDP in the 2001 election. 2005 saw a resurgent NDP gain ground but fail to unseat Campbell. The province has one of the strongest provincial Green parties, with the Greens peaking at 12% at the 2001 election, although they went back slightly in 2005.

The huge margin of victory in 2001 was followed by the Liberals carrying out a promise to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The body was made up of randomly selected citizens selected from all provincial ridings. After a period of examination of the various options available, the Assembly approved a variant of the Single Transferable Vote system used in Ireland and Tasmania (known in Australia as Hare-Clark). The proposal was taken to the 2005 provincial election as a referendum, and managed to gain 57% support, as well as majority support in all but two ridings. However the legislation required the referendum to win 60% support, and thus it was defeated. Gordon Campbell’s government has pushed ahead with their plans to introduce BC-STV, and will introduce another referendum alongside the election in 2009, again with a 60% threshold imposed.

British Columbia will also be voting using new electoral boundaries in 2009, and as part of the boundary review process the Commission proposed a set of boundaries to be used in an STV election. These boundaries combine single-member ridings together. For example, five ridings in eastern Vancouver will be combined to make Vancouver East riding, which will elect 5 MLAs as a group. I have converted these files to Google Earth and uploaded them to my maps page. However, I haven’t been able to find any calculations of the notional margins on new boundaries. I would appreciate it if anyone has information on that front.

The prospect of British Columbia adopting the Hare-Clark system is exciting for anyone interested in electoral reform. A successful implementation of BC-STV would not only influence fellow Canadian provinces, and the Canadian federal system, which also suffer from similar problems, it could also see an impact on the neighbouring US west coast, where relatively progressive regimes in California, Oregon and Washington have been the most eager to experiment with new electoral systems. The province of Ontario has already adopted BC’s Citizens’ Assembly model, with an Assembly proposing an MMP system similar to New Zealand, which was soundly defeated at a referendum in 2007. While this failed, victory in BC in 2009 would be a big step towards the end of First Past the Post elections.

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  1. Because Canadian parties lack clearly defined social/geographical bases (with exception of Liberals’ appeal to ethic minorities) big swings can almost entirely wipe out a party in parliament. 2001 in BC was the equivalent of 1992 in Victoria, 2011 in NSW etc. but the outcome was much worse for the loser. FPP is particularly inappropriate.

  2. If BC-STV gets up (and no other PR system gets up somewhere else before it is implemented) then the 2013(?) BC election will be the first state/provincial level election in Anglo-North America with PR (Mexico has some state level PR).

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