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An old fashioned election

As the final few days of this "historic" provincial election wind down, and the fear mongering from all parties winds up, we’re left to ponder: what has changed? What is uncommon, though not unheard of for a B.C.

As the final few days of this "historic" provincial election wind down, and the fear mongering from all parties winds up, we’re left to ponder: what has changed?

What is uncommon, though not unheard of for a B.C. election, is the campaign has involved three parties right from the start, rather than the usual two. Although there are more than 45 registered political parties in B.C., it’s still an interesting leap of faith that the campaigns and the media coverage have viewed the Green Party on the same level as the NDP and Liberals. Part of that has to do with polls that suggest a lot of people like a lot of the Green platform, and so the Greens may get a lot of votes. Another part is people’s frustration with both the NDP and the Liberals and the apparent desire for an alternative.

Part of it probably also has to do with the referendum on the single transferable vote. STV, which could be used in the next election in 2009, increases the possibility of electing MLAs from so-called third parties like the Greens. But STV isn’t being used in this election. To win any seats in the next legislative session the Green candidates will have to make it to Victoria under the old fashioned first past the post system. That means getting more votes than the NDP and Liberal candidates in a head-to-head-to-head showdown, and that’s still a tall order.

In this election, as in most elections, the mainstream media coverage has focused almost entirely on the party leaders. Snippets of information about individual candidates surface when one puts his foot in his mouth or gets off a particularly good line, but for the most part voters only see and hear about the party leaders. To find out about local candidates voters have to go to all candidates meetings or find coverage in the local media.

And perhaps it should be all about the party leaders. They are the ones involved in setting party policies and, with key party people, set the priorities and tone for the party and the campaigns.

How much do individual MLAs matter, until they become cabinet ministers in the party that forms government? Backbenchers serve on committees, they should help their constituents, they carry the flag for the party locally, and they have one vote in the legislature. That vote may be crucial to the life of a minority government, as we’re seeing in Ottawa, or a government with a slim majority. But an MLA’s vote is almost always determined by the party, rather than being a vote by an individual. Under this system it is the party caucus, collectively following the wishes of the party leader, that determines whether legislation passes or fails. STV by itself won’t change that.

So when voters go behind the cardboard wall to mark their ballot Tuesday, are they voting for an individual candidate or for a party? And would they vote differently under STV?

I’d suggest that under our first past the post system and under STV most people are voting for a party. Candidates still have to make an impression, at least on some voters, but to overcome voters’ bias for or against a party a candidate must be exceptional.

At the Pemberton all candidates meeting this week three of the four candidates (Conservative candidate Barbara Ann Reid did not attend) did their best to convince about 50 voters they should represent Pemberton in Victoria. Green Party candidate, and deputy party leader, Dennis Perry put in a stronger performance than he did the week before in Whistler. Liberal candidate Joan McIntyre was a little less assured than she had been at the Whistler all candidates meeting. That may have been because the audience in Pemberton was a little less Liberal-friendly than the Whistler crowd, but it may also be a sign that the election is getting down to its final days.

Perry continued to emphasize the importance of electing a strong MLA, calling McIntyre "…a mouthpiece for the government in Victoria."

"There is no way, the way Gordon Campbell runs his dictatorial government, a Liberal MLA is going to be able to stand up for this community," Perry said. And in response to a question about benefits from the Olympics flowing Pemberton’s way he added: "The only way you’re going to get this kind of attention is with a strong MLA."

"A big part of the Green philosophy is to empower communities, not to take it away," he said, referring to Bill 75.

But Perry, a strong proponent of the STV that dictator Campbell has cleared the way for, also admitted again that the Greens weren’t going to form the next government. At the Whistler meeting he conceded the Liberals would get a majority government, so the opportunities to implement any Green Party policies in the next government are slim.

And given that this election is still a first-past-the-post race – i.e., there won’t be proportional representation – is the Green philosophy enough to move voters away from electing a Liberal candidate in West Vancouver-Garibaldi?

That may be old fashioned, party politics-style thinking, but this election is being held under the old fashioned system.