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Arthur Goddard

Elections British Columbia: The Unique Guide For Provincial Election Participants and Spectators, by T. Patrick Boyle, Vancouver, Lions Gate Press, 1982, 191 p.

This book has three ambitious goals: a critique of the democratic process as it now operates in British Columbia; a detailed analysis of recent elections in the province; and an interpretation of political trends. The author's central purpose is to make available to the public information generally not available or available only in an incomplete way. Everyone is to be put at par with political observers, media commentators, politicians and their advisors, "this book gives the voter access to their secret world". While all three goals are worthy, unfortunately only the detailed analysis of election results is met with any degree of success within the text.

The book opens with a brief discussion of a dilemma for all democratic societies are elected politicians "agents" or "delegates" of the people (elected to carry out the people's wishes or mandated to carry out their duties according to own best judgment)? Such familiar federal examples as the imposition of wage and price controls, abolition of capital punishment, nationalization" of the petroleum industry, imposition of a new Canadian Constitution and partial Charter of Rights and Freedoms (termed partial because it does not include property rights), and provincial examples of expropriation of B.C. Electric Company and taxation of the province's mining industry are cited to show we are not a true democratic society. What we are, according to Boyle, is a "representative democracy" which means "we are governed by politicians who just happen to get more votes than another set of politicians." In such a system politicians are devoted to political parties with religious fervour whose interest is merely political survival. Interestingly enough both the politicians and political parties perceive that political survival involves their satisfaction of the voters demands for action and immediate favourable results. Boyle maintains the problem is the fact that no one acts the role of "statesman" presenting sound, long-term, beneficial public policies.

To rectify this the author proposes three electoral reforms for British Columbia. First, there should be a series of runoff elections to ensure majority rather than plurality winner candidates for seats in the legislature. Second, the province should have an electoral boundaries commission (modelled on the federal commissions) to readjust electoral boundaries every so often, free from political influences and pressures. Finally, there should be a residency requirement for those seeking seats in the legislature. It is maintained that these reforms will improve "the quality of politicians elected to public office and the manner of their conduct" while in office.

The central problem with this interpretation of the political system is that it perpetuates the all too common myth that governments are indeed elected. The simple fact that governments are not elected but responsible to their parliaments is improperly understood. Most likely the absorption of political norms and expectations from the American system has allowed Boyle to interpret our parliamentary system of government as a representative system. This misrepresentation of how our government in fact operates allows him to criticize government policies because they are not acting in response to the electorate's every wish. The author in his desire to enlighten his readers concerning the operation of their political system has unfortunately misled them as to its purpose and function. Hardly a good beginning.

Aside from this fundamental error, nowhere in the book is it demonstrated how his intended reforms will improve the quality and behaviour of those elected to the legislature. What does "quality" mean? Why not make a comparison between majority v. plurality or parachuted (a very rare occurrence these days) and resident members if he really believes one set has more quality or act better than the other? While it could be argued that each of the proposed reforms has merit in and of themselves, they are not new and, at best, are mere electoral tinkerings. The only way one could possibly think of them as being important would be if one could show they would alter the strength of the parties in the legislature upon which the government depends for power. Again, the misunderstanding by the author of how the system works prevents him from making these points.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the detailed analysis of provincial elections since 1966 (1969, 1972, 1975, 1979) and possible future trends. The second chapter depicts the gradual decline of support for the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties and the narrowing of the gap between Social Credit and New Democratic Party support. To demonstrate this something called the "swing percentage" is calculated. Simply put, it is the minimum percentage of votes needed to change the outcome in each electoral district. This has been calculated for each constituency dating back to 1966 with adjustments made for any changes made in boundaries over the intervening years. Given this amount of work (depicted in numerous tables, graphs, and 24 pages of appendix tables) it is calculated that Social Credit is losing support to the NDP and, based upon the 1979 election, 15 of their 31 seats could possibly change hands in the next election. Only 11 of the NDP's 26 seats are considered this vulnerable. Given the current five seat majority held by Social Credit and assuming the close seats will be the ones to change, the obvious conclusion to be reached is that the next election will be very close. The problem with this concept is that it says nothing about political issues. candidates, etc., which all have a great deal to do with election outcomes.

The author further weakens the analysis by suggesting that since voter turnout changed very little in the 1969, 1972, 1975 and 1979 elections (averaging around 69%), and since the parties changed office twice, very little changes in voter turnout may significantly alter political party fortunes. It is simply nonsense to suggest that minor changes in voter turnout (less than 1%) have any significance in party fortunes over the past few years. This is particularly true unless it is demonstrated that voter turnout has an effect in the swing or marginally held seats by each party. Many conclusions reached in this Chapter are little more than speculations based on faith and instinct and do little to enhance the book's worth.

Chapter three lists the provincial electoral districts, names the person and party holding each seat, lists the members of the provincial cabinet and their portfolios (as of 1975) and assigns the members of the opposition special areas of expertise and government critique. It also reproduces three excellent official electoral maps of the province (interior, greater Vancouver and Victoria). Chapter four provides detailed election results for each district since 1966. A brief sketch of the settlement pattern, population size, geographical boundaries, occupational profile, etc., is also provided for each district. Given the swing percentages it is suggested Atlin, Surrey, Skeena, Dewdney, Burnaby-Willingdon, Kamloops, Shusway-Revolstoke and Columbia River are key constituencies to watch in the next election.

Taken as a whole, the book opens with a weak, theoretical discussion, then drops it entirely as it trails off into trend speculations and a straightforward presentation of facts and data. While the latter may be of interest to the novice as well as the more sophisticated observer of B.C. politics, little else is provided which would enhance the reader's understanding of what actually goes on.

Arthur Goddard, Department of Political Science, Simon Fraser University. Burnaby, B.C..

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Vol 6 no 1

Last Updated: 2020-09-14