B.C. scare tactics echo New Zealand referendum

Big business, political elites used the same playbook against Pro Rep in 1992
By Kate Williamson, guest writer


I’m a New Zealander living in Vancouver, and I’ve been watching the anti-Pro Rep campaign in B.C. with intense and unenjoyable deja vu.

Before I explain that, some history: New Zealand, like B.C., used to vote under the FPTP (First Past The Post) system. It would go like this: every few years we’d have an election and one of two parties would win. There were only two parties that you could seriously vote for – any other vote was wasted. Sometimes it would be the same party, over and over again, for years. We would swing from National – think the NZ version of the Liberals – to Labour – think our NDP.

Over the decades they swapped power until they became like two giant, gassy blimps floating in the sky above us, barely connected to us except by a thin tether. They got their funding from other sources – businesses, unions and lobbyists. The electorate – “us” – was changing but they weren’t, really. They didn’t have to. They had the longevity. They knew how to play the game.

Then in 1992 the NZ government decided to have a referendum on Proportional Representation. I want to be clear: THEY DIDN’T WANT TO. The government of the day had to come under intense public pressure before they’d agree. And once they decided, yes, we’re going to do this – like here, a lot of money began to pour into the anti-Pro Rep campaign from the business community.

Business as a rule is conservative – they like certainty. They like to know who they can call, who they can pressure, who to donate to. Called, innocuously, the “Campaign for Better Government,” their movement was led by Peter Shirtcliffe who was CEO of NZ’s largest telecom company.

Shirtcliffe’s campaign spent more than $1.5 million New Zealand dollars – the equivalent of more than two million Canadian dollars today. (The pro-reform group was a grassroots effort with just over $100,000.) The anti-reform campaign had a few different knives to wield against Pro Rep, and they used them all, like ruthless political ninjas:


“It would put enormous stresses and strains [on the economy]” declared Peter Shirtcliffe, trying to scare the crap out of everyone who needed a job to survive. “It would bring economic ruin,” a former finance minister chimed in.


One establishment politician said it would be a ‘disaster for democracy’. I remember people being worried one of our fringe religious parties would win government and force us all to follow their beliefs OMG THE SKY IS FALLING.


The new system meant more MPs. “Do you REALLY want to pay for more politicians??” the anti-Pro Rep campaign cried, grimly clutching their bank statements.

To be honest, all this doom totally worked on me. I was a 20-year-old student at the time, looking to start my career, and I really believed Peter Shirtcliffe when he said our economy would die, basically, the moment Pro Rep came in. Like the MOMENT it came in, investment would flee the country in a huge wave, desperately seeking some other safer country to crash onto.

I voted FPTP.

Luckily, my side lost. As it turned out, I was in the 15 per cent that voted to keep it. (I didn’t tell anyone cos it was really embarrassing).

Pro Rep came in (New Zealanders chose MMP on the second part of the ballot) and … the world did not end. The economy did not collapse. We were not all forced into a fundamentalist cult. It was. Okay.

New Zealand Pro Rep Cartoon

Outspent and outgunned, the campaign for Pro Rep in New Zealand managed to pull off a classic David-and-Goliath referendum victory.

Has Pro Rep changed the political system for the better? I would argue yes. It’s not perfect but yes, it’s better. It’s created a much more diverse Parliament which means that new, fresh ideas have a better chance of being heard. NZers voted to keep it in 2011 in a second referendum on Pro Rep. That speaks volumes.

I’m now a Canadian citizen and will be voting in my second Pro Rep referendum in November. I’m a lot older, sort of wiser in some ways, and definitely not so easily scared by fearmongers. What I am convinced by is the evidence I’ve seen at home in NZ – of Pro Rep actually working in real life. I think Pro Rep would be a great fit for this province that I love. That’s why in this referendum, I’ll be voting for Pro Rep.

Kate Williamson has lived in Vancouver since 2002 and has the worn-out rainboots to prove it.

16 Responses to “B.C. scare tactics echo New Zealand referendum”

  1. SUSAN EYRE says:

    thank you!!!!!! does my heart good x0xox0xox0

  2. Barbara Berger says:

    Great story and thanks for being honest.

  3. Bob Loblaw says:

    NZ has a diverse parliament that can be decided by minor parties choosing who to side with to form minority governments, often at the expense of unpopular platforms such as anti immigration. For example, the current labour government sided with the NZ first party. There’s usually good representation by the green party, Maori party, and even the odd right wing Christian party gets a couple of MPs. NZ is more conservative on many issues but also way more liberal when it comes to the environment and indigenous people. Canada would benefit from pro rep next Fed election because Trudeau only won as most of the country voted to get rid of Harper. It would be great to take away the power from a single party and spread it around. Especially since nationwide green party votes would get more green party MPs regardless if they win their riding.

  4. Gerry Brewer says:

    Interesting comments from one perspective. Most of my New Zealand friends are so opppsed to the likes of Winston Peters and the “representatives ” who come from the party list they ire you, who have a clear choice to VOTE NO. !!
    Can’t imagine thinking citizens voting for a mystery voting system which will be created after you vote.
    Check out the “success”Germany and Sweden have in forming government and their reality in trying for an effective government.

  5. Nick Arden says:

    The issue is so much simpler than both sides make it:
    1. A pure FPTP system is fundamentally undemocratic in that most of the time there is a majority of voters who are disenfranchised from having a say because a minority of the voters got a majority government.
    2. All the options offered include a FPTP component, so every district has a personal representative (albeit of a larger riding).
    I will be voting for Pro Rep because it is a fairer, more democratic system, even though I am a card-carrying Liberal.

    And even though the process the government has defined is flat-out wrong. There should have been an independent commission set up to prepare and present the options with a reasonable level of detail before the referendum. I do not expect this or any government to get this radical change of voting system right the first time, but far better to set BC on the path to a better and fairer system.

  6. AJ Lawrie says:

    Since you were only 20 when this happened, what do you have to compare with? Certainly not experience

  7. Rocky says:

    Also, doubleblind on youtube has a nice video to watch for info on what to vote for.

  8. John R Bell says:

    Of course neither side is offering democratic citizens assemblies in which all citizens in BC would have the right /duty to participate in the decision making processes that would subsequently govern our lives in society. Instead, we are offered 4 versions of “rule by the few” or oligarchy. What a waste of time, energy and grey matter.

  9. A.Gregory Miller says:

    I would prefer a ranked ballot election I don’t see how a proportional parliament would not centralize power more so even than it is now ,our political parties have too much power over the electorate, we are suppose to elect people to parliament not parties.When there is so much central control in parties this makes for central control in parliament with the government only concerning itself with problems in and near the capital and large cities,if you live in the north, a small prairie town or clinging to a rock in Newfoundland your concerns get pretty short shrift.

  10. Shirley Hansen says:

    The cartoon says it all!

  11. Dan Cook says:

    For the last ten years I have been voting fringe either Greens or independent just hoping the two big parties get the message. Of course if they actually had run someone I trusted in my riding I would have voted for them. Looking forward to try this system.

  12. Robin says:

    Thank you !

  13. Martin Schotte elmjay017 says:

    For all who savvy 1 2 3 and A B C.
    More Democratic Pro Rep it will be.

  14. Ted Hopkins says:

    New Zealand is the favourite example used by PR supporters. Let’s have a look at their Parliamentary history:
    •Like British Columbia until Dick McBride messed things up by introducing party politics, New Zealand’s first ten Parliaments functioned without political parties. All MPs were independent members, answerable only to the citizen voters in the local constituencies they represented.
    •When New Zealand did adopt political parties, the country adopted a system of weak parties that appeared, rose to power and faded away. Initially, the Liberal Party dominated for seven Parliaments while the Official Opposition continued to be made up of independent members. When the Reform Party came into being and succeeded the Liberals in government for five Parliaments, the Liberals faded out of existence. The United Party succeeded the Reform Party in government for a single Parliament then went into coalition with the Reform Party (the first instance of a defeated party returning to government) for one more Parliament before both faded out of existence with the rise of the Labour Party to government for four Parliaments and the appearance the National Party which eventually succeeded to government for three Parliaments. For the very first time in New Zealand’s history, a political party returned to government in its own right in 1949, when Labour recovered power for three Parliaments to begin the current alternation of power between Labour and National. National did the same in 1957 for a single Parliament.
    •Through the 1960s, New Zealand transitioned to a system of strong parties, such that National and Labour continued to alternate in power, the only two political parties able to form government.
    •The advent of MM-PR has only reinforced the strength of Labour and National to alternate in government. There may be more minor parties than ever before but none have any potential to oust the two major parties. With “list” members (and the current New Zealand Parliament includes forty-nine such party hacks, in Parliament solely because of their party affiliation and answerable only to their various parties and not to any local constituency) included among each party’s MPs, party Whips must have even more control over their MPs than we see in British Columbia now, where, at least ostensibly, each and every MLA is answerable to that MLA’s own local constituency voters.

  15. Gil Letourneau says:

    It might be worth everyone seeking viewpoints on this referendum to check out this link : http://troymedia.com/2018/11/11/kill-bc-electoral-reform/…. I myself have yet to decide..

  16. This is serious. The other threats of voting PR:

    – The crazies in Kits will be eating babies from Point Grey in Pagan Rituals on York & Yew
    – In Revelstoke some railroad bar menus will go all vegan.
    – Motorcycle clubs in Nanaimo will want tax free religious status
    – In Victoria tourists will be treated like illegal immigrants and sent to tourist camps.
    – In Nelson Yoga will be forced on you.
    – Kelowna the Football team will be sponsored by organic weed growers.

    It is important all who fear and don’t understand PR share this. With PR we just don’t know. No one knows. And Horgan doesn’t care about these fears he just ignores. And Eby just laughs. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend