Proportional representation referendum a hot topic at Fort St. John Chamber meeting

BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson says his party will try to force an election before 2021 if a referendum on proportional representation wins the support of voters later this fall.

The upcoming referendum dominated Wilkinson's address to the Fort St. John Chamber of Commerce during a lunch meeting on Wednesday.

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B.C. residents will vote by mail in November on whether to keep the current first past the post system, or switch to some form of proportional representation. A move to proportional representation needs 51 per cent support for approval, and if approved would be put in place for the next election in 2021. An election held before then would fall under first past the post.

"If it passes, we will be doing everything we can to make sure there's an election before November of 2021 on the current system," Wilkinson said.

"We want to fight this fair and square. We'll take on the NDP any time, any place, and if the rules are fair."

The referendum is being held as part of a deal between the BC NDP and Green parties, which formed government in 2017.

The two parties say it will allow all voters to be heard and lead to better outcomes in a more co-operative government. Wilkinson says it will erode local representation in Northern B.C. and allow unstable minority governments to maintain power. 

The NDP and Greens currently hold 44 seats in the legislature while the Liberals hold 42 as the official opposition. 

Speaking after the luncheon, Wilkinson revealed little about how is party would force a confidence vote and subsequent election if the referendum is approved. 

"We have a couple of contacts on the NDP side who are very dissatisfied with how their government is going. We'll continue to talk to those folks over time to see what they have in mind," Wilkinson said.

"It's a hair trigger balance. Just one person has to change their mind and it would probably lead to an election."

If an election is held, and the Liberals regain power, Wilkinson said he would reconvene a citizen's assembly to study electoral reform. 

"There are variances in how we could vote within first past the post. But if we form government, we say all bets are off, go to our citizen's assembly, see what the questions will be."

Wilkinson poured cold water on a suggestion from an attendee about regions like the Northeast B.C. separating from the rest of the province if the referendum passes, calling it a "hand grenade question."

"This is the level of sentiment that this government has not anticipated," Wilkinson said.

"When I'm talking about this in Richmond or on Vancouver Island or in the Okanagan, I say, we do not need British Columbia to fractionate out into these tiny parties, which is what will happen.

"We don't need a Peace River separation party. We don't need an Asian-Canadian party. We don't need a Free Ferries party on Vancouver Island. It's our job to keep this place together and govern for the whole province." 

The referendum is currently being challenged in the courts by the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of British Columbia, which co-hosted the Chamber meeting. 

Ballots will be in the mail in the coming weeks and the referendum ends Nov. 30. Electoral reform referendums in 2005 and 2009 were not successful.

Two day visit

Wilkinson is wrapping up a two-day tour of the Peace Region. He was in Dawson Creek on Tuesday meeting with local leaders and party members, and touring the Louisiana Pacific Mill.

His tour in Fort St. John included a visit to Surerus Pipeline and the Site C dam. It ends this afternoon in Fort St. John with visits to the Salvation Army and Women's Resource Centre.

While many in the province are worried about the housing market, new taxes, and job insecurity, there's a sense of optimism and opportunity in the Northeast, Wilkinson said.

"This is a place where there's a real spirit that we need throughout British Columbia," Wilkinson said.

"You live here because the opportunity is here and it's up to all of us, as a society, to recognize the opportunity to make the most of it. This is spirit we need to carry across this province, that kind of 'can do' mentality." 

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahfsj.ca.

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