Waters: Kelowna West byelection was a pricey exercise in democracy

Taxpayers shelled out $565,000 because its former MLA didn’t want to stick around in opposition

What if you spent a lot of money on a party and only a few people showed up?

That’s what happened to Elections B.C. back on Valentine’s Day when it held the Kelowna West byelection.

According to the newly released official report on the byelection by Elections B.C, taxpayers spent more than half a million dollars—$565,538 to be precise—to hold the vote and less than a third of eligible voters—14,972—showed up to cast ballots.

Former Liberal MLA Ben Stewart won in a landslide, taking more than 56 per cent of the vote.

But it cost him a pretty penny. Elections B.C. says he spent $87,790 to win back the job he gave up in 2013 to let his then boss, former premier Christy Clark, seek the riding after she lost her Vancouver seat in the provincial election that year. His closest spending rival in the race, B.C. Green Robert Shupka shelled out just under $55,000 but finished a distant third. NDP candidate Shelley Cook finished second and spent just over $49,000.

The report is timely given the current debate over how the province should elect its MLAs in the future.

Stewart won back his old seat under what’s known as the “first-past-the-post” system. Under that system, each riding holds an individual election during a larger provincial general election and the candidate with the most votes in that riding wins the seat. The party with most seats gets to form the government—or in the case of a minority government, can do a deal with another party to win its support to keep it in power.

Fall’s referendum on proportional representation in B.C., if successful, would change that. MLAs would be “proportioned”—in some cases appointed—based on the total number of votes the party he or she represents gains across B.C. provincial vote. Such a move could directly affect political representation in individual ridings.

A proportional representation system could give smaller parties the potential of having more influence given coalition or minority governments are almost guaranteed. Depending on who you talk to, that would be a good or bad thing. Supporters say it would provide more diverse views. Opponents fear it could give extremist more power.

The Kelowna West byelection report simply counted the cost of Clark’s decision to bolt rather than lead a Liberal Opposition after her government was ousted by the NDP and B.C. Green Party in a vote of non-confidence in the legislature shortly after May’s provincial vote.

After publicly stating she would stay on and represent the constituents of Kelowna West who re-elected her in the May vote, she abruptly quit, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill to elect her replacement.

Meanwhile, the cost of Clark’s parting gift to B.C. taxpayers may become ammunition in the battle over how we elect MLAs in future. Under an alternative system, an MLA could still quit, but if there was more than one MLA representing a riding, it would not leave the constituents without political representation in Victoria for the nearly six months it took to replace Clark.

The formal campaigns leading to the PR referendum are expected to start in the next few weeks.

Alistair Waters is the assistant editor of the Capital News.

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