Thanks to a strange accident of circumstances in which Gordon Campbell won popular support but lost the election in 1996, then nearly wiped out the New Democrats in 2001 with only fifty seven per cent of the popular vote, he kept a promise made in opposition (one of the few he has ever kept), and proposed to make a change to our electoral system.
Dr Jack Blaney, the founder of Simon Fraser, was given the task of heading up a team to assemble an accurate sample of British Columbians and figure out what they wanted in an electoral system.
Mr. Blaney went about this in much the same way that a jury is assembled; thousands of random invitations were sent out across the province. They included every demographic from the unemployed to the wealthy. These were whittled down to a cross-section of 150 British Columbians who had enough time to become the Citizens Assembly (CA) - us, effectively.
These folks were given the equivalent of a third year political science course about the various systems used in the democracies of the world. They were then charged with finding or creating an electoral system that would represent the actual voting patterns of the electorate - one that would stop the wild swings of policy that are so characteristic of BC politics. Then, after an extensive series of hearings with the provincial electorate, the CA was charged with presenting an electoral system that would work for BC.
It took them the better part of a year.
I had the pleasure of attending a conference on Proportional Representation in January and found the spirit of the Citizens Assembly still alive. There were doctors and unemployed forest workers. There were federal conservative business men huddled with socialist university students, and single mothers worried about how to hear a speech at a dinner they couldn’t afford to attend who were allowed to slip in anyway. Most were self-educated and all committed to the common cause of understanding the challenges and seeing this thing done in May.
The Citizens Assembly process has made these “average British Columbians” into astoundingly composed and articulate orators. There is nary an “um” between them and they respond thoughtfully and respectfully after having obviously listened carefully. They have committed themselves years beyond their mandate and have continued a public education process for almost ten years now. If the process is not what has made these folks into above average citizens then I am incredibly impressed with the “average Canadian”.
I think that Campbell was somewhat taken aback at the success of this little cast-off initiative, buried in rush legislation, brought forward early in a practically unopposed Liberal regime. In a most uncharacteristic move on the part of the Liberals, the initiative mandated that the Citizens Assembly recommendation would go straight to referendum in the 2005 election without government intervention.
Fifty-eight point eight per cent voted to adopt the recommendation. Although this was the same level of popularity that in the previous election produced a 77 to 2 Liberal win, it was not considered sufficient to allow the referendum to succeed.
Although it failed to achieve the 60 per cent it required to pass, Campbell decided to give the referendum another chance – although he did make some changes - the most significant of which is the removal of the requirement for implementation if the referendum is successful.
The public will be given another chance to vote on this referendum in the May 12 2009 election.
It will be, without doubt, this or any other reform’s last chance in any of our lifetimes as the current First Past The Post system is the one that the large parties use to maintain power. There is no incentive for them to introduce change to a system that transfers that power to the constituent.
The outcome in BC may heavily affect outcomes of reformation attempts at the federal level as a torch carried high in BC will give courage to those trying to bring reasonable representation to the situation in Ottawa.
On March 17, at 7 pm at the Community Hall on South Road, the Gabriola Island Rate Payers are hosting a public meeting and panel presentation about the “Single Transferable Vote” (STV) referendum. We will discuss the referendum question on whether or not British Columbians want to go to an STV voting system in future provincial elections.
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