A creative experiment in democracy on Canada’s west coast
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, January 17, 2004

In yet another attempt to address yet another democratic deficit, the British Columbia government has convened its independent, non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

With unanimous assent in the B.C. legislature, Premier Gordon Campbell made good on a campaign promise by randomly selecting 100 women and 100 men from the voters’ list of each electoral district and inviting them to consider serving as members of the assembly. From those who responded, the name of one man and one woman in each district was pulled from a hat — 158 in all, plus two aboriginals.Last weekend’s assembly discussed politics in British Columbia and set criteria for evaluating electoral systems. On the weekend of Jan. 24, it will learn about elections and parliamentary government. By the end of March, after five such weekend assemblies, it will have learned about B.C.’s first-past-the-post electoral system — a system it shares with the U.S., the U.K., India and the rest of Canada. It will also learn about other electoral systems around the world. In May and June, some 40 open hearings will take place throughout the province and submissions from the public will be accepted. By December, the assembly will decide whether B.C.’s current electoral system should be changed. If so, it will recommend a new system and draft a referendum question for the May 2005 provincial election.

British Columbians are justifiably proud of their assembly. Though 159 randomly selected “ordinary’’ Canadians had a voice in the conferences leading to the Charlottetown Accord, no assembly has been convened with such diligence and scrupulous impartiality, or with so much power accorded it. A focus group this is not. Stacked with politicos and other agenda wielding types, it is not. And, unlike the Charlottetown Conferences which attempted an arcane gamut of constitutional reforms and ended with a dog’s breakfast of recommendations, this assembly is dealing with only one issue. Even so, it has a lot of work to do on an issue for which few obvious answers exist.

Politicians like to point to perceived inequities in electoral systems that prevent them from winning elections. This certainly was the case in 1996 when the B.C. Liberal party won the popular vote while the NDP gained the majority of seats and the right to govern.Academics and analysts also discuss electoral reform as a possible remedy for voter apathy.

Larry Gordon’s paper, “Citizen Engagement in Voting System Reform,” written in 2002 for the Law Society of Canada, cites the 2000 federal election in which 39 per cent of registered voters, or 8.25 million Canadians, did not participate. “While many Western democracies have experienced declining voter turnout in recent years, Canada’s participation level is abysmal,” Gordon laments. “Canada ranks 77th in voter turnout among all democracies.”

Declining voter turnout is just one problem ostensibly caused by Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. “Surveys indicate Canadians have lost faith in many of the institutions that are central to representative democracy,” Gordon says. Voter confidence in the House of Commons, for instance, dropped from 49 per cent in 1974 to 24 per cent in 2001. Confidence in political parties declined even more precipitously.

Many influential and concerned Canadians will be watching as the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform completes its deliberations. Can it answer the conundrum of dealing with voters’ votes more equitably and in turn motivate more voters to vote? Is one the answer to the other? Might this process be useful on other issues? As with electoral reform, governments have a conflict of interest in making decisions on salaries and pensions, setting ethical guidelines and amending the Constitution — issues over which they regularly incur public cynicism.

Civic education and citizen engagement are clearly one linchpin in democratic revitalization, Larry Gordon concludes. “By engaging in the process, citizens can help build and reinforce a politics of hope, trust, co-operation and citizen empowerment.” Whether or not electoral reform is the panacea everyone hopes, the creation of the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly is an important step towards the realization of these new politics.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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