Forget the usual suspects. In B.C., regular folks are tackling electoral reform, writes PAUL WELLS.

January 26 2004


Forget the usual suspects. In B.C., regular folks are tackling electoral reform, writes PAUL WELLS.

January 26 2004


Forget the usual suspects. In B.C., regular folks are tackling electoral reform, writes PAUL WELLS.


IT’S SOMETIMES SAID that democracy makes it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things. It’s sometimes said that any one of us can make a difference. But be serious. How often do you see it happening?

Actually, it’s happening right now in British Columbia.

Onjan. 10 and 11, the face of change gathered in a downtown Vancouver conference

hall, and it could not more completely resemble the face of your neighbour, because that’s precisely what it is.

British Columbians are trying to fix the sort of quirks that benefitted Campbell (above)

The 160 members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform will spend most of the year trying to find an improvement on the way governments get elected in B.C. The group’s power is formidable. If a majority of the members decide next autumn that a new system should be implemented, their choice will be put to a referendum in the next provincial election in May 2005. Premier Gordon Campbell cannot stop that vote even if he wants to—

although his B.C. Liberals owe some of their overwhelming majority to the quirks of the current system.

But the citizens who have been entrusted with this power are not hand-picked academics, washed-up party hacks or well-connected friends of the regime. They were selected through a series of random draws: one man and one woman from each of B.C.’s 79 provincial ridings, plus two Aboriginal representatives who were added after random selection failed to turn up anyone from the First Nations.

One of these guardians of democratic reform is a dog-walker from North Vancouver. Another manages the sporting-goods department at the Kelowna Wal-Mart. There is a third-year student at the University of British Columbia and a man who operates a pet cemetery.

“The innovation is that non-elected citizens have the power to make this decision,” Jack Blaney, a former president of Simon Fraser University who is the assembly’s appointed chairman, said in an interview. “We are inventing a new social tool in democracy.”

To watch the citizen-reformers work on the first weekend of their long year was to witness a stirring rebuttal to the cynicism that

infests so much of Canadian politics and political journalism.

TO watch the citizenreformers work was to watch a stirring rebuttal to the cynicism that infests Canadian politics

The participants listened keenly as Ken Carty, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, began the long process of explaining how other countries elect their leaders. They discussed the options at length in smaller breakout sessions. The dominant attitudes were mutual respect and a willingness to question their own assumptions.

“I’ve never seen such enthusiasm and knowledge from a group of people that they’re doing something novel and useful,” Ken McKinnon, the chancellor of Yukon College, said near the end of the assembly’s first day.

McKinnon’s presence in Vancouver is another part of this story. Because, while the power of ordinary people in the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly is unique, serious electoral reform is being considered in more than half of the country. The governments of Ontario and Quebec have started looking into electoral reform. McKinnon was in Vancouver to take notes as the Yukon’s senior adviser on electoral reform. New Brunswick also sent an observer because Bernard Lord, the

province’s premier, has created his own commission on reform of elections and the legislature. Last month, Norman Carruthers, Prince Edward Island’s retired chief justice, submitted a report recommending a dose of proportionality so smaller parties will no longer be swamped by winning parties in elections.

Only a few years ago, electoral reform was a dead issue, cherished by opposition parties but dismissed by the parties that benefit from the current system and were, human nature being what it is, loath to abandon that edge. What changed? “Well, we have evolved our electoral practices over time,” said Bill Cross, research director for New Brunswick’s Commission on Legislative Democracy. “Just look at the franchise, right? I mean, women couldn’t vote. Up until the 1960s, Native Canadians couldn’t vote. We lowered the voting age in the 1970s.”

Recent events have led many Canadians to suspect the system is due for another mighty tweak. “What’s happening at the

federal level, with Paul Martin talking about the democratic deficit, got people’s attention,” Cross said. “The decline in turnout is a substantial ingredient. In New Brunswick we’ve gone down more than 10 points in recent elections.” And the growing legions of non-voters, Cross said, are disproportionately young. “That’s a real concern.”

WE have evolved our electoral process over time. Just look at the franchise. We lowered the voting age in the 1970s.’

There is no guarantee the various reform movements will reach the same conclusion. In fact, it’s far likelier they’ll disagree. That’s fine, Cross said. “I think it’s a great opportunity federalism provides: that you can have different experiments, if you will, and we can try different systems.”

Deciding how to fix British Columbia’s system, or whether to—B.C. assembly members spent part of their first weekend reminding themselves they don’t have to recommend a change if they can’t find a single better way—begins with a steep learning curve. The citizen-reformers will spend a total of six weekends listening to Carty and experts from abroad tell them about other systems.

These include proportional representation, in which a party that wins 20 per cent of the vote gets 20 per cent of a legislature’s seats; France’s two-round voting system, in which the top two or three candidates face a second “runoff” election; and all manner of lists, “transferable votes” and mix-andmatch compromises.

Carty calls it the most challenging course he’s ever given because his audience is so diverse and he is so leery of herding them toward any preferred outcome. “We’ve got people here who are keenly interested in politics—and people who really aren’t sure what the legislature is,” he said. “How do you talk to those people without talking down or being simplistic?”

As for the challenge of teaching without imposing, Carty’s answer is to spend much of his time simply asking questions. Is it necessary for a member of a legislature to represent a specific chunk of territory any more? What

do you gain in fairness through a proportional system, and what do you lose in government stability by abandoning the rules most Canadians are used to?

Every political junkie has favourite answers to questions like this,

but anyone would have been impressed with the assembly participants’ willingness to question any system’s assumptions. Harley Nyen, the Wal-Mart employee from Kelowna, belonged to a breakout group whose members come from the far corners of British Columbia and are convinced they can only be represented by somebody from the local community. He reported back to his colleagues that he was amazed to hear from another group whose members are mostly Vancouverites—and who don’t think “regional representivity” is important at all.

The citizen-reformers greeted every such contradiction, not as an insult but as a challenge and an opportunity. “I thought I was one of those strange individuals who thought politics and our electoral system were important, right?” Nyen said. “But 159 other people are proving me wrong. Maybe I’m not wasting my time, you know? ” lifl