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Citizens’ Assembly

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Why we might want it

Eighteen months ago one hundred and sixty of your fellow voters were randomly invited to join the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. The purpose of this Assembly was to examine the way we elect the Members of the Legislative Assembly, and if appropriate recommend a new electoral system. The Citizens' Assembly was unique. It was the first time anywhere that ordinary citizens were given the opportunity to design an electoral system.

The Assembly met throughout 2004. We first learned about the different ways citizens in other places elect their representatives and then listened to our fellow voters at fifty public hearings held throughout the province and through 1600 written submissions.

In the fall, with much study and debate, we developed a system especially suited to the unique character of our province. By a vote of 146 to 7, we recommended the BC Single Transferable Vote to the people of British Columbia. We see this as the next step in the evolution of our democracy. You have the opportunity to vote on our recommendation in the referendum on May 17.

If approved by the voters, the new electoral system will be used in the 2009 provincial election.

In December, one hundred and forty one of the Assembly members committed to work together, on a completely voluntary basis, to provide British Columbians with information about our recommendation. Since then the Citizens' Assembly Alumni have made hundreds of presentations in our communities. Unfortunately, as an unfunded group of volunteers we have not had the resources to reach everyone.

The decision we make in the May 17 referendum will have a significant impact on the way this province is governed for the foreseeable future. We feel strongly that STV is best for BC, and ask that you spend a little time considering this issue and vote in the referendum on May 17th.

Why STV, or single transferable vote, in B.C.? Well, if nothing else, it will give our politicians - and, thus, us - real, ongoing power.

Our current federal system is built on the false premise that the MP has power, whereas, unlike American congressmen and senators, he actually has no power to scrutinize the affairs of the administration. Without that, he's a political eunuch.

Against all the evidence, we think our MP takes his seat, makes policy and legislation, looks after the public purse. This is nonsense and he, like voters, knows better, but is in denial.

The system is phoney from the start. Candidates aren't selected on merit but by a railroading process that brings out as many supporters as possible, drunk or sober, Canadian citizens or not, to vote for someone they've never heard of.

Sometimes the candidate is pre-selected by the party leader. The successful candidate makes an obligatory platitudinous speech about all the wonderful things he will do and pledges that no matter what the pressure, he'll always put his constituency ahead of the party.

Momentarily flushed with success, he soon discovers that thereafter, democracy has nothing to do with his duties. He's part of the team and quickly learns his opinions are always trumped by official party policy.
Like Pinocchio, our hero's nose gets a bit longer each day. By the time he gets to Ottawa, the MP realizes his role is to do as he's told. If he doesn't go along with what the whips tell him, he will be ejected from caucus and lose all party support in elections to come.

It's the same provincially. Most MLAs, know they're political ciphers but can't bring themselves to admit it.

How does STV work into this? It's simple: The voter will have much more control.

First, let's deal with the notion that some people will, if they're in five-MLA ridings, have more say than those in a three-member constituency. If the basis is, say, 20,000 voters per MLA in a five-member riding, there will be 100,000 people; in a three-member riding, 60,000 - the number of voters per MLA will be the same. You only have one vote but it gives you the chance to select a second, third and so on choice.
As one who has twice run and won a seat in the B.C. legislature and seen how backbenchers are treated, I can assure you STV will take substantial power away from the party bosses. Multiple-seat ridings will force parties to nominate knowing that while they may be strong in one part of the riding, other parties and even independents are strong elsewhere.

Contests will be more between candidates than parties. Smaller parties will have a chance, as will well-known citizens running as independents. The party becomes servant of the voter, not vice versa.
The clincher, however, is that no longer will candidates win just because of party affiliation, and that will weaken the party leadership while enhancing MLA individuality. Policy will be subject to review by independent judgment of the MLA, not on the basis of what the leader wants, but his own obligations, always remembering he must go back to the riding at election time and be judged on his own record much more than that of his party. STV will be different but it will be better.

We shouldn't let fear of change block the opportunity for a much fairer system that gives citizens, through their MLAs, ongoing influence on our public affairs.

There will no doubt be coalitions and minority governments but so what? Isn't government by consensus better than one-party dictatorship?

This is an opportunity B.C. cannot afford to lose.

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