Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly: The Learning Phase

Academic journal article Canadian Parliamentary Review

British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly: The Learning Phase

Article excerpt

The need to revitalize democracy, including our electoral system, is very much on the agenda both federally and in the provinces and territories. A system that often results in massive disparities between votes received and seats won by a political party creates distortions that mock representative democracy. Elections across Canada awarding parties legislative control with less than a majority of the vote or with even less voter support than gained by an opposition party, have instigated this new round of thinking about electoral reform. On March 31st, 2004, the Law Reform Commission tabled its report and recommendations about national elections, and Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, and the Yukon are currently engaged in consultations, inquiries, commissions or special assemblies called to produce referenda of legislation addressed to electoral reform. The procedure in British Columbia is perhaps the most innovative since it confers all deliberative power on a randomly selected group of 160 citizens of the province. This truly daring experiment to transfer political power to "ordinary citizens" on a matter of such consequence is one that should be of interest not only to political analysts but to all those who are dissatisfied with the way our political institutions now affect their lives and who puzzle over their immutability.

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A major impetus to the formation of the BC Citizens' Assembly was the results of the last two provincial elections. In 1996, the Liberals, under the leadership of Gordon Campbell, received 42% of the vote to 39% for the New Democratic Party. The NDP narrowly retained power, however, winning 39 of 75 seats. The outcome was attributed to the plurality or 'first-past-the-post' electoral system which gives victory to the candidate who receives the most votes in a riding, irrespective of whether the total achieves a majority. The proportional discrepancy between votes and seats induced Mr. Campbell to pledge that should his party form the next government, he would initiate a Citizens' Assembly to consider electoral reform.

Indeed, the Liberal Party did win the 2001 election, although the outcome further underscored the need for electoral reform since the Liberals won 77 of 79 seats while receiving only 57% of the vote. Premier Campbell followed through on his pledge, appointing Gordon Gibson, a former leader of the BC Liberal Party, to write a draft Constitution of the proposed Citizens' Assembly. On December 23, 2002, Mr. Gibson submitted his report to the Attorney-General containing 36 recommendations spelling out the structure and mandate of the Assembly. The government took four months to consider the report and changed several of Gibson's recommendations mainly in the interest of greater representivity (158 instead of 79 representatives -two per riding) and random rather than peer-selection of delegates in order to avoid electioneering and politicizing of the Assembly.

On April 28, 2003, the Attorney-General, Geoff Plant, tabled in the legislature the Assembly's Terms of Reference and Duties of the Chair. The Assembly was then established by an Order-in-Council on April 30th with unanimous support from the BC Legislative Assembly. Jack Blaney, the former President of Simon Fraser University, was confirmed as Chair of the Assembly by Order-in-Council on May 16th, 2003. Over the next several months the rest of the staff was assembled. The key people were Leo Perra, an experienced post-secondary administrator and educator in the province, who was appointed Director of Operations, and Ken Carty, an academic expert in electoral politics, who was named Chief Research Officer. The $5.5 million in government funding, directed through the Office of the Attorney-General, was deemed sufficient to underwrite the experiment from start to finish.

The mandate of the Citizens' Assembly, is to "assess models for electing Members of the Legislative Assembly and issue a report recommending whether the current model for these elections should be retained or another model should be adopted. …

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