British Columbia's Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform

British Columbia is a Canadian province. In 2001 they set up a Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform where citizen's were chosen by sortition to put forward a recommendation for which electoral system voters should judge in referendum.

South Sea Republic has covered sortition methods in articles before. One article titled; Tapping the Wisdom of the People included a discussion of Nicholas Gruen's idea for a citizen's chamber. So how did the sortitionists in British Columbia do?

Campbell Sharman has an article; Citizens' Assemblies and Parliamentary Reform in Canada [pdf] on the Australian Parliament House website from March 2006 which discusses this event.

British Columbia is a Canadian province with a unicameral parliament and a first past the post [FPTP] electoral system. In single member districts a a FPTP system can accentuate swings against the government. The downside is that members can be elected without a true majority. Another problem is that it punishes minor parties, keeping them from any representation in parliament. This can focus the special interests of major parties and hinder parliament from being truly representative of the community which elects them.

The circumstances which precipitated the formation of the Citizen's Assembly was the 1996 elections. The New Democratic Party was elected with a majority of seats, despite not having a majority in the popular vote. At the end of their five year term they were in disarray from allegations of corruption and poor governance. In the 2001 election the New Democrats won just two seats, with the Liberals winning seventy-seven!

Apparently Gordon Campbell, the Liberal leader, went forward with the Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform despite reservations from his cabinet.

How Were They Chosen

Sharman writes;

First, invitations were sent to a randomly selected, age stratified, panel of electors from the electoral role in each district inviting them to attend a meeting in that district.

At the meeting, there was a presentation by Citizens' Assembly staff explaining that members of the Assembly would have to be willing to spend 12 weekends in the coming year (2004) and travel to Vancouver for each meeting (expenses would be paid by the Assembly).

At the end of the meeting, those who were willing to make such a commitment had their names put in a hat, and one man and one woman were selected. This process was repeated for all 79 electoral districts in the province.

So citizens that were chosen by sortition were given the chance to opt-out if they wanted to. The Assembly met over several weekends learning about the electoral system and the political process. They also attended several public hearings with the final six weekends spent deliberating over whether British-Columbia needed a new electoral system.

The knee-jerk reaction to average citizens doing what is seen as a professional's job - ie politicians - is usually "people are dumb". Yet everyday of the year people over-achieve, with their families, in their jobs, in the economy, culturally and socially. An individual is a ball of achievement waiting for new opportunities to excel.

Sharman writes on the media response to the Citizen's Assembly;

The news media were initially sceptical about the ability of 'ordinary people' to become familiar with the complexities of electoral rules and their parliamentary consequences but, as the Assembly's meetings progressed, the tone of media reporting moved from mild condescension to admiration both for the substance and the tone of the Assembly's discussions.

The faith in 'ordinary people' being able to make decisions on complex political issues had been overwhelmingly endorsed. The public goodwill towards the Citizens' Assembly process was perhaps its most important achievement.

So what did the Citizen's Assembly come up with? They decided a proportional system similar to the Tasmanian and ACT systems offered the best outcome. They also decided that keeping a member close to its electorate as more important over a majority party government. Unsurprisingly political parties see it the other way around.

In Australia the only altruistic electoral change was Steele Hall in South Australia who removed malapportionment from the electorate even though he knew it would cost him his government. He did it anyway.

Most of the electoral changes to secure permanent majorities in Australia have back-fired anyway. The biggest clanger was Chifley changing the Senate from winner takes all to proportional. Since then Labor has never had a majority in the Senate. That change also led to the rise of the Australian Democrats giving them in a niche in Australian politics for a quarter of a century.

So what did the British-Columbian politicians think of the Citizen Assembly's recommendation. Sharman writes;

The Assembly's recommendation of PR-STV [a variant of proportional representation by the single transferable vote] had been signalled during the final weeks of the Assembly's deliberations, but the recommendation still came as a shock to many of the political class.

For parliamentarians and established political parties it represented at best a major challenge to the existing pattern of electoral and parliamentary politics and at worst a threat to the influence of the major parties.

Some groups which favoured electoral reform
were not happy with the Assembly's commitment to PR-STV. The electoral system of choice for several of these groups was MMP [mixed member proportional - like NZ], and the rejection of this system by the Citizens' Assembly undid the image of MMP as the perfect electoral system and the unquestioned choice for reform minded people.

Even the Greens, who had much to gain from a proportional electoral system, were divided over the virtues of PR-STV; several of those in executive positions in the party liked the idea of MMP with closed party lists as a way of ensuring a socially diverse slate of candidates.

The electoral system still had to pass a referendum which required 60% of all British Columbians as well as 60% in each district. There were no funds put toward the yes or no campaign and the without anyone campaigning for electoral change the issue was swamped in the day-to-day party politics as the Liberals and New Democrats positioned themselves to try and take government.

The in the end all but two districts got the required 60%, but throughout the whole province the number who voted for the referendum was 58%. It was two percent short. Sharman writes;

This result was remarkable. Even though the referendum did not fulfil the requirements for acceptance, a substantial majority of the electorate had voted for electoral change in spite of an almost complete lack of organized campaigning.

One of the surprises to come from the aftermath was that many voters, despite not understanding the complexity of the PR-STV system, trusted the Citizen's Assembly because it was randomly drawn from the citizenry and voted for the referendum.


cam 2006-04-20 11:32:38.0