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  • Dave Helleer
    Here is a fascinating look at the British Columbia referendum from an Australian journalist. Note the part about the United States ... let s all keep our
    Message 1 of 1 , May 15, 2005
      Here is a fascinating look at the British Columbia referendum from an
      Australian journalist. Note the part about the United States ...
      let's all
      keep our fingers crossed.

      Bob Richard



      Canada's new voting system

      Published 9 May 2005

      An anonymous psephologist with a keen interest in voting systems

      Most political wonks who are thinking internationally are focussed on
      the UK election result means for Tony Blair. But they may have missed
      bigger story. Next week the Canadian province of British Columbia
      holds an election. The result is of interest only to the most
      passionate psephologists or followers of a political party. But at
      the same time, a referendum will be held on dropping the First-Past-
      the-Post system BC uses and replacing it with a variation of the Hare-
      Clark system, which is similar to that used in Tasmania. This might
      not sound important, but there are a couple of things that could make
      it matter intensely.

      The first is that a number of other Canadian Provinces are also
      considering changing their electoral system, and some already have
      the dates of their referenda set. A win in the west could start a
      domino effect, eventually resulting in most provinces, and the
      Canadian national government, changing to proportional epresentation.
      And if that still doesn't excite you consider that there is a bit of
      a push on in the US to introduce more proportional, or at least
      preferential, voting. At the moment it's pretty weak, but the few
      states that really are taking it seriously mostly border on Canada.
      Victory in Canada could be enough to get a handful of US states
      to follow, eventually being just what PR needs to start a (very slow)
      entry into the heartland of the hyperpower.

      But the thing that interests me even more is the way that the
      referendum came about. A couple of farcical election results (the
      current BC parliament has 77 government MPs to 2 lonely opponents)
      sowed the seed for change, but there is an obvious problem here. When
      discussing electoral reform, if every MP with a conflict of interest
      left the room you'd have an empty chamber. Independent inquiries are
      all very well, but often end up being made up of a bunch of retired
      pollies, who may not be much better. So the BC government did
      something really radical – they trusted the people. Not by handing
      them a referendum most people couldn't understand, but by setting up
      a "Citizen's Assembly". 160 people were selected off the electoral
      roll at random. There is no evidence that any of them had even
      thought about the issue before, let alone held a formed opinion, but
      for 11 months they read submissions, quizzed experts and discussed.

      In the end an overwhelming majority agreed that the electoral system
      should change, that the change should be to what they call BC-STV
      (basically Hare-Clark but with electorates of varying populations and
      numbers of MPs)and a referendum giving final choice to the voters.
      The whole process restores one's faith in the wisdom of the
      population. In discussing their conclusions the assembly members get
      to the heart of what democracy should be about, and they weighed up
      which system will best provide this. What's more, they communicated
      their decision in clear and moving prose of the kind that is now an
      endangered species in Australian political discourse. It's easy to
      get depressed about the state of politics in Australia and around
      the world, but the Citizens' Assembly indicates a way out. Don't
      leave it to a bunch of self-interested megalomaniacs. Don't go for
      citizen's initiated referenda – which only work if the population
      pays attention and sees through the expensive campaigns of special
      interest groups. Instead, take a random sample of ordinary people and
      give them access to everyone's views,and the time for proper

      It's tempting to suggest abolishing parliament outright and replacing
      it with a randomly selected group, but I doubt this would work. For
      one thing how long would be the terms? Too short and they don't have
      time to get their head around a lot of issues, too long and they end
      up just like the mob we have. What is more, many people wouldn't be
      willing to leave their lives behind to do nothing but legislate for
      years, so the group that accepted would hardly be typical. But that's
      all unnecessary. If every year a handful of issues were farmed out to
      assemblies like this one, one issue per assembly, it would be a job
      that could be done at a few hours a week. For a small honorarium most
      people would do this, and while their decisions might have no legal
      weight, it would be a brave parliament that rejected them. In fact
      the quality of decision making even on issues that didn't go to an
      assembly would probably rise – parliament would be shamed out of some
      of their more outrageous decisions if the assemblies regularly put
      out reports as thoughtful as this one. And once the tradition started
      of setting up Citizen's Assemblies to deal with really tricky issues
      any government that tried to stop would find itself in trouble at the
      next election.

      It may all come undone. The major flaw in the BC process seems to
      have been the post recommendation publicity. An opinion poll taken a
      few months before the referendum showed that most people were still
      confused about the whole thing, and quite a lot didn't even know it
      was on. It seems that neither the for nor the against forces had done
      a very job of communicating their case. It's hard to get the full
      picture over the internet and from a few travellers' tales, but it
      seems that the situation hadn't changed that much even recently.

      The ballot may be decided not on the merits of the argument, but on
      which side gets its act together first to run a strong campaign. If
      the referendum goes down, it may take with it not only the specifics
      of BC-STV, but also the whole idea of using Citizens' Assemblies. At
      least one other province has copied the idea, but some others are
      going to referenda with forms of PR invented by the relevant
      minister, with barely a hint of consultation. A no vote in the
      referendum will be a footnote in history.Yes might just herald a
      new era for democracy in the English-speaking world.

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