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Opening speech by Jack Blaney, chair, at the Assembly's first meeting, January 10, 2004


[Photo by Assembly member Doug Waller]

My fellow Assembly members: In the words of two of our guests, this is a "rare and precious moment" and we "carry the hopes and expectations of many". My comments to you are organized around three points:

1. Starting today we have an incredible and unique opportunity, and an equally incredible and unique responsibility.

To our knowledge, nowhere, at any time in a democracy, has a government asked non-elected citizens to undertake such a commitment, and then give those same citizens such potential power over an important public policy question.

This day indeed is historic and we — all of us here — are all part of that history. Now, isn’t that just absolutely wonderful?

This Assembly is historic not because we will review and make a decision regarding our electoral system. Many governments have reviewed and sometimes have changed their voting system. At least four other provinces, and the Law Commission of Canada, are now reviewing electoral systems.

What makes this Assembly unique, and what makes it historic, is the process by which we will review this important public policy issue. It is true that our eventual recommendation, whether to change the voting system or not, will be an important one. Of much greater importance, however, is how well we manage the process — how well all of us learn to work together. Whether such an assembly is ever again assembled will have very little to do with the actual decision we make, and almost everything to do with how well we learn to work together in making that decision.

2. The Assembly is its Members, and the Assembly’s success will be what its Members learn.

Learning together is the essence of our task.

Throughout history most of the really significant and beneficial social initiatives had their birth in adults coming together to learn and then act — sometimes to protest, sometimes to celebrate, sometimes to invent new ways of doing things, sometimes to strengthen institutions and build better communities.

In the past 100 years of North American society, perhaps the most significant and largest example of the power and impact of adult learning was the thousands of American and Canadian veterans returning or going to university following World War II.

Prior to World War II, universities largely were for the privileged few. Our university populations then exploded; many quadrupled overnight. Most economists will agree that no social investment returned such large economic and social benefits. The huge productivity gains in North America through the ‘50s to ‘70s, and indeed the foundation of our technology transformation, are very much a product of that vast and intensive investment in adult learning.

Now this Assembly, of course, is an invention on a much, much more modest scale. But, on a proportional basis, B.C.’s investment in this Assembly, especially in the capacity and the will of its members to learn, could be no less significant in its impact, and no less a model of the power of adult learning. As both Margaret Mead and Michael Moore observed (each generation can take their choice of author), it is absolutely amazing what can be accomplished when adults come together in dialogue.

We will learn about different voting systems, and the effects of those differences on the political process and on how governments operate; we will learn from our fellow citizens around the province what they think about different voting systems; we will learn from each other’s experiences and values; and we will learn how to work together, that is, we will learn how to make this Assembly a success.

If the government simply wanted to know where the people of B.C. stood on the matter of electoral reform, they could have taken a poll —a snapshot of current views. But they wanted something quite substantially different.

The government wanted to know what a representative group of citizens would say about our electoral system after they have learned about different systems; after they have worked through their ideas with others; after they have learned how their values and the values of others are fundamental to any opinions on this issue; and after considerable dialogue and deliberation. The government wanted to know what informed, thoughtful citizens would recommend, especially after months of listening and dialogue.

Thus, this enterprise in which we are engaged is all about the power and the importance of learning.

3. It is through the powerful tool of dialogue that we will learn and demonstrate the success of the Assembly.

If we really felt that we have nothing to learn from one another, or if the decision to be made could be best made by individuals, without dialogue with others, we could simply take a vote now, go home, and save a lot of money and time.

But we are here because we have made a commitment to engage in a process which is substantially more constructive, and substantially more creative, than old-style win-lose debate, and old-style win-lose voting.

We are here to invent a new way to engage citizens in the practice of democracy. Of course we will challenge ideas, but we will do so within the context of dialogue — where all are equal, where individuals will for some time suspend judgement, where different views are respected, and where individuals will focus on understanding different values. We will listen to understand. We will ensure that others have the same space and time to speak as we do. And our work will not be about winning, but about exploring common ground.

In the fall, we will make decisions — perhaps by consensus. Indeed, our mandate is to do so. And we will do so in a way that will listen very carefully to all opinions. Indeed, we will attempt to build agreements that, to the fullest possible extent, reflect what the largest number of members are feeling and saying. And, in the fall, when agreements will be reached, those who may not see their views in the decision itself, will know, with confidence, that they contributed substantially to the most important product — the process by which decisions were reached.

In a true democracy, and certainly in our Assembly’s democratic process, all voices will be heard; all voices understood.

Dialogue is best when it creates feelings of equality, cooperation and trust. And the better our dialogue, the greater the likelihood that our decisions will be judged as fair, because the process we used to make those decisions will be seen as fair. Many years ago the great philosopher, John Dewey, concluded that, in a democracy, how one comes to a decision is fundamentally far more important than the decision itself.

In our Assembly, we will respect minority viewpoints; we will listen to all voices and modify ideas to be as inclusive as possible, so that our decisions will be seen as fair. This is so very important because what we are about to invent is a citizens’ assembly with not only the potential to alter a particular public policy but, more importantly, the power to prove the effectiveness of a new tool in the practice of democracy. This indeed is an incredible opportunity, and an incredible responsibility. Through working well together — learning together — we will invent a new social tool in the practice of democracy. And we will all share the pride, the honour, and the joy of that invention.

So my fellow Members, and my wonderful colleagues, this is, for all of us, the opportunity of a lifetime!
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