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Newsletter #15

15th September, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)

Deliberation Phase Underway

Members reconvened last weekend, September 11-12, to begin the difficult process of narrowing the options and ultimately coming to a recommendation on the best electoral system for British Columbia.  Here is a summary of the weekend.

September 11 - Saturday Session

Nine guest speakers made special presentations to B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform on Saturday at the Assembly’s meeting in Vancouver. 

In addition, several other British Columbians got an unexpected opportunity to get their views aired.  That happened when Assembly members listed some points they had noted in the more than 1,500 written submissions received from the public.

"Writers were serious, and many were passionate" Ray Jones told his fellow Assembly members at the public session. "And I found the level of discontent with almost all aspects of the current system to be rather surprising."

And he read out a few quotes:
• "The appeal of power tends to … draw to it those who are (a) least capable of handling it well, and (b) the easiest to corrupt." — Guy Duperreault, New Westminster.
• "MLAs have the clout of a wet noodle." — Troy Lanigan, Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Victoria.
• "The best I can hope for is that (my ballot) ends up in the recycle bin and not the garbage dump." — Jack Moss of Lantzville, quoting a citizen who spoke to him during a recall campaign.

Jones noted that many submissions expressed gratitude to the Assembly, among them:
• "I trust you implicitly to come up with the best possible options for us." — Mary E. Billy, Squamish.

The nine special speakers were invited, by a committee of members, from among the 387 people who made oral presentations at 50 public hearings of the Assembly in May and June. Their presentations included calls for B.C. to adopt a new way of translating votes in provincial elections into seats in the legislature as well as a defence of the current "First Past the Post" system. Those who recommended specific systems were grilled by members on the system's pluses and minuses.

Members may reach their final decision on the weekend of October 23-24. If they do recommend a change, it will be the subject of a referendum for all voters in the May 2005 provincial election. The provincial government says that if voters approve a change, it would go into effect for the 2009 B.C. election. If Assembly members opt to stay with the current system, then there would be no referendum.

The Citizens' Assembly is an independent, representative, non-partisan group of 160 randomly selected British Columbians, plus chair Jack Blaney. They have a deadline of December 15 to report to British Columbians on their decision, its implications, and their reasons. Then the Assembly will disband.

Details of the Assembly's schedule and work are at Also online are texts from the nine speakers on Saturday.

In the order in which they spoke, the nine speakers:

Ian McKinnon of Victoria urged Assembly members to consider how any potential change of electoral system would affect government and political parties. He also urged the Assembly to think about the consequences of repeated minority governments.

"The First Past the Post system tends to mean significant local independence in determining who will be the local candidate. . . . There is a tendency for looser central party control over the choice of candidates. . . . In contrast, list-based Proportional Representation systems tend to give more power to the central party apparatus. A mixed system . . . can also lead to power being exercised by a highly centralized party organization."

As for minority governments: "Recurring minority governments drive Canadians crazy."

Bruce Hallsor of Victoria said either a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system or the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system would best suit B.C. Under MMP, voters would vote for both their choice of local MLA and for a preferred party. In the end, each party's share of seats in the House would reflect (as closely as possible) its share of the popular vote. In STV, voters rank candidates in order of preference; ballots are then counted so that the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

"The over-arching principle is that every citizen's vote should count and should be treated equally with those of other voters across the province. Perfect proportionality may not always be possible, but we should get as close as reasonably possible to making every citizen's vote count … Using First Past the Post in the 21st Century is like using a hand-crank telephone rather than the internet. It was good in its day, but that century is long gone."

Tom Hoenisch of Naramata proposed the MMP system, but with the number of seats in the provincial legislature being reduced to 72 from the current 79. In his system, half the members would be elected in constituencies that coincide with the 36 federal ridings in B.C. The other 36 would come from party lists of candidates.

"We need this system so that the makeup of the legislature truly reflects the wishes of the electorate. . . The current system favours two large parties. It is as if we live in a black and white world. Well, only extremists believe that we live in a black and white world. . . .In fact, in a civil society that respects peoples' freedoms, public policy should reflect that vast grey area between the two extremes. . . . (Under MMP) the tyranny of the Left and of the Right will be broken."

Katherine Gordon of Gabriola Island also advocated MMP, as used in her native New Zealand. "Knowing that a system exists where no British Columbian voter ever has to feel that their vote is lost … surely is a compelling argument that the time has come to change that system."

Members asked her whether MMP, and the likelihood of it producing coalition governments, would reduce political squabbling. Her answer: "You will never take adversarial debate out of politics. But the level of debate (under MMP in New Zealand) has more integrity. There is less time for slanging matches." As for coalitions, she said: "Think of a rope. It is stronger than any of the strands that make it up."

Julian West of Ladysmith advocated a modified form of STV, with constituencies of as many as 5-7 members in urban areas, and 2-3 in remote areas. His electoral districts would be based strongly on existing Regional Districts and municipalities. He called for a system of "circuits" within electoral districts, so that each area and community is represented by an individual MLA.

"The question is: How do you make sure that each person elected represents the same number of voters? If this is the right question, then STV is the right answer."

Asked if voters could easily understand the STV system, West replied: "The counting system is complex; the voting system is not."

Nick Loenen of Richmond recommended a "Preferential Plus" system, with preferential voting in multi-seat ridings for urban areas and single-seat ridings for rural areas, thus producing semi-proportional representation. In preferential voting, voters rank candidates on the ballot in numerical order of the voter's preference; ballots are then counted so that the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

"This is my dream, that starting in 2009 in Victoria, we will have the essence of responsible government, and it will move east and permeate Ottawa, The greatest democratic deficit is not in Victoria; it is in Ottawa."

Loenen spoke of a second dream, too: "If we have a major accomplishment, it will be like England where (Prime Minister) Tony Blair had 137 members of his own party vote against his involvement in Iraq. Can you see that happening in Canada? If that were to happen in Canada, that would be wonderful."

Mayor Chris Morey of Fort Nelson said that representation by a local MLA is particularly important in remote and rural regions, and that any electoral system must ensure it continues. Some electoral systems would require larger constituencies, and Mayor Morey argued against bigger ridings.

"Increased ridings just don't work. Look at our health authority, the Northern Health Authority. You're looking at a region that looks after the health interests of one-third of the people of B.C. It is too large, too unwieldy. It does not address sub-regional issues as it should. . . . No discredit to the people who are directors of the health authority; it just doesn't work."

Arpal Dosanjh of Vancouver called for an Alternative Vote (AV) system. AV systems use preferential ballots where voters rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate gains a majority on the first count, the second preferences listed on the ballots of the least successful candidate are distributed among the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate has a majority. British Columbia used AV in 1952 and 1953.

"Such a move would be a safe option," Dosanjh said. "There is little risk at all in moving to this system (and) it does improve on our current system. . . .Other models may have great advantages, but also great disadvantages. . . . Since a winning candidate requires 50% support of those voting, the constituency may feel the elected candidate more legitimately represents the riding than a candidate elected with less than 50%, a common occurrence in the current system."

Jim Nielsen of Peachland, a former B.C. health minister under Social Credit, gave a ringing defence of the current single-member plurality (SMP) system, often known as First Past the Post.

"What is the perfect system of electing members to the B.C. legislature? Well, there isn't one. (But) citizens of our province have been choosing their representatives, for the most part, over 133 years by permitting the candidate with the greatest support in a riding to represent the residents."
What about the representation of minorities and minority views, Nielsen was asked. And he replied: "What is a minority? One person? Two people? . . . There are many ways of expressing minority opinions. It doesn't mean they have to be in the legislature. I've got a minority opinion. I'd dump the Queen. I'd sell the CBC. Why should I be in the legislature just because I have a minority opinion?"

What about the Green Party, asked one member. It got some 12% of the vote in the last B.C. election but no seats. Nielsen shot back: "Twelve per cent is not a winner. Somebody who has competed in the Olympics and has come in fourth 20 times is not a winner. Just because you have some candidates, and some people voted for you, does not mean you should be in the legislature."

Sunday Session
Proportional representation, local representation and voter choice were selected by B.C.’s Citizens’ Assembly members as their top three priorities in developing a recommendation for any new electoral system for the province.

In what they described as “lively debates,” Assembly members began the process of wrestling with the issues – a process that will ultimately result in a recommendation later this fall on whether to retain the current electoral system or opt for a new one.
Describing the discussions on values as beneficial, member Ray Spaxman, of West Vancouver, said, “We recognized that we need a lot more discussion before we can come to a conclusion.” 

Next Assembly Meetings
The Assembly will hold five more weekends of meetings this fall, including the next session on September 25-26.  All meeting take place at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, 580 W. Hastings St. 

The Assembly’s final report and recommendation must be in by December 15.  Jack Blaney confirmed Sunday that the Assembly office will close and staff will disband by December 31. 

Details of the fall meeting dates are on our website. So are summaries of the presentations made by groups and individuals at the 50 public hearings held in May and June.

All plenary sessions are open to the public, although seating is limited.  Saturday meetings usually run from 9am to 5pm with breaks.  Sunday sessions are usually held from 9am to 12:30pm.

British Columbians' Views Online
Over 1500 submissions to the Assembly are now posted on our website.

Decision-Making Critical Path

Over the summer, Assembly members revised and ultimately approved this decision-making process for coming to a recommendation by December. 

The Assembly has, tentatively, set out the following critical path for coming to a decision in the time allotted. 

September 11-12 meetings
Plenary presentations on electoral systems and things to consider in choosing an electoral system
Review of submissions
Prepare for key decisions: review upcoming choices in view of our priorities for BC and the values reflected in possible electoral systems

September 25-26 meetings
Make key decisions in choosing an electoral system for BC:
- Whether/how to accommodate local representation?
- Some measure of proportionality or non-proportional?
- If non-proportional, the current system or majority variation?
- If proportional, criteria for proportional component?
What ballot choices?
- Continue discussion on choosing an electoral system
- Implications for voters, parties and governments
- Identify possible and reasonable alternative electoral system(s)

October 16-17 meetings
Discuss details of potential alternative electoral system(s) – e.g., ballot design, thresholds, quotas, etc.
Decision: choose alternate electoral system to consider in relation to current system

October 23-24 meetings
Pin down the implications of an alternate system:
- How would this system work?
- What effects would it have on governments, parties and politics in BC?
- Possible unintended consequences
- Is it consistent with the mandate?
Review current system
Decision: current or new system?

November 13-14 meetings
If a new system:
- Details of implementation
- Rationale for recommendation
- Framing the referendum question
If no change:
- Rationale for recommendation
- Move to ‘other considerations’
Consideration of draft elements of Final Report

November 27-28 meetings
Assembly approval of CA Report to BC
Discussion and approval of ‘other considerations’
Complete outstanding matters

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