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Update on British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly

The final Citizens’ Assembly public hearing was held June 24th in Kelowna, British Columbia (Canada). During the 50 hearings that have been held across B.C., a total of 387 people made oral presentations, and many more members of the public made informal presentations, offered recommendations and comments, and asked questions at the sessions. More than 2,700 members of the public attended hearings. The 160-member Assembly is currently wrapping up six months dedicated to investigating electoral options and British Columbians’ views on them, and will make its final report and disband in December. Click below to read the full announcement and press release.

CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY NEWSLETTER – JUNE 30, 2004

PUBLIC HEARINGS

The final Citizens’ Assembly public hearing was held June 24th in Kelowna. During the 50 hearings, a total of 387 people made oral presentations, and many more members of the public made informal presentations, offered recommendations and comments, and asked questions at the sessions.

More than 2,700 members of the public attended hearings – including 50 in Smithers on the same night as the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs!

Summaries of all presentations are on our website at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/extra/presentationsummaries.xml

CALLS FOR CHANGE

The most commonly heard call for change was for some form of proportional representation (PR), in which the seats won in the legislature would more closely reflect the parties’ share of the popular vote, either across BC as a whole or in regions.

Many who favoured PR, called for a form of mixed member proportional
(MMP) representation. In MMP, some MLAs would be elected from geographical constituencies, while others would be selected from pre-published “party lists” of candidate names, to achieve the goal of seat-shares reflecting vote-shares.

While many presenters and speakers supported the principle of PR, there were often calls for restrictive “thresholds”, ranging from 2 to 10 per cent of the vote. A party would be required to achieve the threshold level of the popular vote before being granted “list” seats. While thresholds limit proportionality, proponents argue that they exclude fringe parties.

Members also heard a number of detailed proposals for achieving PR through the use of the single transferable vote (STV), in which voters use the preferential ballots to rank their choice of candidates.

Some tempered calls for PR systems with pleas that already large rural ridings not be further expanded to accommodate a new electoral system. Rural speakers in particular often added that having an identifiable “local” MLA is important to them.

Non-proportional electoral systems also received support. Some presenters advocated forms of the majority system in which MLAs must be elected by over 50 per cent of their constituents. The 50 per cent majority is achieved either using the preferential ballot (also called the alternative vote) or run-off elections.

In addition, there were proposals for ‘none of the above’ options on ballots, yes-no votes, and more.

SUPPORT FOR STATUS QUO

Assembly members anticipated that, by the very nature of the exercise, advocates of change at hearings would outnumber those proposing BC retain its current first past the post (FPTP) electoral process.

However, a number of presenters and audience members did speak in favour of retaining the current plurality system. Many pointed to what they saw as failures of PR systems, including minority and coalition governments that they described as unstable, ineffective and costly.

Pro-PR presenters, however, proposed that minority and coalition governments would change politics for the better. They contended that changing to PR systems would improve cooperation, harmony and consensus-making in the legislature. And many saw MMP systems as likely to improve representation of under-represented groups and interests, and to improve voter turnout.

CRITIQUE OF BC POLITICS

Many speakers took the opportunity at public hearings to also criticize various aspects of BC politics.

They decried such things as party discipline and control over MLAs, campaign financing, adversarial party politics, adversarial behaviour in the legislature, the under-representation of women and minority groups, the role of political parties, broken political promises, and the systems parties use to nominate election candidates.

Some called for the voting age to be lowered, in the hopes of engaging young people. A handful argued for voting to be made compulsory, with a fine for evasion; a few proposed, instead, that turnout be encouraged by giving voters tax credits.

Some called for direct popular election of the premier and/or cabinet ministers, or election of these officials by the legislature as a whole, and some proposed weighted votes for MLAs in the legislature. Some called for limited terms of office for MLAs, and some for mid-term elections. A few called for BC to have a second chamber or senate. A handful called for random selection of MLAs.

Many of these issues are outside the mandate of the Citizens’ Assembly.

THE ASSEMBLY AND THE FUTURE

Many speakers praised the Assembly and its work, and expressed confidence in the members. But some were concerned with the limited mandate of the Assembly: translating votes into seats in the legislature. 

And many expressed concern about what happens in December after the Assembly makes its final report and is disbanded.

– If the Assembly does recommend change, what would happen between then and the resulting referendum on May 17, 2005?
– Would there be a public education program?
– What would a referendum question look like?
– Could the Assembly’s recommendation succeed with 60% voter support required in a referendum?

Assembly members are contemplating these concerns as well.

NEWS RELEASE: JUNE 27

The following is excerpted from the news release issued following the Assembly’s meetings in Prince George the weekend of June 26-27.

ASSEMBLY EYES OCTOBER DECISION

Members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform were urged Sunday to think about a late-October target date for reaching a decision on whether they think BC should have a new electoral system.

Meeting in Prince George, the 160-member Assembly wrapped up six months dedicated to investigating electoral options and British Columbians’ views on them.

They also voted to keep open to the public and the news media all plenary meetings in their deliberations to be held in Vancouver in September, October and November.

“We’ll need to focus,” advised Assembly chair Jack Blaney. “If we are going to recommend a change, we should know that by Weekend Four (October 23-24) so that we can then begin working on the wording of a referendum question.”

Assembly members now face a summer of reading – our website now boasts over 700 submissions (with 200 or so yet to be processed) and summaries of 387 presentations.

The Assembly set a date of August 13 for receiving further written submissions. Submissions received before then will be processed and available to members before they begin deliberations in September. Submissions received after this date will be processed but members do not guarantee they will be reviewed by the fall.

When members get together again September 11, they’ll begin with a day of presentations to the full Assembly by a number of groups and individuals. Then members will begin to wrestle with such questions as:

– What values ought to underpin our electoral system?
– Does the Assembly wish to consider changes to B.C.’s current electoral system?

If so, key questions could include:

– Do we want some measure of proportionality?
– Do we want some measure of local representation in any new system? What about regional differences?
– Do we want different kinds of choices on our ballots?
– Is there some other fundamental aspect of the electoral system we ought to consider?
– What systems would accommodate our responses to the above questions?
– Which one of these different systems would best serve British Columbia?
– Do we clearly prefer an alternative system to our present SMP system? Considering the strengths and weaknesses of both systems, do we recommend that our current system be retained? Or do we recommend a new system?

A sixth weekend of meetings could be held November 27-28 if needed, but the 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 the Assembly’s website at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. So are summaries of the presentations made by groups and individuals at the public hearings.

MAKING BRITISH COLUMBIANS’ VIEWS KNOWN
Presentation summaries from the hearings are now posted to our website. We also have 700+ submissions posted on the website and another 200 or so being processed. You can add your views by providing your submission via our website, e-mailing it to submission@citizensassembly.bc.ca or mailing it to our office.

SUBSCRIBE / UNSUBSCRIBE
Do you know of others who might like to follow the Assembly by signing up for this newsletter? They can go to www.citizensassembly.bc.ca, select News & Events, then CA Newsletter – or call 1-866-667-1232. You can unsubscribe by calling the same number or, on the website, following the same links.

CONTACT INFORMATION
Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform
2288 – 555 West Hastings Street, PO Box 12118,
Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 4N6
604-660-1232 or 1-866-667-1232
Fax 604-660-1236
info@citizensassembly.bc.ca
www.citizensassembly.bc.ca

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher co-founded the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) with Andy Fluke in 2002, with the 60 volunteers and 50 organizations who worked together to plan NCDD’s first national conference. She served as NCDD's Executive Director between 2002 and 2018. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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