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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 5, April 2004

Power to the people: Citizens’ Assembly

by Allan Flemons

In British Columbia’s 1996 provincial election, the Liberals won the popular vote but did not form government. As a result, their party platform leading up to the subsequent provincial election in 2001 promised a complete review of the electoral process. Although the Liberals won that election with 77 or 79 seats and 57% of the popular vote, they carried through on their platform promise.

That is why, last fall, I received an invitation in the mail. I’d been randomly drawn as a potential candidate for the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. I was to respond by a certain deadline or lose my opportunity. I usually respond to anything resembling junk mail by recycling, but for some reason I put that one aside. A week later, I took the time to read it and research it; then I put it aside again. Finally, on the deadline day and with family encouragement, I faxed the necessary reply, and the selection process started.

Eventually I became New Westminster’s male representative on the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The assembly comprises 160 people: two First Nations representatives plus one male and one female randomly selected from each of the 79 electoral ridings of British Columbia.

The assembly is to study electoral systems within a framework of converting election votes into seats (MLAs). If the assembly considers another system to be superior to the present "first past the post" system of elections, it will make a recommendation to the attorney general, who must act on that recommendation by including it as a referendum question for the May 17, 2005, provincial election. If voters approve the referendum, the government must act on the recommendation in time for the 2009 election. British Columbians may have a new electoral system—one recommended by a group of ordinary citizens!

I’ve just completed the learning phase of the process, which involved meeting for a day and a half over each of six weekends between January and March. Participating in such a democratic process involving ordinary people from throughout B.C. in learning about electoral systems has been a unique experience.

You can become involved, too. I want to draw your attention to our web site: www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. The site contains backgrounders, links to lesson aids, glossaries, etc. Anyone doing a unit on democracy, elections, government, communities, etc., will want to visit.

I also want to draw your attention to the public discussion phase of the process. During May and June, assembly members will be holding lic meetings in 49 communities around the province. You can give input on the type of electoral system you want for our province. And you can have your students make presentations on what they want for their future. You don’t have to give a presentation to attend the lic hearing; you can also just observe. The sessions will be advertised in the local media, or you can check the web site.

The hearings are a wonderful way for teachers and students to become part of history. We have not had electoral reform in this province for more than 100 years. Times may have changed, but our election processes haven’t. We are going to be part of that change. Imagine what the results could be-perhaps a government structure that responds to all citizens, or MLAs that are required to represent their ridings by having the courage to go against party lines, or governments that stick to election platforms, or voters that have confidence that their votes do count and make a difference.

Nowhere in the world and at no time in history have ordinary citizens come together to work on electoral reform. Usually it’s government appointees, royal commissions, judicial councils, and the like. This process is truly significant. There is no government interference. The assembly’s recommendation must go to the citizens of this province for referendum. At that point, it’s power to the people. Whatever the result may be, it will be the right one.

Allan Flemons teaches at D.W. Poppy Secondary School, Langley, and resides in New Westminster.

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