How about reforming the electorate?

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER - There's always talk about how the populace is apathetic, fed up, or just uninterested in talking about or thinking about politics. The excuses vary from sheer boredom, ignorance, or outright corruption. The reasons that some give for not voting usually include that their votes aren't properly reflected in the kind of people in power. Yet when the discussion of change ensues, these same sceptics or ignoramuses continue to wallow in the den of apathy.

Two significant developments aimed towards electoral change and greater democratisation are taking place in this part of the world as I type. Expectedly, attention to both is as significant as the sound of one hand clapping.

The first is the Citizen's Assembly for Electoral Reform. Fulfilling a campaign promise, the current provincial government - a provincial government that took 97% of the seats in the Legislature despite only 57% of the popular vote - appointed an independent chair and randomly selected citizens to make up an assembly to study and debate the current electoral system, and then would report to the public and put forth its decision to the electorate in a referendum attached to the 2005 general election. This is at once significant to parliamentary democracies, as it is trendsetting, as other jurisdictions are proposing or promising similar bodies.

Public attention the Citizen's Assembly has been scant, despite obvious attempts by some media, such as the Vancouver Sun, to provide comprehensive coverage. Editorialists and columnists have devoted much time and space to the assembly's work. When I spoke with political pundit David Schreck in August on the interview segment I host, On the Line, he said that the assembly would serve as remarkable source of research material for Political Science scholars and other interested individuals, but hardly anyone else.

One suspects that the Citizen's Assembly will suggest some significant wholesale change to the provincial electoral system. Alas, because of the high threshold, as well as the lack of interest of voters, one expects that it won't fly. First Past the Post, for all its flaws, appears to be here to stay.

In this city, both sides of a political debate that will culminate in a referendum are ready to go. Last month, Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell launched the 'yes' campaign for a referendum question that voters will face this weekend, on the subject of implementing wards in the City of Vancouver. Fulfilling his party's election promise in the 2002 municipal election, Mayor Campbell is proffering wards as a solution to the current at-large system that elects members to the city's council. At-large, the system to which we currently elect councillors, sees a hundred or so hopefuls run for 10 spots on council, whereupon the top ten vote getters are elected.

Wards, on the other hand, would see the city divided into wards or constituencies, and each ward would hold its own election with the top vote getter in that vote elected to represent that ward at City Hall.

Opponents to the ward system, range from the more right wing to centre politicians like those who belong to the NPA. Those on the 'yes' side, are largely those COPE councillors and Mayor Campbell, as well as some on the left. Oddly enough, the 'no' side has those said NPAers, as well as those on the left, such as Jamie Lee Hamilton. Those on the 'no' side claim that wards only ghettoise communities, while on the 'yes' side, they claim that greater democratisation will ensue. (The chair of the 'yes' campaign, Darlene Marzari, and the head of the 'no' campaign, Sam Sullivan, both spoke with me in separate interviews that can be found on the On the Line page.)

Again, this referendum is receiving scant attention from the public. Both sides expect a low voter turnout, one in the low to mid-teens. And the argument that fixing an ailing system would affect true change is hardly a washing over, considering that hardly anyone votes municipally anyway.

In the few years I've been thinking about political issues, aloud in this space and elsewhere, I've learned that despite the importance of some issues, you cannot regulate or force the rest of society to share the same interest or agreement that such issues are so vital and so necessary. It's as hopeless as convincing a bunch of Stern fans that Imus is better, or vice versa. But one can, especially if they own a bit of journalistic real estate like this, bleat on about how sad it is that no one is paying attention, or that no one gives a damn. At their own peril, one can only hope. After all, we do get the kind of politicians we deserve.


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