Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Citizens' assembly makes Liberal MLAs twitchy

VICTORIA - The citizens' assembly on electoral reform seems to be making some Liberal MLAs pretty nervous.
The assembly is the most important thing that's going to happen to politics in B.C. in your lifetime. A group of 160 randomly selected citizens are getting together to decide if there's a better way of electing governments. If they think there is, a proposal will go to a referendum at the same time as the provincial election in May 2005.
It's a bold democratic move from Premier Gordon Campbell. Not many politicians would tamper with the system that got them into power; fewer would take the risk of handing the task to ordinary citizens. Give Campbell credit.
But not all the Liberals are so confident in the peoples' judgment. (Odd, since it was the people who put them in office.)
The citizens' assembly is independent, but a legislative committee has been appointed to receive its reports, including five Liberals, New Democrat Joy MacPhail and newly independent member Elayne Brenzinger.
And at the committee's first meeting this month, a couple of Liberal MLAs got mighty skittish about this democracy thing.
Kamloops MLA Kevin Krueger, the committee's vice-chair, was especially concerned about the assembly's first public report. That eight-page document set out the results of months of research and study and was intended as a starting point for 49 public meetings around the province in May and June.
Krueger accused the assembly of being close-minded. "I was surprised, Dr. Blaney, that the preliminary statement so clearly demonstrated that the assembly had made up its mind to lean in a particular direction, being proportional representation." (Jack Blaney is the government-appointed chair for the process.)
Krueger pulls one sentence from the report to back his claim, citing a passage in which the assembly says it wants to hear if the public agrees "that a more proportional system would better reflect the basic values of our province's population."
It's a risky accusation. It hardly seems sensible to ask ordinary citizens to bring their common sense, commitment and knowledge to a task only to have the government members sniping at them.
But it's bizarre in this case, because the assembly's report was remarkably balanced, noting the strengths and weaknesses of the current system and potential alternatives. The report was clear to emphasize that the assembly had reached no decision on whether any change is needed. That's why the public hearings are so important.
In fact Gordon Gibson, hired by the Liberals to come up with the assembly process, had suggested a much more specific set of proposals from the group by this point. Instead, they decided to keep the options as open as possible for public discussion.
Krueger wasn't alone in his concerns. Vancouver Kingsway MLA Rob Nijjar said he shared the worries.
And Nijjar had his own complaint, one that revealed something about life in the Liberal caucus.
Nijjar was worried about "a highly politically charged" letter to the editor in the Vancouver Sun from one of the the assembly members. Shouldn't members have to clear all letters or communications with Blaney, Nijjar asked?
I checked the letter. It was five paragraphs long. It opened with an observation that the Liberals' secret caucus suspensions might not be appreciated by constituents of the banned MLAs. And it mainly encouraged people to participate in the work of the assembly if they thought the system could be improved. It wasn't highly politically charged.
Blaney rightly responded that the process involved trust in the judgment of the assembly members.
But it makes you wonder about the Liberal MLAs' view of the world, and if they think everything they write or say has to be run past the party chiefs.
It was a disappointing start for the legislative committee.
The citizens' assembly is an excellent, brave initiative. Check out its web page - www. citizensassembly.bc.ca. The project deserves your attention and support.
Footnote: What's odd about the position taken by Krueger and Nijjar is that one of the main results of a shift to a more proportional form of representation would be a strong role for MLAs. We've drifted into a system in which power is concentrated in the office of the premier or prime minister; change offers a chance to give it back to elected MLAs.

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