Monday, May 05, 2003

Citizens' Assembly offers a revolution in politics
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Forget the boring name. The Citizens' Assembly is the biggest thing that's going to happen to politics in your lifetime.
Anyone who thinks the system isn't working now- has a chance to radically change the way we elect politicians, the kind of opportunity most voters can only dream about.
The assembly will give average citizens a chance to come up with a better way of electing MLAs. It will bring together 159 people, more or less randomly selected. They will learn about proportional representation and other alternatives to the current system; hold public hearings; and then come up with a recommendation that will go to a binding referendum at the same time as the next election.
It's extraordinary. Governments don't give up this kind of power to ordinary citizens. It's almost never in their self-interest to tamper with the system that got them elected. (Full marks to Gordon Campbell, for fulfilling a promise that many politicians would bury.)
There isn't much argument that the system can be improved. We elect politicians under a winner-takes-all system, with one victor in each riding. Win enough seats and you form the government. The result is that most British Columbians end up feeling locked out of the political process.
Look at the last election. The Liberals captured 58 per cent of the popular vote. But under our system, they won 98 per cent of the seats. More than 20 per cent of voters supported the NDP, but the party only got two seats. And 12 per cent of voters voted Green and ended up with no representation.
The system leaves too many people convinced that their vote doesn't count. We also lose out on new ideas and the kind of debate that produces the best solutions.
There are alternatives, in use around the world. The assembly has to figure out which one will work best for B.C.
Solutions could be as simple as adding a proportional representation component to the current system. We could create 59 geographical ridings, for example, and add 30 MLAs who would be selected based on their party's share of the popular vote.
Based on the last election results, the Liberals would get 18 of those seats, the NDP eight and the Greens four.
That's hardly revolutionary. But it would create a much different legislature, and provide a voice for hundreds of thousands of British Columbians who now feel left out.
And that's just the starting point for change. Our current system encourages polarization. Voters don't select the candidate, or party, that they believe would best represent them in the legislature. They also have to assess the party's chances of success. Pragmatic voters who support the Greens or the Unity Party, but don't believe they can win a seat, have to abandon principle and settle for the party with a chance of winning that comes closest to their vision for the province.
There are hurdles ahead for the reform initiative. The assembly's recommendation has to be approved not only by 60 per cent of voters across the province, but by a majority of voters in 60 per cent of the ridings. And any change won't take effect until the election 2009.
Those are acceptable barriers. The referendum's requirements are high, but it will offer protection to rural voters who fear that changes could lead to their voices being drowned out by the huge population in the Lower Mainland. And the long delay before the system is changed provides comfort to Liberals who wonder how change will affect their current grip on the legislature.
The bottom line is that B.C. is starting an extraordinary process, one that could lead to a political system that is more energized and innovative.
Voters - and the people who have stayed home on election day - will know that their participation matters and will result in their voice being heard in the legislature.
Pay attention. This is a very great opportunity.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell, who had a bevy of Liberal MLAs join him for the announcement in the legislature, highlighted another aspect of the current system. The Liberal landslide was the first time since 1949 that a B.C. government had been elected with the support of more than half the voters.

Rural education task force fails to meet real challenge
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I'd give the province's rural education task force a C grade, along with those kind of encouraging comments that teachers write on report cards.
There was nothing wrong with the work the task force did on the problems of rural schools.
But there's a crisis out there in education. Rural students aren't getting the same opportunity to learn, and that means they aren't getting the same opportunities in life. And the task force, despite some useful recommendations, hasn't come back with a report that acknowledges that crisis.
Education Minister Christy Clark set up the task force last year, a welcome acknowledgment of a long-standing problem.
And their report was useful enough. The government will put up $225,000 to allow three school districts to experiment with computer-based education, and up to $6 million to improve Internet access. It will set up a program to forgive student loans for teaching grads who agree to teach in a rural school for five years. It will look at letting villages or towns take on a bigger role in running schools. And the education ministry will start measuring how it's doing on closing the rural urban gap
There are a bunch of other recommendations, and Clark says she accepts them all.
But - and this is a very large but - many are mushy, full of phrases like "produce a planning document" and "encourage partnerships" and "facilitate the provision of increased educational opportunities."
In a past life I learned to be very skeptical if a manager came forward with plans that talked about intentions, not actions. It's nice to recommend that government "work with education partners to build a network of rural educators and leaders." But that doesn't commit anyone to any actual action, or results.
A useful recommendation would have included action - perhaps calling for a conference of ministry officials, teachers, rural administrators and parents within 90 days to launch this network.
There are recommendations that can be acted on quickly, like helping teachers adapt the existing curriculum to multi-grade classrooms and improving training opportunities for rural teachers.
But overall this is a very soft report, for a very hard problem, that moves us forward only a small distance.
Clark says parents can send children to rural schools with confidence.
But the reality is that children in those schools are learning less than their counterparts in city schools, as the task force reports. Their parents pay the same taxes; the children have the same potential, and the same needs.
And they aren't getting an equal education.
We're not taking about a small gap, or a little problem. Province-wide tests released last fall showed - again - that if you live in the urban south your children are far more likely to leave school with the basic literacy and numeracy skills needed to give them a good chance in life.
Take reading. In the seven highest ranked districts, more than 80 per cent of Grade 10 students are meeting provincial standards. Those districts were generally in Vancouver and Victoria.
But in the 10 lowest ranked districts, barely half the students are reading at an acceptable level. Those districts were in the north, the Interior and on Vancouver Island. (Results for math and writing showed the same dismal disparity.)
That's a crisis. It's cheating the kids, and cheating the province of its future.
B.C. doesn't have to invent solutions, or launch long planning process. Manitoba has been successful in closing the rural-urban gap. The government there pays for special training opportunities and extra classroom help.
Alberta set aside extra money for rural districts with that wanted to try projects aimed at improving students' success.
The task force report moves us forward. But not nearly far enough, or fast enough, given the seriousness of the problem.
Footnote: The report avoids the question of whether rural schools are under-funded. But Clark said she'll accept a recommendation that municipalities be allowed to come up with cash to keep schools open, as Wells did this year. A solution, perhaps. But also a two-tier approach to education, where some taxpayers have to pay extra - through property taxes - for services that the rest of us receive from the province.