Communication Honours Thesis
Was the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform a credible implementation of deliberative democracy and what role did communication play in the successes and ultimate defeat of the BC-STV voting system recommended in the 2005 referendum?
By Luke K. Freeman, April, 2009
School of Communication, Faculty of Applied Sciences
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC
Recent anomalies in British Columbian and Canadian election results have re-ignited electoral reform as a prominent topic of debate. The British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004 was the first successful implementation of deliberative democracy with directly legislated decision-making powers. The assembly’s recommended voting system, the British Columbian Single-Transferable-Vote (or BC-STV), was supported by 95% of its members. However, the final recommendation was subject to a provincial referendum which only garnered 57.7% of support province-wide, falling 2.3% short of the 60% supermajority required to pass – demonstrating a vast disparity compared to its support within the Citizens’ Assembly. The purpose of this thesis is to explore whether the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was a credible implementation of deliberative democracy and what role communication played in the successes and ultimate defeat of the BC-STV recommendation in the 2005 referendum. To gather the data for this research three complementary methods were used: theoretical text analysis, qualitative in-depth interviews and review of the British Columbian Electoral Reform Conference in January 2009. This thesis will demonstrate that the deliberative processes were legitimate, that the final recommendation was credible, but that the process was inherently flawed because it lacked a proper public communication strategy. Harnessing a better communication strategy may have successfully ensured that the proportion of support in the BC electorate would have more accurately resembled that of the Citizens’ Assembly and would have made at least the 2.3% difference required for the recommendation of the deliberative assembly to be formally adopted. However, considering these inherent restraints and direct opposition, the Citizens’ Assembly and the electorate of British Columbia can be applauded for the success of 57.7% provincial support.
While I am aware it is unusual to have acknowledgements in a thesis, I have had an interesting journey that would not have been possible without the selfless help and kindness of several instrumental people. From Simon Fraser University I would like to acknowledge my supervisor Dr. Kathleen Cross who has helped me with enthusiasm each step of the way; Dr. Catherine Murray who has been a wonderful source of assistance and insight; Dr. Roman Onufrijchuk and Lucie Menkveld for all the logistical efforts of entering into the honours program as an international student. To Dr. Lyn Carson from Sydney University for her advice and inspiration for my course of study. To my family, in particular my parents Mark and Kerrie, for all their support of my studies and steadfast assistance with my academic development. To my dearest Joni and close friend James who have not only endured my unending discussion of the topic but have reviewed my drafts and provided me with a fresh set of eyes and necessary feedback. Finally, to all the interviewees who selflessly graced me with their time, experiences and insight, for without them this research would not have been possible.
Table of Contents
In 1980, Joseph M. Bessette first coined the term “deliberative democracy” to describe a system of political decision-making that combines methods of direct and representative democracy; using citizen deliberation to create more effective, thorough and inclusive policy. Twenty-four years later, in 2004, the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was the first successful implementation of deliberative democracy to have directly legislated decision-making powers. The Citizens’ Assembly deliberated over 11 months and finally recommended a tailored voting system they called “BC-STV” that was supported by 95% of its members. However, this final recommendation was subject to a public referendum which only garnered 57.7% of support province-wide, 2.3% short of the 60% supermajority it needed to pass.
What does the discrepancy between the Citizens’ Assembly support compared to that of the public referendum support say about the process? The assembly members were chosen from the general public. Why was the recommendation not ultimately supported by the public at voting time? Were these eleven months and 5.5 million dollars of taxpayers’ money well spent? The rare exercise of implementing deliberative democracy calls for a thorough critique of the Citizens’ Assembly process from concept to referendum so that its defeat in 2005 can be understood. This thesis will explore the legitimacy of the Citizens’ Assembly, the communication processes for disseminating the BC-STV recommendation to the people of British Columbia and make recommendations for “closing the gap” in future implementations of deliberative democracy. Another referendum is due in May 2009 making the results of this research timely and topical.
The 1996 British Columbian provincial election illustrated some arguably dysfunctional aspects of the current first-past-the-post plurality system (FPTP) used for elections throughout Canada. The New Democratic Party (NDP) was elected into government with a majority of the seats (39 of 75) but with only 39.5% of the popular vote, whereas the British Columbia Liberal Party (BC Liberals) only received 33 seats with 41.8% of the popular vote and the remaining 19.7% elected only 2 Reform Party and 1 Progressive Democratic Alliance representatives (Elections BC, 1997). Following the seemingly controversial election results, BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell promised he would explore the possibility of implementing a more proportional electoral system if he were elected in the following election (Milner, 2005, p. 4). The tides turned in the 2001 election when the BC Liberals received 77 of the 79 seats (97%) with only 57.6% of the popular vote. However, the newly elected Premier, Gordon Campbell, soon upheld his promise by commissioning the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform.
In response to the 1996 election results and the negative political sentiments of many British Columbians, Premier Campbell commissioned the Citizens’ Assembly in 2002. The Assembly was enacted throughout 2004 and was given the task of deliberating on how votes translate into seats in the British Columbian Legislature and recommending an alternate voting system if they were to see fit. Being the first of its kind, the Citizens’ Assembly demonstrated innovation in British Columbia. It was an historic moment in global politics – one where a deliberative forum made up of a random sample of the population was given the power to propose a model for electoral reform to be taken directly to referendum without the interference of any government representatives in the process (Thompson, 2008, p. 21). Without the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly the notion that ordinary citizens, not just politicians, should govern would most likely have remained as a theoretical ideal.
The Citizens’ Assembly deliberated regularly over 11 months and resulted in a recommendation for the “British Columbian Single-Transferrable-Vote” (BC-STV) voting system. Subsequently a referendum was held, as part of the provincial general election in 2005, to ratify the recommendation. For the BC-STV system to be adopted as the electoral process in British Columbia, the STV vote required both a supermajority (60%) of the popular vote and a simplemajority (50%) in a supermajority (60%) of the ridings. While the simplemajority was easily achieved in 97% of ridings, the provincial popular vote narrowly missed the 60% required by only 2.3%.
In the introduction for the book Designing Deliberative Democracy, Mark E. Warren and Hilary Pearse noted that we are rarely privileged with such a clean experiment in “democratic institutional design” as the Citizens’ Assembly (2008, p. 13). However, “even relatively clean examples are complex” and such was the case of the Citizens Assembly (p. 13). My research examines the complexities of this case, including the internal debilitations as well as the external political communication processes.
Reviewing the external political communications is a key ingredient to understanding both the successes and the failures of the BC-STV referendum. Many have noted how the mass media plays an ever-increasing role in the outcomes and processes of democratic politics (McNair, 2007, pp. 19-20). Indeed, it has been argued that frequent, effective and easily digested political communication is essential for a properly functioning democracy (p. 20). In recent times, western democracies have become accustomed to political parties and interest groups spending significant time and money on political communication in order to pierce the clutter of public discourse in the mass media (p. 37). It is therefore not insignificant to note that, as other research has indicated, many British Columbians were unaware of the nature of the referendum for electoral reform, its proposed changes or even its existence (Cutler, 2008, p. 186).
The purpose of this project is to explore whether the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was a credible implementation of deliberative democracy and what role communication played in the successes and ultimate defeat of the BC-STV recommendation in the 2005 referendum.
To gather the data for this research I used three complementary methods – a triangulation of methods within the qualitative methods tradition. First, I collected and analysed relevant documents and reviewed theoretical perspectives to more deeply understand the deliberative process and benchmarks for evaluating the success of the assembly’s results. Second, I employed semi-structured, in-depth interviews of numerous individuals involved in the Citizens’ Assembly or referendum campaigns. After conducting early conversational research with relevant people, I conducted six qualitative interviews that will be referenced throughout this thesis. These include an assembly member, communication staff, the campaign coordinators for the post-deliberative “Yes” and “No” campaigns and journalists from the popular press. These interviews took place during December 2008 and January 2009. Interview subjects were asked questions about the BC-STV recommendation, the referendum process, the Citizens’ Assembly and their individual roles and opinions. The questions focused on communications aspects both internal to the assembly and during the political campaign. The questions were open-ended; the interviewees were encouraged to elaborate on their answers and were given space for further comments. Finally, along with the interviews, I attended the “Electoral Reform Conference and 5th Anniversary of the Citizens’ Assembly” (January 10-11, 2009) and transcribed relevant statements. This process resulted in more than fifteen thousand words of new material for analysis of which selected comments and are available in the appendices and referenced in this thesis by a reference code (e.g. IB23 = Interviewee ‘B,’ Comment #23).
To manage the material, I divided the transcribed comments into key areas of focus (as represented by the themes in this thesis) alongside existing research on the Citizens’ Assembly and supporting references from within theories of deliberative democracy and political communication. In particular I was interested in three aspects of the process: (1) the internal process, such as the assembly hearings and participant selection (whether the internal processes of the assembly were credible and an effective implementation of deliberative democracy); (2) the post-deliberative processes (why the referendum was defeated after such a process and why it still came so close to succeeding); and (3) recommendations for future experiments with deliberative democracy and electoral reform.
To properly evaluate the disparity between the support of the BC-STV voting system in the deliberative forum of the Citizens’ Assembly compared to that of the voting public, this thesis will explore various theoretical perspectives. These include the current political stage in Canada, contexts for electoral reform, theories of deliberative democracy and their relationships with contemporary communication perspectives.
Democracy is literally defined as “rule by the people” from the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power). If democratic governing therefore means putting the power into the hands of the people then consent and representation become intrinsically linked (Hall, 1984, p. 24). For most people, elections are the only time they have the opportunity to partake in the democratic process (Howe & Northrup, 2000, p. 10). Furthermore, it is widely accepted that the quality of an electoral system directly influences the effectiveness of government between elections (Gregson, 2004, ¶2). However, many democratic procedures often create anomalies that have much less than democratic results (McNair, 2007, p. 23). If a majority of the votes cast using first-past-the-post (FPTP) send no one to the legislative body, how then can those representatives elected with such few votes be considered a legitimate government representing the people?
Australian Parliamentary advisor Greg Newman argues that an electoral system should be judged on its ability to reflect the will of the people, contribute to nation-building, maintain stability and peace, ensure voters feel effectively represented and its ease of comprehension and implementation (2006, p9). Furthermore, he confirms that most political scientists agree that there is no best system, “it has been acknowledged that all systems have flaws and problems” and that electoral systems should be chosen to suit a population (p4). To various degrees, many societies have met the basic standard of a voting public, however, is simply having the right to vote truly democratic enough?
Furthermore, political theorist David Held argues that a government is the product of an agreement among the people, only legitimate while it is fulfilling the “instructions of the general will,” and should it fail to behave so, “it can be revoked and changed” (1984, p. 50). With this intention many countries in the twentieth century have reformed their electoral systems in response to perceived “democratic deficits” (Warren & Pearse, 2008, p. 7). Simultaneously, as representative democracies were spreading across the world their longer established counterparts were showing signs of stagnation. Declining rates of voter turnout, disaffection from political institutions and distrust of politicians have been indicators in these countries (p. 1). In a recent survey in the USA, 88% of respondents said they felt government leaders “tell us what they think will get them elected, not what they are really thinking” and 75% subscribed to the notion that politicians “work for themselves and their own careers, not the people they represent” (Kay, 1998).
However, considering the importance of an electoral system and its democratic purpose, it is rather odd that the role of choosing an electoral system has most commonly been that of politicians (Thompson, 2008, p. 23-4). Would it not be more democratic for the people to choose how they elect their representatives? Members of any institution cannot be entirely objective and neutral when choosing how they will be selected. Furthermore, Harvard University professor Dennis Thompson notes that if citizens are to choose their electoral system then they should also have a voice in designing which options are put forward (p. 29). The Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia was the first time that this philosophical notion was tested in practice. This thesis examines the assembly’s legitimacy as an implementation of deliberative democracy from a political communication perspective.
While seeming to belong to the school of political science, theories of deliberative democracy are very much within the realm of communication theory. Deliberative democratic theory has been refined substantially in recent years and public participation is a longstanding area of research with recent developments in both theory and practice. Many popular theories of democracy refer to the representation as a transfer of sovereignty from the people to their government (Held, 1984, p. 48). However, the prominent eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued: “no such transfer of sovereignty need or should take place: sovereignty not only originates in the people; it ought to stay there” (1968, p. 30). Deliberative democracy attempts to bring the sovereignty back to the people by providing a more effective means of public participation.
In his 1983 book, Robert Dahl defined three criteria for adequately conducting the democratic process: voting equality, effective participation and enlightened understanding (p. 6). Furthermore, University of Washington professor John Gastil argues that those criteria can be more readily met if an establishment regularly deliberates (2008, p. 8). In the case of electoral reform, the elected representatives and the citizenry have very different agendas: the public is without the same kind of vested interest in the outcomes of an electoral system. In this light, electoral reform requires that it be discussed within open deliberations and that those deliberations be conducted by the citizenry.
For centuries, many democratic governments have regularly avoided citizen participation in public policy or considered it with suspicion and succumbed unwillingly (Caddy, 2005, p. 110). However, citizens are increasingly becoming involved in politics in many more ways than just voting: they are being called upon as taxpayers and stake-holders to partake in dialogue so that they can influence, learn, listen, express their views or create new ideas (p110). Furthermore, if they have the right to choose “who” they vote for, it would seem to follow that they have the right to choose “how” they vote for them. However, involving citizens in public decision-making can often be very difficult for governments. It requires governments to loosen their alleged “monopoly” of public affairs and reform public administrations, organisational structures, thought processes and behaviours (p. 110). This would require a different kind of politics to that of the unnecessary retail-marketed electoral politics.
In most democratic constitutions, the only time non-elected, ordinary citizens are directly handed the responsibility, and privilege, of making decisions is in the case of a referendum, or what is known as direct democracy. In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, Lyn Carson and Janette Hartz-Karp suggest that while a referendum can be extremely influential and representative, it may still be flawed because of its “inability to allow participants to wrestle with the issue’s complexity due to its limited opportunities for moderated, in-depth dialogue and reflection” (2005, p. 112).
However representative they may be (depending on voter turnout), many citizens are uninformed about the context or ramifications of their vote in a referendum (Ivins, 2004). To compound the issue, the wording of most referendum questions are too specific for full acceptance – voters leave their booths “feeling cheated” by the referendum question (Gastil, 2008, p. 91). Scholar Nicholas Garnham argues that direct democracy, including referenda, is best used for simple “either/or choices” but is incapable of dealing with the common political decisions in our complex society that typically have multiple variables (1992, p. 366). There are many anomalies and biases in modern democratic procedures – even public hearings are often far from democratic (McNair, 2007, p. 23). Uninformed voters are inconsistent, and their votes are often misguided due to lack of understanding. Therefore, combining direct democracy and deliberative democracy in a fine balance could be most effective in directing electoral reform, yet this exercise could be considered futile if it is not enacted with an appropriate communication process.
Deliberative democracy hearkens back to an era when oral communication was more important in politics (Dryzek, 2002). John Wiseman defines deliberative democracy as “strengthening citizen voices in governance by including people of all races, classes, ages and geographies in deliberations that directly affect public decisions” (2004, p. 54). Involving a near-random, statistically representative sample of the population in dialogue and deliberative decision-making is taking a step closer to the democratic ideal.
Contemporary political theorist Joshua Cohen expands upon the notion of deliberative democracy as follows:
The notion of a deliberative democracy is rooted in the intuitive ideal of a democrative association in which the justification of the terms and conditions of association proceeds through public argument and reasoning among equal citizens. Citizens in such an order share a commitment to the resolution of problems of collective choice through public reasoning, and regard their basic institutions as legitimate insofar as they establish a framework for free public deliberation. (1989, p. 21)
The theories and practical implementations of deliberative democracy vary extensively in their approach, organisation, communication and legislative powers. These range from deliberative polling where citizens are provided information and time to deliberate between polls through to large-scale citizens’ assemblies that operate regularly over months and can exhibit degrees of legislative power. In each case deliberation tends to “steer people toward outcomes in the interest of the community,” generate learning, help to form consensus and place the ownership in the hands of the citizens (Carson & Hartz-Karp, 2005, p. 125).
Weighing up issues and discussing them from a civic-minded perspective is the charge of a deliberative body, often setting aside one issue to address another (Gastil, 2008, p. 126). The voting-centric view of democracy differs significantly to the more in-depth deliberative democracy perspective. Whereas the former views democracy as a mechanism where fixed preferences compete against each other, the latter focuses on the communicative process and will-formation that precedes voting (p. 283). Additionally, Mark Button and David Ryfe assert that deliberative democracy “takes seriously the idea that the exercise of collective political authority must be capable of being justified to all those who will be bound by it” (2005, p. 7). They conclude that the democratic way of life is directly influenced by quality and frequency of deliberative politics because “it enlists the skills and virtues that make it possible for individuals to see themselves as interdependent, equal, and sovereign members of a political association” (p. 30). Carson and Hartz-Karp outline the three criteria for effective deliberative democracy as deliberation (open dialogue, respect, space and consensus building), inclusion (representative, diverse, equal opportunities and participation) and influence (significant ability to influence decision-makers) (p. 122). It is with these three criteria that I use to evaluate the legitimacy of the assembly’s internal processes in chapter four.
In recent times, the mass media have played an ever-increasing role in the outcomes and processes of democratic politics – to the point that what citizens encounter as political communication is often the product of several mediating processes (McNair, 2007, pp. 19-20, 23). Communication is essential to the political structure, as democracies of any size require coordination among their citizens (Garnham, 1992, p. 361; Gastil, 2008, p. 8).
Frequent, effective and easily digested political communication is considered essential for a well functioning democracy (Gastil, 2008 pp. 16-7). Gastil agues that citizen education must be significantly improved if they are to “participate effectively in setting the system’s agenda and persuading policy makers” (2008, p. 8). In the case of the Citizens’ Assembly, they started off as ordinary citizens and ended up as “nascent experts” (Thompson, 2008, p. 47). However, some research has indicated that many citizens now lack faith in their governments’ communication strategies (Howe & Northrup, 2000). The informative and deliberative nature of the Citizens’ Assembly also resulted in a greater gap in knowledge between its members (who became experts) and the general public (who remained largely uninformed). Unfortunately, contemporary political communication is too often executed as a one-way conversation than a reflection of Jürgen Habermas’ notion of the public sphere:
By the public sphere we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed…Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion – that is, within the guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions. (1978, p. 89)
The public sphere is largely enacted through broadcasting and publishing within private institutions that do not necessarily have the public’s best interests in mind (Gastil, 2008, p. 8). In most western democracies there is minimal systemic and non-partisan political communication. Therefore, the responsibility of informing citizens, educating political meaning and significance, acting as a conduit for public political discourse, providing publicity, advocacy and review of political viewpoints falls to the mainstream media (McNair, 2007, pp. 19-20). However, the press rely on negativity and sensationalism for coverage (Gastil, 2008, p. 95). The economic necessity of quickly capturing the readers interest and approval creates a routine of news that is both stagnant and misleading (Lippmann, 1949, p. 221). The question therefore becomes: is this current media-centric discourse adequate, or even democratic? Moreover as consequence, there needs to be consideration for how political communication can be improved for the process of deliberative democracy.
James Curran argues that the media “should keep people informed about public affairs so that individuals are adequately briefed when they take part in the process of self-government” (2005, p. 120). Yet, contrary to popular belief, the actual democratic role of the media is rather limited. First, for the media to be used as an effective form of democratic political communication it needs to be non-partisan, balanced, detailed and easily digested. However, concentration of media ownership and conflict of interest poses problems with this non-partisan and balanced ideal (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006, p. 30). Furthermore, most political discourse is too complex to be understood through the mediation of the mainstream media, hence the need for a deliberative process. As scholar Terry Eagleton explains:
All propaganda or popularization involves a putting of the complex into the simple, but such a move is instantly not constructive. For if the complex can be put into the simple, then it cannot be as complex as it seemed in the first place; and if the simple can be an adequate medium of such complexity, then it cannot after all be as simple as all that. (1986)
Finally, political theorist Walter Lippmann argues that if the mainstream media is to be charged with “the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic” then they are bound to fail (1949, p. 228). If that is to be the case, then it is argued that public opinion becomes the reflection of the wealthy and powerful (Garnham, 1992, p. 367). Although many communication theorist agree that the media has minimal effect on changing people’s opinion, Maxwell McCombs and Amy Reynolds argue that the less someone knows, the more that they will succumb to the media agenda (2002, p. 9). If we are to strive for democracy, we need to improve the channels of political communication. Therefore, deliberative democracy provides an opportunity to create forums and increase understanding in the political process, engaging in a dialogical process with citizens as a means of incorporating their values and opinions. Deliberative democracy is but one remedy for this process, but, as this research will show, only if implemented with a clear public communication process.
In 2002, Gordon Campbell, British Columbia’s newly elected Premier, made plans to fulfil his campaign promise of exploring electoral reform within the province. The assembly process was designed by Hon. Gordon Gibson, a former politician and recipient of the Order of British Columbia. Following Gibson’s recommendations, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (with 77 of the 79 seats held by BC Liberals) had the final say on enacting it. The legislature included additional rules such as a 60% supermajority of the popular vote through a referendum process. The only public communication planned for the final design was a leaflet that was mailed to every house in the province five-months before the referendum.
This chapter will outline the findings from the research on the deliberative processes of the assembly – from its conception to the final recommendations. It will largely focus on the assembly proceedings, including the assembly sessions, the communications activities and the public hearings. Throughout I have included numerous quotes from interviews and conference proceedings to illustrate the themes and opinions of those involved in the assembly deliberations.
For quite some time there have been concerns in Canada about the disproportionate relationship between a party’s share of the popular vote and the corresponding number of seats they receive (Cairns, 1968, p. 55). For example, the surge in popularity of the Reform party in both provincial and federal politics throughout the last few decades of the twentieth-century was largely a response to their criticisms of traditional party politics (Flanagan, 1995). Leading up to the 2008 federal election Barbara Odenwald, President of Fair Vote Canada lamented in a press release: “the feudal voting system in this country is a continuing national embarrassment” (2008). Unfortunate electoral occurrences are not unique to British Columbia – they are consistent across Canada at all levels of government (2008). The chance of a party capturing more of the seats with less of the popular vote occurs as a result of winning with narrow margins in key districts and geographically focusing their support (Gastil, 2008, p. 178).
It has been recognised however, that in recent times Canadians have become more likely to make their own political judgements as opposed to deferring to “elites” or their own longstanding predispositions (Howe & Northrup, 2000, p. 9). In this light, Canadians were surveyed about the common occurrence of disproportionate electoral results and 77% did not agree that it was acceptable (p. 13). The lack of diversification of representation in Canadian electoral politics is also a major element in the declining voter turnout (p. 17). However, there is still a significant reservoir of positive sentiment leading people to continue endorsing Canadian democracy without questioning its ability to adequately representing them (p. 7). The recurring disproportionate election results, declining voter-turnout and negative political sentiments of the Canadian population can be seen as evidence that the current pluralitarian system is falling dramatically short (p. 11).
The existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system used throughout Canada is a legacy of the British governing system adopted in Canada at the time of Confederation. Canada’s electoral system is arguably an archaic model of democracy that relies on single member plurality for electing its representatives. This results in varying degrees of disproportionate election results and often the party placing second in the popular vote has formed government, such as in the 2006 New Brunswick, 1998 Quebec, 1996 British Columbia, and 1986 Saskatchewan provincial elections (Heard 2008, ¶15). This plurality means that a party’s share of the vote has rarely borne any resemblance to their representation in the legislative body (¶13). Furthermore, many political scientists have suggested that FPTP polarises politics, resulting in right and left wing governments succeeding each other in a way that disrupts the continuity of policy and government programs (Grubel 2004, ¶2).
The 2008 record-low voter turnout in the last Canadian general election can partially be linked to voter dissatisfaction. Reporter Janice Harvey mused that if “staying at home” was a ballot choice it would have enough votes to win (2008, ¶3). Andrew MacLeod, reporter at The Tyee recalled, “I remember being 19 on election night back in 1991 and wanting to mark “none of the above” (IB1). More academically, a survey of Canadians in 2000 reported that a majority of respondents who refrained from voting stated that, “All parties are basically the same; there isn’t really a choice” (Howe & Northrup, p. 30).
Although pundits often argue that a single party majority is necessary to form a functioning government, 67% of Canadians surveyed did not agree that the common occurrence of a party winning a majority of seats without a majority of votes under FPTP was acceptable (p. 13). These attitudes are further fostered by the plurality system where the political parties need to preach to the status quo in order to receive the widest possible spectrum of popularity. It is argued that in a more proportional system this is not as evident and the political spectrum is widened to better accommodate the population (Thompson, 2008, p. 26). For example, one Citizens’ Assembly member, David Wills, expressed his concern with the current FPTP electoral system this way:
Representing the people is what governments are for. However, most British Columbians do not have a MLA representing them in Victoria. One person cannot represent all the points of view from within an area. In the current system, it is not a local ‘representative’ that is sent to Victoria, it is a local ‘delegate’. CG1-3
Some research has indicated that many British Columbians have ambivalence or distrust of their experience of “politics,” with its “posturing strategizing, pandering and waffling,” and they are clearly not fans of politicians or political parties (Warren & Pearse, 2008, p. 7). Many stated that they want an effective, fair, responsive system with the capacity for legitimate governance (p. 7). British Columbians are not alone. Disproportionate election results are a nation-wide problem among governments using FPTP. Although there are many problems with FPTP, a survey by The Economist showed that people under these plurality systems still thoroughly endorse democracy but feel their systems need to be rethought (1999, p. 49).
Surprisingly, citizen disenchantment has not resulted in citizen input for electoral reform. For example, referenda have had very little use in changing a country’s electoral system: they have only been used at a national level in Italy (for a minor reform) and New Zealand (Thompson, 2008, p. 21). Thus, the Citizens’ Assembly emerged during a time of rich debate about electoral reform, deliberative democracy and citizen participation in political processes. It was also an altogether unique opportunity for citizen involvement in electoral reform.
While many countries have reached the basic standard of voting and universal suffrage, democracies still have some lengths to go if they are to avoid a trend toward “stealth democracy” in which they are run by the elite (Gastil, 2008, p. 3; Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 31). The proliferation of representative democracies over the last few decades have been stimulating renewed interest in electoral systems; combined with the deepening distrust of “politics” it becomes clear that there is need for democratic revitalisation and a drive toward the notion of a strong public sphere (Ratner, 2008, p. 145). Indeed, the concept of the Citizens’ Assembly appealed to the notion of Habermas’ public sphere wherein individual citizens are asked to assume “the role of a politically powerful force” – as an effective means of combining the vastly different resources and perspectives of a government and its citizenry (Ernst, 1998, p. 47; Caddy, 2005, p. 110).
The assembly design, created by the Hon. Gordon Gibson, specified that invitations to selection meetings be sent at random to voters in each of the 79 ridings, following which the selection meeting attendees would put their names in a hat to be selected at random (2002). From the 26,500 randomly selected citizens, only 964 attended the lottery selection meetings held in each riding across the province (Warren & Pearse, 2008). In the final assembly, each of the 79 ridings had one member of each gender, with a male and female aboriginal members added onto the roster to equal 160 members (by chance no aboriginal people had been randomly selected). The government funded a small staff for the assembly, an honorarium for the members and paid for travel expenses for those involved. During the weekend sessions they were taught about electoral systems and partook in deliberations about what they were looking for in an electoral system and how well each system fulfilled their requirements. They reviewed over 1,500 written proposals from British Columbians and held public hearings that were open for wider deliberation and consultation. The assembly proceedings began in February 2004 and continued until they made their final recommendation in December of that year. Citizens’ Assembly member, Nick Boudin, recalled, “I hadn’t heard much about the Citizens’ Assembly but my girlfriend at the time said that as I’m always complaining about politics this is an opportunity to go out and do something about it” (IA2).
This Citizens’ Assembly was a very unique process; it closely resembled a legislative committee inasmuch as it had professional staff, studied an issue, heard testimonies, held public hearings and, most significantly, held a referendum for their final recommendation (Gastil, 2008, p. 206). The near-random selection of British Columbians as an approximate descriptive representation of the province maximised the quality of representation, deliberation, decision-making and, most importantly, legitimacy (Gibson, 2002). Not only was this revolutionary experience the first time that citizens have been empowered in this manner, but it was also a rare and successful experiment in democratic institutional design with real-world implications (Warren & Pearse 2008, p7, p13). It should therefore come at no surprise that the requirements of an electoral system that they put forward were different to that of many politicians and previous exercises of electoral reform.
The Citizens’ Assembly proceedings included the regular assembly sessions held at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in downtown Vancouver, online discussions, written submissions and many public hearings; all of which followed the dialogue process as directed by assembly chair, Jack Blaney (former President of Simon Fraser University). Dialogue has been defined not as a debate, but a process where all parties aim to rethink issues through collaborative and non-partisan discussions (NCCJ 1995).
The overall approach was one that incorporated a commitment to fair and open deliberation and dialogue. It was a 5.5 million dollar process that was independent from the government and privileged with an impressive, however small, staff. The assembly members were impressed and well served by the elaborate and largely intentional, though not controlling, approach. One assembly member recalled:
I was quite awestruck with the quality of production that went into the Citizens’ Assembly. I was quite starry-eyed and my impression was that the right processes would be in place to enable 160 people to discuss productively. IA3
The following sections outline the three key aspects of the assembly process: the assembly sessions, public hearings, and the communications activities – most notably the use of the online discussions.
The members needed to be informed and educated so that they could engage in an open and proactive deliberative process that would result in a complete tangible recommendation. The entire assembly process was an educational experience where the members learned from academics as well as their own research and discussions. The assembly’s Assistant Director for Communications, Don MacLachlan, recalled the education process:
The members themselves were absolutely amazing. Being a former economics and political science student, I was impressed by the two professors that led the classes on electoral systems. There was no way you could have determined, at any point, which system either of them did or didn’t favour. It was a massive piece of neutral, objective education. Often when the assembly really started to like a system, the professors would quickly respond with the complications and negatives in the system. IE37-8
Citizens’ Assembly member, Nick Boudin continued:
They provided multiple opportunities for education, a couple of different professors with slightly different perspectives, academics from other countries that used different electoral systems. We also had plenty of opportunities to discuss amongst each other and with the ordinary citizenry as much as possible. IA4
The success of the process owes a great deal to the facilitation of the assembly chair, Jack Blaney. The assembly facilitators ensured a balance between open and moderated discussion so that members could express themselves freely and in successful alignment with deliberative democratic theory (Crosby & Nethercut 2005, p113).
Political science professor Nancy Fraser defines the civic-republican view of the public sphere in politics as one where people reason together “to promote a common good that transcends the mere sum of individual preferences” and that members can come together through deliberation to “discover or create such a common good” (Fraser, 1992, p. 129-30). The deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly transformed the private individuals into public-spirited citizens, capable of acting in a common interest. It was very important that the participants be interested enough in the topic (without a conflict of interest) because it ensured that they committed to working toward the common good.
The self-selection of interested individuals naturally skewed it toward public-spirited citizens (Warren, 2008). While this is very helpful for the assembly proceedings it increased the gap between the assembly members and the general public. However, there were many different perspectives represented in the Citizens’ Assembly (IA6). The assembly members took on a number of different roles:
Often in groups some people really take it on, are extroverted, speak well and study it whereas other people may not have as much to say, are still learning or are shy. As I was in the latter category it was a bit of a challenge to have the nerves to speak or find something to bring to the table. IA18
As the process went on, members who found it challenging to contribute in the assembly sessions not only grew in confidence with the help of facilitators and other assembly members but also took a more active role online (IA11).
During May and June, as they were accepting written submissions, the Citizens’ Assembly conducted public meetings across the province. The meetings included education on the electoral systems they were investigating, presentations of their findings and extensive time for dialogue with the general public. Gastil notes that most public hearings generally fail to resemble deliberation in any form (2008, p. 189). However, the Citizens’ Assembly translated their deliberative practices quite successfully from the assembly to the meetings that they held across the province. Don MacLachlan recalled:
The public hearings up and down BC were really impressive. I thought they would, by nature, attract a bunch of axe-grinders but generally the people were really committed to understanding and contributing more. I was really quite surprised. To my delight, the sessions became debates and tutorials – they weren’t one-way communication at all. We had hoped there would be a lot of two-way communication and there was. IE39-40
Similarly to the self-selection of the Citizens’ Assembly members, public hearings draw a disproportionate number of keenly interested people. However, frequently that is a vocal minority, not a balanced opinion (Kettering Foundation, 1989, p. 11). Nick Boudin recalled:
Naturally, a lot of the citizens that came to the public hearings were electoral system hobbyists – some people collect toy trains while other people study electoral systems. In a lot of cases, the people we talked to were not your ordinary Joe but had often already studied it. IA5
However, MacLachlan noted that the process was still very effective as a means to educate the public and hear their opinions:
It was interesting to watch people in the public meetings change their minds as they learned. They didn’t always change the same way: some came in with opinion A and left with opinion B and some came in with opinion B and left with A. It was interesting to watch the effectiveness of the public hearing, public communication process. IE41
In deliberative forums, communications activities are essential to the meaningful participation. This assembly used a number of processes, both internally and to the public, to maintain levels of communication within and between members. The communications activities of the assembly included email summaries, newsletters and forums that were particularly useful and effective in the deliberative process. Busy participants, latecomers, facilitators and the general public were able to stay informed within a busy schedule, on their own time (Bonner et al, 2005, p. 144). Marilyn Jacobson, Communications Director for the Citizens’ Assembly recalled this use in the official assembly communication process:
I created two weekly newsletters, one for the members and one for the general public. Every time we had a meeting around the province I would try to get people to sign up for the newsletter. We ended up sending upwards of three thousand emails that we were sending to on a regular basis. IF10
The Citizens’ Assembly put out a request to British Columbians for electoral reform submissions to be considered by the assembly. This process was carried out online, available for all to see. They received over 1,500 submissions, most criticising the existing (FPTP) electoral system (Grubel, 2004, ¶1).
However, the official communication process was not the only occurrence of effective use of the Internet in the assembly. As one assembly member recalled:
The Citizens’ Assembly members themselves actually began to take over the communications process. In a meeting during our summer break, some of the CA members started up an online meeting space. IA7
The use of online spaces such as the forum allowed members to interact with each other freely, rapidly and within the comfortable environment of their home or office:
The online forum was great for being inclusive of everyone’s different schedules. Although a very new idea at the time, the dialogue process online was very essential to the process and allowed more time to absorb the information. IA11
An online space also allows for people to access extensive resources and research so they can contribute with a thoughtful and polite message (Bonner et al, 2005, p. 142). Many assembly members used the forum to keep informed with the rest of the members’ opinion formation: “I was kind of a ‘lurker’ in the online discussions, as I needed to devote a lot of time to university” (IA8). However, it should be noted that core group of those most active online were also those who continued to be most active after the assembly process was complete (IA9).
In December 2004 the Citizens’ Assembly published their 16 page Final Report. It was mailed to every household in British Columbia. The report outlined the assembly process and compared their recommended BC-STV system with the existing FPTP system. Reaching this point required the assembly to first decide on their collective values, the requirements of an electoral system for British Columbia, review submissions and deliberate on electoral systems.
According to Thompson, the requirements of an electoral system can be vague, but they must also be specific enough so that they can distinguish between systems and finally choose a one that would best fulfil them (2008, p. 26). In January 2009, during the Electoral Reform Conference and 5th Anniversary of the Citizens’ Assembly, founding director of Fair Voting BC (a provincial organisation promoting electoral reform) and former politician Nick Loenen noted that there is only so much an electoral system can do, however he reiterated, “an electoral reform is not a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary condition for any kind of democratic reform” (CA5). The Citizens’ Assembly agreed on three criteria for an electoral system to achieve this in British Columbia (CA4). Their three criteria for an electoral system were: (1) effective local representation; (2) fair results by proportional translation of votes into seats; and (3) maximum voter choice. These are the criteria that the assembly felt would best be fulfilled by the single-transferable-vote (STV) electoral system.
The single-transferable-vote, a form of proportional representation, was not the only voting system they looked at. Although the adaptations vary, systems of proportional representation are the most popular electoral systems worldwide (Heard, 2008, ¶20). The three main systems for proportional representation are party-list systems, additional or mixed-member systems and the single-transferable-vote. Party-list systems elect candidates based on party votes in an order determined by the party (closed) or electors (open). Additional-member systems add unsuccessful candidates to the legislative body until it proportionally represents to the party vote. The single-transferable-vote has multi-member-constituencies with candidates ranked in order of preference on a ballot. Benefits of most proportional representation systems include the increased representation of women and minority groups, reduced ‘orphan voters,’ increased voter turnout, representation of minor parties and independents, higher accuracy in representation of citizen opinions and better geographical distribution (Newman, 2006, pp. 16-24).
The major criticisms of proportional representation systems are that the processes of allocating seats can be complex and that it also may increase the size of government (Newman, 2006, p. 24). In a proportional system, the likelihood of forming a majority government significantly decreases. Therefore, most decisions are made in the legislature or through coalitions instead of the governing cabinet (Grubel, 2004, ¶11). The need to consider more perspectives to pass a bill can result consistently in stable, more inclusive policy. Not only have more proportional systems increased the representation of minorities, the countries that use forms of proportional representation tend to have much higher rates of participation than those that use majority or plurality systems (World Policy Institute, 1995).
A satisfactory electoral system has been defined as one that performs a range of tasks reasonably even at the expense of not doing any of them extremely well (Harrop & Miller, 1987, p. 42). Additionally, most political scientists agree that there is no “best” system – all have their flaws (Newman, 2006, p. 4). The assembly’s Assistant Communication Director noted: “I see merits and demerits in all the systems we looked at” (IE36).
Knowing that they could not propose a perfect system was a dilemma for many of the assembly members. In particular, this was a struggle during the closing stages of the assembly when they were choosing between STV and MMP (mixed-member-proportional). MacLachlan recalled:
The subject of great debate in the assembly’s closing stages was whether to recommend the system that the majority of them favoured [STV] or to recommend a system that was slightly less complicated [MMP]? There was a lot of anguish about this question. IE34
However, he concluded:
I was very proud of the assembly for sticking to its mandate and saying ‘We were put here to recommend what we think is best and we’re going to stick to that and if people don’t get it, then at least we’ve done our best.’ IE35
In the lead up to the assembly’s final recommendation the newspapers provided some coverage for the systems being proposed – some praising and others objecting the systems (IE23). It became very clear that British Columbians would need to be educated on whichever proposal that the assembly were to put forward. MacLachlan recalled:
I know that the assembly and certainly I urged the government to provide a neutral, objective, educational-informational campaign. Let people know what is being talked about, what it means, how it works, what are the plusses of this system and what are the minuses of this system. I think New Zealand provided a good solid example of how you can, for comparatively little money, do an objective public educational campaign that leaves the public much more aware and understanding – they basically like or don’t like the system and can vote accordingly. IE27
However, as assembly member Dianna Byford recalled, “The government did not provide any education funding after the Citizens’ Assembly disbanded” (CC1). Jacobson continued, “Once the assembly closed it almost went dead, the CA members were left on their own” (IF12). In lieu of an educational campaign, MacLachlan and Jacobson (assembly communication staff) recommended to Jack Blaney (assembly chair) that they use the members themselves for an educational campaign (IE9). MacLachlan recalled the process:
Jack was more used to the thought of a central office that looked after all the media relations. It took a little persuading saying that we should turn 154 kittens loose on the community. In fact, it turned out to be a riotous success. IE10
Following the disbanding of the assembly, the Citizens’ Assembly Alumni was formed with most of the former assembly members. The alumni worked closely with the “YES for BC-STV” campaign (herein referred to as the “Yes” campaign). However, two former assembly members that were opposed to STV joined the “KNOW STV” campaign (herein referred to as the “No” campaign) with a mandate of campaigning against the BC-STV recommendation. One assembly member commented:
Another interesting and really helpful experience was getting the opportunity to debate with the “No” side. I was really grateful that there was a “No” side to debate with. IA13-4
Neither the “Yes” nor the “No” campaign had the means for using any paid advertising (ID5). The government of British Columbia stayed at an arms length and staffing the campaigns was very difficult. “Yes” campaign coordinator Bernard von Schulman recalled:
One of the first things we had to do was to find someone to run the campaign. The Canadian government didn’t accept our first choice that we all agreed upon on the grounds that she cannot possibly be a professional because we weren’t going to pay her enough. As a drop-back what ended up happening is that I ended up taking on the role as the campaign coordinator and tried to pull all the groups together because there was no structure. IC4
There were very mixed feelings about the concluding result of the assembly. One member from the lower mainland recalled the referendum process as “like trying to chip away at a wall with a pen knife” (Ratner, 2008, p. 159). Von Schulman noted the odd nature of the final process, “A decision that just becomes a decision and goes on the shelf and nobody pays attention to it doesn’t go very far – you have to communicate the results” (IC33). However, the general sentiment from the assembly members was a positive attitude toward their success against all odds. They were profoundly aware of the importance of their work:
It was interesting that everybody at the election party I was at didn’t care about which parties or candidates were being elected but were rather excited about the referendum. It was thrilling to see a majority in almost all the regions and the result come so close to the 60% threshold. IA16
It is a curious, and in many ways an unfortunate circumstance that the eleven months of careful and well planned deliberations were left without a funded method of communicating to the general public. It has been argued that campaigns that address important problems with collective benefits are considered a public-service campaign if they are non-partisan and support the broad spectrum of the public without significant challenges (Rice & Atkin 2002, p. 447, p. 427). Due to the nature of the Citizens’ Assembly, the BC-STV campaign could quite reasonable have been considered as a public-service campaign and funded accordingly.
In conclusion, the assembly process was carried out extraordinarily well; it was an exemplar of deliberative democracy in many regards. However, it had one fatal flaw. Without any appropriate public communication strategy, the people of British Columbia were surprised with a referendum question on their electoral ballot that gave them the power to change how politics are done in the province – and for the large part, they had no idea what it meant.
Gastil argues that democracy is dependent on the passion and ingenuity of the people and therefore, “…it is no surprise that democratic reform relies on those same qualities” (Gastil, 2008, p. 288). The BC-STV referendum garnered astounding popularity (57.7%) throughout the province, especially considering the lack of a sufficient public communication strategy. This result speaks very loudly to the legitimacy and processes of the Citizens’ Assembly, the merits of the recommended BC-STV system alongside the quality and dedication of the citizens of British Columbia. This chapter will outline factors that contributed to the success of the BC-STV referendum including: the legitimacy and processes of the Citizens’ Assembly, merits of the BC-STV model and the successful modes of voter education.
In The Deliberative Democracy Handbook, scholars Ned Crosby and Doug Nethercut emphasise the importance of a commitment from policy-makers if an implementation of deliberative democracy is to have significant influence (2005, p. 114). The BC-STV model may have achieved its popularity because of the legitimacy of the Citizens’ Assembly. It was an autonomous, randomly selected representative body, commissioned and funded by the government, designed and chaired by third parties (Hon. Gordon Gibson and Jack Blaney respectively), given a small staff and given the authority to put their recommendation directly to referendum. Caddy argues that citizen involvement in electoral reform is incredibly effective considering that, “the status, perceptions, information, knowledge and resources of citizens and governments are irreducibly different, even when they are dealing with the same issues” (2005, p. 110). Citizens do not hold the same vested interests in an electoral system as those who have historically selected them. Much of the success of the BC-STV recommendation can be attributed to the processes that legitimised the Citizens’ Assembly to many British Columbians.
As mentioned earlier, Carson and Hartz-Karp put forward three criteria for deliberative democracy: deliberation, inclusion and influence (2005, p. 122). The successful adherence to these criteria by the Citizens’ Assembly was very essential to the legitimacy of the process in the public mind.
If citizens are to be empowered to choose their electoral system, Thompson argues that they should be prepared to engage in deliberations, openly presenting their views, seriously considering the views of others as to reach a mutually acceptable proposal (2008, p. 27). According to Gastil, judgement is a second thought that can only be a product of deliberation by taking with others, considering the consequences and working through conflicts (2008, p. 33). The Citizens’ Assembly differed significantly from voting or polling inasmuch as it sought out a balanced judgement from the members by not treating their preferences as fixed or ranked; continually emphasising that judgement differs from opinion (Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 28).
Furthermore, deliberation is a process where people arrive at a well-reasoned solution after carefully examining a problem through inclusive dialogue, carefully and respectfully considering a diverse range of perspectives. The legitimacy of the assembly’s recommendation was not due to the aggregation of the opinions of the individual members but rather the deliberative process of the assembly itself (Manin, 1987, p. 351-2). As is discussed below, the assembly’s powerful ability to bridge divides and reduce conflict was due to the deliberative process: the bringing together of the government and the governed (Walsh, 2007, p. 45).
In A Theory of Justice, political philosopher John Rawls reasoned that if people did not know what lot they would draw in life, they would want systems that were more socially progressive, simultaneously protecting the disadvantaged and giving enough liberty for people to be in charge of their own lives (1971). The Citizens’ Assembly encouraged this kind of civic-minded dialogue throughout all facets of their proceedings. However, this was only achieved because of its focus on the deliberative processes, not the hypothesised or expected outcomes (Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 29).
Not only were the proceedings during the Citizens’ Assembly sessions very deliberative in nature, but the Citizens’ Assembly members also took the same inclusive attitudes and deliberative practices into the public meetings held across the province. As MacLachlan noted:
To my delight, the sessions became debates and tutorials – they weren’t one-way communication at all. We had hoped there would be a lot of two-way communication and there was. IE40
The deliberative nature of those public hearings is uncommon. More often than not, public meetings are far from deliberative and largely viewed as a waste of time. This is exemplified by these experiences of a former city councillor:
One of my fellow council members would occasionally start a public hearing by announcing that he already knew what position each witness would take. And he was usually correct. I figure I spent nearly 2,000 hours in formal public hearings over the last eight years. It was not time well spent” (Adams, 1995, p. 20).
Often citizens feel forced out of the conversation by officials due to the overuse of technical language and exclusive structure of the meetings (Eliasoph, 1998, p. 190).
The civic-minded attitude that resulted from the deliberative assembly was important in creating the inclusive environment that encouraged the citizens to reason with each other about issues of mutual concern, finding solutions that are morally acceptable to all concerned (Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 28). While everyone has a different perspective and strong opinions, the Study Circles Resource Center emphasises that, “…we have enough in common as human beings to allow us to talk together in a constructive way” (1997, p. 45). The deliberations set the stage for finding common ground by acknowledging differences and striving for inclusivity.
The design of the Citizens’ Assembly was inherently inclusive in more ways than just the deliberative dialogues. While some argued that the self-selection reduced the inclusiveness, the random selection of a male and female candidate from each riding, statistically representative demographics and the intentional inclusion of two aboriginal members to compensate for statistical error were all major elements in its inclusive design (Carson & Martin, 1999, p. 4). As a government initiative, the assembly’s ability to generate media further stimulated community learning and awareness (to varying degrees). Furthermore, the Citizens’ Assembly members included their friends, family and broader community by having informal discussions between assembly sessions – this dialogue was also a major factor in their own opinion development (Carson & Hartz-Karp, 2005, p. 127).
Neither citizens nor experts have a broad enough knowledge base or the right to solely choose an electoral system that will affect everyone. One reason that 160 citizens from British Columbia had this much influence was because of their random selection, inclusive deliberations, and learned expertise – all of which was initiated by a unanimous vote in the legislature. Whereas most public hearings amount to very little and are there to just fulfil legal requirements, the Citizens’ Assembly was a deliberative forum with citizens that were accountable to their constituents back home (Walsh, 2007, p. 56). One Citizens’ Assembly member recalled:
It seemed to be the first time I knew of that ordinary citizens had been asked to participate in policy making this way. It was interesting to take part in the debate for such a significant policy change…I think one of the lessons of importance from the CA process is that it is important to include the public in matters of public policy. They will rise to the occasion. If you set the bar high they will meet it. IA15-20
Crosby and Nethercut argue that uses of deliberative should have wide media coverage, or more importantly, a commitment from policy-makers if it is to have significant influence (2005, p. 114). While the Citizens’ Assembly and their recommendation received very little media coverage, it is to the credit of the assembly that it was “the one progressive reform that very few people are voicing their opposition to” (Gregson, 2004, ¶2).
Throughout the process there were people who voiced concern about the referendum question seeming to be more of a question about public support of the Citizens’ Assembly itself rather than the merits of the BC-STV model (IB27). However, Thompson argues that the main thing they needed to know was that the Citizens’ Assembly was composed of ordinary citizens deliberating in a fair way on their behalf (2008, p. 48). The assembly process allowed citizens to largely substitute the members deliberation and learning for their own; answering the question of what other ordinary citizens would do given all the information and time to deliberate (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 167). Jacobson commented on this process:
It was the credibility of the CA that was a very big factor in how well the referendum went – I felt like we had done a very good job in creating that over the sixteen-months that we had. IF17
When surveyed, citizens had different reasoning for voting for the BC-STV recommendation (Cutler et al, 2008). While the knowledge and perceived credibility of the assembly were important, many voters also cast their vote for the BC-STV model as a vote in opposition to the existing system (p. 186). In all cases, the more knowledge citizens had of the Citizens’ Assembly members and process, the more likely it was that they would attribute credibility to the members’ expertise and intentions – and those that trusted the assembly tended to vote “Yes” for BC-STV (p. 187). It would seem very likely that if an identical proposal had come from any other process than it would not have garnered the same level of support.
In Behind the Oval Office, President Clinton’s media advisor Dick Morris recalls “if the public won’t buy your basic premise, it doesn’t matter how much you spend or how well your ads are produced; they won’t work” (Dick Morris, 1997, p. 152). Clearly, the final STV model, tailored to British Columbia, was very important in the results of the referendum. The more voters knew about the model, the less that they relied on the merits of the Citizens’ Assembly (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 187). For most voters, the STV model seemed like the best compromise; so much so that the “No” campaign focused primarily on system’s complexity or on the outlying shortfalls of it being a centrist model, a compromise. Journalist Andrew MacLeod commented that the assembly’s second preference, MMP, would have been much harder to gain public acceptance (IB34).
After extensive research into the thoughts and opinions of Canadians, Paul Howe and David Northrup conclude in Strengthening Canadian Democracy that the best way to increase the voter turnout is to give the voters a reason to feel that their votes count (2000, p. 26). Furthermore, leading up to the referendum and assembly process, there was a sentiment among British Columbians that they wanted “a voting system that reflected the intentions of the voters” (CB1). Political theorists Martin Harrop and William L. Miller would argue that the BC-STV model received a wide range of support because it appeared to perform a range of tasks reasonably well; even if that would be at the compromise of not doing one single task superbly (1987, p. 42). As Citizens’ Assembly member Harley Nyen states, “BC-STV is not only about proportional representation or local representation, it is also about voter choice between candidates,” he lamented: “I have so many choices all the time, but when it comes to voting I only get to put one ‘X’ in one circle” (CH1).
At the electoral reform conference Loenen noted the adversarial nature of FPTP, how Canadians do not like negativity or personal attacks and that the preferential ballot under STV rewards co-operation (CA2). Furthermore, 77% of Canadians agreed that they would have better laws if their representatives could vote freely (Howe & Northrup, 2000, p. 23). Most other proportional systems use a party list of electing some or all of their representatives. While more decision-making is made in parliament under proportional systems, the party’s control of these “party lists” still result in very little free voting (Grubel, 2004, ¶11). Although STV was criticised for being complex, “Yes” campaign coordinator Bernard von Schulman compared it to MMP as follows:
I can’t imagine a simpler system [STV]. For example, MMP is wildly complex if you try and explain why some people are elected differently. Running a “No” campaign against MMP would be a piece of cake because it has fundamental undemocratic flaws in it…Keep in mind that the BC-STV vote was higher than the New Zealand MMP vote. IC29-30
Furthermore, the closed-lists of most proportional systems result in governing representatives that voters did not directly vote for (Newman, 2006, p. 23).
Conversely, the inability for a representative in a single member district to represent all points of view from within their constituency often results in more than half the constituency without a representative that they voted for (CG2). As former assembly member Craig Henschel noted, the existing system elects delegates not representatives (CG3). Therefore, one could surmise that under both plurality and proportional systems votes send “delegates” to their “representative body” whereas the BC-STV model would provide local and proportional representation.
Virtually no media suspected STV to be proposed early in the assembly process. However, as mentioned earlier, the public were very responsive to the merits of the voting system. Henschel proposes that under the BC-STV system a politician would have more power to vote in the interest of their constituents even if that goes against party’s position: “under BC-STV a politician can tell the party that if they supported a particular party policy they will lose the next election” (CG4). Loenen agreed, “we need a political system that places the common good above partisan interest” (CA4). Because a successful party under the BC-STV system would be one that nominates diverse candidates within a constituency and citizens can choose candidates within the same party, British Columbians supported the idea that they could “change the direction of a party to suit the voters” much more efficiently than within contemporary politics (CB2; CH3).
Political communication scholar Brian McNair argues that democracy is only truly real when it involves the participation of an informed and rational citizenry (2007, p. 16). As discussed in the second chapter, the mainstream media have assumed the role of most political communication in contemporary society. The political communication process is very intricate and so multifaceted that it becomes difficult to analyse. Even the language used in the communication process usually will favour one perspective over another (Fraser, 1992, p. 119). However, the BC-STV recommendation was communicated surprisingly well considering the circumstances (IE19). This was achieved through the use of the mainstream media, the Internet and most significantly: the citizenry of British Columbia.
Crosby and Nethercut argue that widespread media coverage is necessary to influence public policy, this is particularly important in a referendum where it must first influence public opinion (2005, p. 114). During his interview, Assistant Communications Director Don MacLachlan recalled the voter education as a very difficult process due to funding restraints and the neutral nature of the assembly process. He recalled the success of their operation considering the circumstances:
Although we had a very primitive way of measuring how many stories were on or about the assembly in the media, we still managed to average 3.5 newspaper stories per day, every day for sixteen months. IE20
Throughout the process, media coverage was both solicited and earned. Furthermore, most of the coverage was intended as neutral and interpreted as positive due to the legitimacy of the assembly and the merits of the BC-STV voting system.
Much of the media attention for both the Citizens’ Assembly and the BC-STV recommendation was solicited. Bernard von Schulman recalled soliciting media attention for the “Yes” campaign:
Without any money or anything much of it came down to trying to get newspapers to take on the task of doing something to cover it, doing some degree of editorial or to speak out in some way, shape or form about the issue. I think we were reasonably successful in that. IC23
It can be very difficult earning media attention for a neutral, positive reform because news stories value negativity and sensationalism. The assembly’s communication staff were continually pitching, pushing and following up stories with a particular focus on local media and their constituency’s assembly member (IE1, IF8-9). MacLachlan recalled:
We had a job persuading media that there is some really interesting stuff just in the process… It took a while to get some acceptance that this was news. But then it became so. Where else have you had a group of ordinary citizens pull together who are going to take a serious look at restructuring the entire electoral system in this province. It’s unique, and we mean unique. It’s a much-misused word, but we really mean unique. IE17-8
Although most newsrooms were focusing their limited resources and reporters were prioritising other stories, not to mention competition from the upcoming election; some journalists personally took to the story as a public-service, because they thought it was important (IB16). Many journalists took the position of communicating the assembly’s proposal to the public, providing arguments for and against and explaining the process (IB11). The Vancouver Sun provided a substantial amount of coverage, particularly in comparison to its competitors (Gregson, 2004, ¶9). Radio commentator, Rafe Mair spoke of the Citizens’ Assembly and BC-TV on his program:
We should start with the thought that 160 of our fellow citizens, in an overwhelming favourable vote, and after the most careful of examination of plenty of evidence, have made a recommendation. While that doesn’t mean we must agree with them – it does tell us that since none of us have gone through that exercise, we should give considerable weight to the recommendation made. (2004)
The earned media was largely a result of the unique nature of the Citizens’ Assembly and the individual reporters feeling that their responsibility as a journalist, as a citizen and as a voter, was to educate people (IB2-4). These journalists were often those that had greater liberty in their job to follow up the more unique stories (IB7). Journalist Andrew MacLeod recalled his experience:
One election night in the late 90s, while listening to results and I started looking at groups like Fair Vote and finding who was pushing electoral reform. I saw the need, was pleased to hear that something was going forward and paid some attention from the early stages…The earliest things I did was public-service journalism of how to explain to people in a non-threatening way exactly what this is. IB3-5
Moreover, this public-service journalism often reflected well on the BC-STV recommendation.
As established in the second chapter, the Citizens’ Assembly was an implementation of deliberative democracy. The third chapter discussed how it is inherently neutral and democratic in many ways. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the more the voters knew about both the Citizens’ Assembly and the BC-STV recommendation, the more likely they would be to vote “Yes” in the referendum (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 186; IB40). MacLachlan recalled that, “…coverage of the Citizens’ Assembly itself was overwhelmingly interesting, positive and objective,” furthermore, “the positive press was actually quite neutral; they focused on their local constituent that was part of the assembly” (IE22, 24). Knowledge of the BC-STV recommendation and the Citizens’ Assembly tended to come packaged together; while it was helpful context for citizens, the “No” campaign felt that it biased citizens toward the BC-STV recommendation (ID10).
Reactions of informed citizens were overwhelmingly positive, however, most British Columbians did not know much at all, if anything about the assembly or its recommendation (IB26). Knowledge of the two were crucial to the referendum result; voters were much more likely to reward the proposal with a “Yes” vote if they were not surprised at the ballot box (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 182). However, many citizens voted for the BC-STV recommendation with no knowledge of it, simply because they were not satisfied with the existing system (ID10, Ratner, 2008, p. 153).
Author and professor Manuel Castells claims that the Internet has in many ways become “the fabric of our lives,” liking it to both the electric grid and electric engine of the industrial era (2000, p. 1). It should come at no surprise that with no real money, structure or easy way to communicate: “the role of the Internet was crucial” (IC7-8). With very little money across the board there was a website for the Citizens’ Assembly, the assembly Alumni and both sides of the BC-STV campaign. Much of the involvement in the BC-STV campaign came from the Internet; “people like Dan Grice from Vancouver saw that we weren’t moving fast enough so they just started doing stuff, so we just incorporated them into the campaign” (IC6).
Furthermore, recent surveys are showing that the Internet is bringing young people and otherwise disengaged citizens into politics (Kruger, 2002, p. 476-98; Gastil, 2008, p. 30). This was further demonstrated by the dramatically higher levels of support from the younger demographic of voters (IC11). Most voter education was a result of individuals going online and researching the BC-STV model and the Citizens’ Assembly and then talking with their peers (IC11). As von Schulman recalled: “people who weren’t online really weren’t getting a lot of information, so they really weren’t informed about it – the default when you don’t know is to vote ‘no’” (IC11).
The Internet was used for voters to interact between themselves, the Citizens’ Assembly and the BC-STV campaign. The Citizens’ Assembly had over 3,000 subscribers to their email newsletter that was then regularly forwarded onto friends and family (IF10). The online forum set up by the assembly members was an organic forum for discussion between themselves and the general public (IA10). The transition of political communication online encourages people to learn at their own pace, digging deeper into the subject until they are satisfied (Bonner et al, 2005, p. 142).
The government of British Columbia did not support any campaign for the BC-STV referendum and there was very little support from third-party organisations. In that given situation, most of the support came from individuals who decided to speak out in favour of the BC-STV model, and it was best done at grassroots levels: “from Rotary clubs through to the Internet” (IA26). The assembly members felt that if they, as ordinary citizens, understood and supported the BC-STV model, then “the rest of the province should understand if provided with accurate information” (IA25). There were two major groups of citizens promoting the BC-STV recommendation: the former assembly members (alumni) and other ordinary, involved citizens. These groups banded together in different capacities to form the “Yes” campaign.
The aforementioned credibility and legitimacy of the assembly members combined with the solicited communications throughout the assembly process were significant factors in the proposal’s success (IF6, 17). However, if the contributions of the assembly members stopped there it would likely have been disastrous. Instead, many of the assembly members took ownership of their proposal by writing letters to newspapers and magazines, speaking in their local communities and on the radio; taking an active role in the campaign (IE11-3). It is to the credit of the assembly staff that they provided communication and media training as well as opportunities for the members to use after the final proposal (IF2-7). Even those assembly members that had difficulties about speaking in public made efforts to contribute; some used a standardised video animation to explain it properly (IF5). MacLachlan recalled the benefits of alumni participation: “it didn’t just increase our capacity to communicate to the public; it was an enormous factor in it” (IE14).
“Yes for BC-STV” was a joint campaign between the assembly alumni and the general public. It was founded by several people that were strong supporters of STV who had waited for the assembly’s proposal as to remain impartial during the proceedings (IC2). Most of the members of the “Yes” campaign originally used the Internet to find the ad hoc campaign (IC6). It was a very unique experience; von Schulman recalled the “wildly different political backgrounds of those who supported STV” (IC17). However grassroots the “Yes” campaign was, the contributions of the assembly members alongside the endorsements of many well-known people and groups seemed to earn legitimacy for much of the public. Von Schulman also noted the unique nature of the BC-STV campaign and its magnitude considering circumstances:
The single most effective thing was the 1,500 or so talks that were organised between the CA Alumni and the Yes for BC-STV campaign in lead up to the referendum. We reached an average of 150 people per talk. I don’t know of any other issue where as many people have shown up to public talks in BC. IC13
In Brian McNair’s book, Political Communication, he surmises that while the wealthy and powerful have a monopoly over most things, they do not have a monopoly over the innovation and creativity in political communication (2008, p. 38). When citizens were informed of the BC-STV recommendation and the Citizens’ Assembly their reactions were overwhelmingly positive, however, most British Columbians did know not much at all, if anything about the assembly or its recommendation (IB26). Knowledge of the two were crucial to the referendum result; voters were much more likely to reward the proposal with a “Yes” vote if they were not surprised at the ballot box (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 182). However, many citizens voted for the BC-STV model with no knowledge of it, simply because they were not satisfied with the existing system (ID10; Ratner, 2008, p. 153). Although the Citizens’ Assembly and the BC-STV recommendation were up against all odds; the sheer success of 57.7% is a direct result of the legitimate processes of the Citizens’ Assembly, the tailored design of the BC-STV voting model and the efforts of the general public and former assembly members.
Throughout the first four chapters I have argued and given evidence from my research, that the processes of the Citizens’ Assembly were legitimate and the BC-STV is a suitable voting model, tailored for British Columbia. While the government spent almost six-million dollars on the assembly process, the province still did not enact a reform of their electoral system due to the failure of the BC-STV referendum to pass 60% threshold. It is generally agreed that although many governments subscribe to the ideal of democracy, they are neglecting the importance of education, “… The normative assumption of a ‘rational’ citizenry is not realistic” (McNair, 2007, p. 21). Furthermore, governments are abdicating many of their roles to the media. The media is largely responsible for setting the public’s political agenda and being the platform upon which much of it is played out (Gastil, 2008, p. 58).
The Citizens’ Assembly was an extraordinary process right until they concluded with their recommendation. However, the failures of the referendum can largely be linked to insufficient post-deliberative planning, direct opposition and the lack of proper education for voters to understand the complexities of the proposed model. To understand the disparity between support of the BC-STV recommendation within the Citizens’ Assembly and the voting public this chapter will outline the failings of the post-deliberative processes, the lack of finances and support, the difficulties of the supermajority threshold, direct opposition and complexity of the BC-STV model and the difficulties in educating the voting public.
Much of the failures of the referendum were due to the post-deliberative processes. Following the assembly deliberations there was a lack of finances and support from government or third-parties, the resulting failure to communicate the content and reasons for the recommendation, and finally, that the BC-STV recommendation was subject to an unusual referendum threshold of 60%.
In my interviews, the single most commonly mentioned barriers for the BC-STV recommendation passing the 60% threshold was the lack of funding and government support. After commissioning the assembly, the government kept at an arms-length from the assembly and its staff, not wanting to be seen as “pushing electoral reform or any particular model” (IE4). Jacobson recalled the process, “There wasn’t a strong enough communication after the assembly adjourned, there wasn’t the communications support for the process leading up to the referendum, once the assembly closed it almost went dead – the CA members were left on their own” (IF12).
This is particularly odd because the assembly was a bipartisan government initiative. As journalist Andrew MacLeod noted: “the Premier who put it in motion wasn’t standing up and championing it and people like Gordon Gibson who had been involved were quieter as it went to referendum,” he continued, “it was a neutral process that came up with the BC-STV – to then go ahead and treat them as biased is a little bit weird” (IB13; 41). There was no campaign support from the government other than a leaflet sent to residents five months before the referendum (IC12). Furthermore, there was very little support from other organisations, particularly Fair Vote Canada (which has since provided more support for 2009) (IC14). From a financial and public relations standpoint the process was insufficient. They spent $5.5 million of taxpayers money to get a recommendation that was essentially “left on the shelf” (Ratner, 2008, p. 145).
Jacobson remembers “pestering” the government to find out their plan for the dissemination of the proposal and education of voters; and as she recalled “we only heard right at the very end” that the government would only agree to mail out pamphlets (IF13). MacLachlan claimed that explaining a new electoral system that would change the lives of four million people would require a major educational-informational campaign; it could not be done with only a website and a few newspaper articles (IE26). He tried to convince the government that the assembly’s proposal could be explained objectively, even suggesting that it be run by Elections BC (IE29; 39).
The reason for government’s lack of financial support for communications remains unclear. However, we can speculate that it could be because governments rely on the press far too often for political communication, assuming that if they leave it to its own devices then the people will become informed (IB38). However, the press are generally not objective, balanced, neutral, democratic or working in the public interest – nor should the government abdicate their responsibility (IB38). The funding and timing for a campaign is essential if it is to succeed (IC32). However, one assembly member felt that it was as if the government had said to them, “We’re going to create this big hill for you to climb, and by the way, we’re not going to give you any ropes to climb it with” (Ratner, 2008, p. 159).
Inherent in the design of the Citizens’ Assembly was the referendum and supermajority requirement put in place by the Legislative Assembly. The assembly’s proposal required 60% of the provincial vote if it was to pass the referendum. Many interview respondents had negative feelings toward the supermajority requirement, had it been a regular simplemajority the BC-STV recommendation would have passed. As journalist Andrew MacLeod said, “Firstly, the sixty percent threshold was pretty ridiculous” (IB21). The “Yes” campaign co-odinator questioned the legitimacy of the supermajority requirement, arguing that if it is not the public will it is undemocratic: “The majority of the public will was for the BC-STV, not just mildly but very strongly in favour… The public was certainly not flocking to vote for the existing system” (IC40). Even the “No” campaign coordinator reasoned that the supermajority created an unequal playing field:
Because they had a very high threshold, the double threshold [60%], it was easy for the “No” side. As soon as the “Yes” side heard about the high threshold, they should have lobbied to get rid of it. ID19
Andrew MacLeod claimed that voting on a deliberative recommendation from a near-random, representative selection of the population does not make much sense (IB24). Requiring a supermajority for the first time in the global history of electoral reform could seem like it was being set up for failure. Such a move brought political scientist Dennis Pilon to ask, “Why did the government set the threshold to 60%?” considering that no voting system had previously been established with such a high threshold – even the referendum on conscription only required a simplemajority in Canada (CI4). In response to this restriction, Don MacLachlan suggested that, “Politicians hate changes in electoral systems, particularly any system that makes them more accountable” (IE33). By and all, the supermajority requirement could been seen as the single greatest cause for failure, inherent in the design of the assembly – within a regular majority 57.7% is a landslide victory.
Direct opposition to the BC-STV recommendation was clearly a major factor for it failing to meet the referendum threshold. Those opposing the BC-STV system ranged in as many ways as those supporting it. However they were significantly more skewed to specific interest groups. Furthermore, much of the opposition to the BC-STV recommendation was because of an underlying dissent toward the Citizens’ Assembly members and process.
Journalist and “No” campaign spokesperson Bill Tieleman exemplified the attitude of much of the direct opposition:
I thought that the CA members operated to the best of their abilities and with the best intentions…However, it wasn’t a true random sample…I think the challenge is that you have a group of people that have spent 14 or so weekends working on this suggesting that they ultimately know better than all the academics, all the former politicians, all the current politicians and anybody else that has a view about it. ID35-6
The self-selection into the of potential assembly members was inherently biased toward more civic-minded individuals that are unsatisfied with the status quo (Warren, 2008, p. 65). While this caused some opposition, it was magnified by those on the “No” side who felt that ordinary citizens had no place in electoral reform and were not capable of sufficiently understanding the processes (ID40-1).
Many in the “No” campaign were adamant about keeping ordinary citizens out of the decision-making process. Tieleman argued that populists like citizen assemblies because they do not like politicians (ID40). However, he argued that politicians should not “abdicate their role on something as important as electoral reform” and that even “the smartest and best-intentioned citizens, [if only] spending a relatively short period of time,” cannot “fully understand all the nuances and details of an electoral system – even with some expert help” (ID40-1).
Although some people were opposed to the Citizens’ Assembly, others were opposed to the model they proposed, a variation of the single-transferable-vote (STV). The “No” campaign called themselves “KNOW STV,” because they felt that most people would dislike STV the more that they learned about it (ID13, 16). Their goal was to educate people on the perceived short-fallings of the voting system. There were several aesthetic and contradictory arguments such as the increased riding size – although FPTP has less choice in each riding and MMP has province-wide representatives. However, the two consistent arguments against it were its obscurity and complexity; both of which would be of little consequence to election results under STV.
Concerning the obscurity of STV, Tieleman recalled:
One of the reasons that I got into this was because I didn’t know anything about STV either. I’d heard of it vaguely; it’s not exactly mainstream political science. As I started looking into it, I really got opposed to it. ID12
He continued, explaining how they portrayed STV to the general public:
From our perspective, one part where we were quite successful is that we kept saying that there are only two countries that use it as a national electoral system: Malta and Ireland. Both are tiny island countries and they’ve both had it since the 1920s and nobody else has adopted it on a national basis. ID27
Many of those on the “No” side felt that the assembly’s proposal would have passed the referendum if they had recommended MMP because they thought it was less complicated than STV (ID24). However, Jacobson noted that MMP was equally, if not more, complex (IF21).
A third of the “No” campaign committee was composed of people that were upset the assembly had not recommended MMP and were hoping that if STV failed to pass referendum then MMP may be proposed as an alternative (ID30). There were people that supported electoral reform but had a vested interest in a specific element that STV did not fulfil to their liking and were therefore against it. For example, the group Equal Voice were actively opposed because they wanted a system that legislated equal representation for women and the Green Party of BC wanted a completely proportional system that would give them exactly their percentage of their province-wide popular vote (IC14; ID33).
Jacobson recalled the difficulties of communicating their recommendation alongside all the spin that was being attached to STV by “stake-holders who had something to gain or lose by the electoral system” (IF21). For example the New Democratic Party (NDP) were dramatically opposed to any kind of proportionality because it could sometimes negatively affect election results for them (IF21). The relationship between the NDP and the labour unions resulted in a very strong source of opposition with the union members often being told directly to vote against STV (IC15-6).
Those on the “No” side were predominantly people with government or media experience, as Tieleman recalled, “we knew how to run a campaign; I’m not sure on the other side that anybody knew how to run a campaign, to be honest” (ID8). They had two former premiers, political enemies, come out against STV in week before the referendum: David Barrett (NDP) and Bill Bennett (Social Credit) (ID21). Tieleman recalled contacting the former provincial deputy minister Bob Plecas and saying: “somebody better do something about this or it’s going to pass” (ID3).
Significant opposition also resulted from citizens’ ignorance about their existing voting system (FPTP) and how it differs to other models, Pilon argued that the bigger problem is that they were “ignorant about their ignorance” (CI5). Following the 2005 referendum, University of British Columbia professor Robert S. Ratner interviewed many former Citizens’ Assembly members about the opposition that they experienced toward their recommendation (2008, pp. 145-165). They felt that many “zealots,” “spoilers” or “hecklers” would come into a discussion with preconceived ideas that would not stand to be corrected (p. 154; p. 157). They would not usually be interested in “right or wrong, true or false” and were often just “stubborn naysayers” (p. 156; p. 154).
Much of the opposition came from deeply rooted partisan interests: BC Liberal supporters wanting to hold large majorities, NDP supporters wanting to win more seats with less votes again, smaller party supporters wanting direct proportional representation and majoritarians wanting to keep small parties out of the legislature (p. 156). One of the Citizens’ Assembly members recalled their experience of the opposition:
The whole ‘No’ side was afraid of the redistribution of power under STV. They gave false and scaremongering reasons for being against STV. (Ratner, 2008, p. 157)
However diverse the opposition of the BC-STV system may have been, Howe and Northrup remind us that no matter how tailored a system will be, “Canadians are likely to find fault with other electoral systems” (2000, p. 16).
In his electoral system research brief for the Australian Parliament, advisor Greg Newman argues that one of the major requirements of an electoral system is that all of its features be easily comprehended by the voting public (2006, p. 5). Furthermore, as the assembly’s deliberations were concluding, the members had to decide between recommending the system that they believed to be best suited to British Columbia or to recommend an alternative that would be easier to quickly explain with the absence of a publicly funded education campaign (Pearse, 2008, pp. 80-1). While their efforts are commendable, as many people recognised, the complexity of explaining the BC-STV model was a significant obstacle in the referendum process (IE35).
Throughout my interviewing process, several of the respondents quoted the example of a “thirty-second elevator speech” to explain the difficulty of quickly explaining the nuances of STV to the general population (IC10; IA17). The assembly staff, members and “Yes” campaign tried to find simple ways of communicating the BC-STV system, however Jacobson noted, “It’s not easy to talk about in a verbal way” (IF19). The “No” coordinator recalled, “The ‘Yes’ side thought they found a simple way of explaining it, but I don’t think they did it successfully”; he continued to identify that two of the leading proponents were a mathematics professor and an engineer with different attitudes toward simplicity than ordinary citizens (ID23, 26). Assembly member Nick Boudin argued that the complexity of the BC-STV system varies with the detail of conversation; for example the ability to rank preferences is easy compared to their calculation (IA22). However, he claimed, “… The advantages were quite easy to explain” (IA22).
The obscurity of the STV voting system left it without many comparisons and illustrations. Tieleman argued that MMP would have been easier to sell; the campaign would have been able to provide many examples from across the globe (ID31). One assembly member expressed that it was much easier to correct peoples’ misconceptions in a one-on-one conversation and that the most difficulties that they ran into were in group situations (Ratner, 2008, p. 154). Newman questions if ease of comprehension is very important if the system delivers “a legislature whose makeup reflects the popular will” (Newman, 2006, p. 3). Much of the attitude on the “Yes” side toward the complexity of the counting process was that understanding the mathematics was not as important as understanding the results, “…you don’t need to know how to fix your car to drive your car” – however, many people were not very satisfied by that response (IB19).
Many of those on the “Yes” side felt that experiencing difficulties explaining any new voting system is not unusual (IE32). Unfortunately, properly understanding the BC-STV model required a paradigm shift for voters: “STV was so different from our current electoral system that people had a very hard time getting their minds around it” (IF16). However, MacLeod argued, “…if people were genuinely interested they could figure it out” (IB31). Furthermore, it is much more difficult to explain why party’s often get such disproportionate results under first-past-the-post; and telling people “You don’t understand the current system so why do you care about the new one” is very insulting and unproductive (IC26-7). There is evidence around the world that those using STV understand it well enough to use it productively (Newman, 2006, p. 5). If Australians, Maltese and Irish can understand it, can it not be expected that Canadians are intelligent enough?
All political communication is at risk because of the shrinking attention span of the public, limited broadcast airtime and decreasing focus on investigative journalism (Gastil, 2008, p. 96). Furthermore, the time people devote to understanding news, especially politics, is rapidly decreasing (Gamson, 2001, p. 56). It should be noted that even successful implementations of deliberative democracy, such as the Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia, are facing post-deliberative communication problems.
Deliberative democracy has takes no exception from the complex nature of political communication which governments deal with every day. Simpler policies will often be more popular than their more complex, although arguably superior, counterparts. Therefore, to influence public policy the implementation “should either have a commitment from policy makers or receive wide media coverage, or both” – and even then it still needs a clear, positive and simple message to be communicated effectively to the wider public (Crosby & Nethercut, 2005, p. 114).
However, in the case of the Citizens’ Assembly, the main downfall of its recommendation could be the difficulties inherent in educating voters with no effective or comprehensive governmental plan (Ratner, 2008, p. 159). When asked about what could be learned for future deliberative action involving citizens in politics, journalist Andrew MacLeod responded with the following:
The obvious answer is that you need to communicate the decision, there has to be a plan for doing that. It’s not enough just to set it up and let it run. There has to be some kind of cohesive way to communicate it in a balanced way. IB37
There were significant shortfalls educating the voting public about the STV due to the role of the mainstream news media, the timing of the referendum coinciding with the election and the difficulty bridging the gap between the assembly members and the general public.
In a representative democracy, there is much importance placed upon the ideal of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry because democratic politics need to be conducted in the public arena (McNair, 2007, p. 17). People have often conceived the press as the “fourth estate,” a force capable of translating public life to all of humanity so that each person could have an informed opinion (Lippmann, 1949, p. 228). Yet as Walter Lippmann laments, “… The press have often mistakenly pretended that it could do just that,” the press can easily champion this “myth” because a myth can “combine fact and fiction without any uneasiness existing between the two” (1949, p. 228; Boyce, 1978, p. 27). However, in the case of the news media, there is evidence to support the notion that the political information that the public receive from mass news media is “manufactured artifice rather than objective truth” (McNair, 2007, p. 24). Indeed, the Citizens’ Assembly and its resulting recommendation received little media coverage, was largely left off the public agenda by the media and when it was covered it was often inaccurate or sensationalised.
First, the coverage of the BC-STV recommendation was not a media priority leading up to the referendum – not enough journalists deemed it as important and in most cases the coverage was “very minor, an afterthought” (IB16). Furthermore, sensationalism is a cornerstone of news media and such a neutral process as the Citizens’ Assembly was not seen as “newsworthy” (Kay, 1998, p. 2). Indeed, this pattern was consistent with research has found. For example, some have suggested that because of the constraints inherent in the capacity and priorities of the media, what citizens’ receive as political information is an incomplete and partial picture; like the “limited view of the outside world available through a small window” (McNair, 2007, p. 24; McCombs & Reynolds, 2002, p. 6). Under the current paradigm of a deregulated, stagnant, saturated and sensationalised mainstream media, it has become difficult to achieve significant socio-political change (Golding & Elliot, 1999, p. 633).
Furthermore, Gastil argues that in recent times we have come to expect brief statements and the modern listener has developed a very short attention span (2008, p. 96). Not only was educating fellow citizens difficult, but MacLachlan recalled, “It was not easy to explain to journalists over the phone in thirty-seconds – that makes it a battle” (IE31). The single-transferable-vote is a very different voting system to FPTP, it requires a paradigm shift and that takes time, people need to have the time to understand it if they are to make an informed decision (IC28). Finally, the lack of funding for a central campaign meant that it was difficult for journalists to know who to speak to or how to contact them; there were 160 assembly members and not all of them were comfortable with speaking to the press (IB14).
Another consideration in reviewing the role of the mainstream media is its ability to set the agenda for political discussions and awareness of the public. Communication theorists Maxwell McCombs and Amy Reynolds have written extensively on agenda setting; arguing that people learn the importance of topics based on the emphasis placed on them by the news media (2002). They argue that important political issues must establish salience in the public sphere if they are to find their place appropriately on the public agenda (p. 2). However “only a few are successful in reaching the public agenda” (p. 1).
It is widely accepted that most voters had little information about the BC-STV recommendation going into the referendum, and those who did had a shallow understanding due to a lack of information and misinformation from the media (Ratner, 2008, p. 152). While the Citizens’ Assembly was unique and had 160 citizens deliberating over 11 months, there was nothing like a leaders debate or horse race covered in the news media (ID14). It was difficult getting the referendum onto the public agenda; as MacLachlan recalled: “[We were] trying to sell stories on a new process that media didn’t understand, were too impatient to understand and constantly wanted to get to the end result, long before there was an end result” (IE16).
Finally, the negative and inaccurate media coverage leading up to the referendum could have contributed to the proposal missing the supermajority threshold. There was very little neutral and accurate coverage leading into the 2005 referendum. Journalist Andrew MacLeod recalled:
I didn’t see a lot of straight reporting of what it was all about. For myself, I even had hard time trying to find someone to explain it. IB10
Furthermore, there were several prominent columnists, often with a political background, coming out against the BC-STV recommendation in their articles (ID1-2). Even those that appearing to focus on explaining the model could show bias by the language they used to reason (Fraser, 1992, p. 119). Several assembly members emphasised the damage caused by misinformation from media pundits and misleading comments from former politicians that fostered bigoted and fearful citizens (Ratner, 2008, p. 157). Most of the inaccuracies that people believed were lifted directly from what they read in the newspapers because news media value negativity and sensationalism (p. 154; Gastil, 2008, p. 95). One prominent opposing journalist describes the BC-STV system as “a mathematicians dream system” (ID25). Whereas MacLeod commented on why the voting system may have been at odds with many of his peers: “It’s a gross generalisation, but probably most reporters are people who studied English because they didn’t like Math in grade ten: as a profession, we probably are intimidated by math” (IB20).
A further obstacle to the success of the STV was one of timing. It is a simple and widely accepted truth that media institutions and journalists are in competition with each other to maximise their audience and sell stories with relatively small resources (Philo, 1993, p. 111). Furthermore, Thompson concludes that a referenda is very unlikely to receive much of a campaign or media coverage when it is overshadowed by a general election; leaving voters uneducated on the power being handed to them in the form of direct democracy (Thompson, 2008, p. 46). Furthermore, MacLachlan noted that the “difficulty with educational campaigns is timing – there is no point in running one four months before the vote, it must be within the last two-to-four weeks” (IE44).
However, the lead up to the referendum coincided with the lead up to the election. Therefore, it was inevitably going to be “a side-show, an after event” – while everyone else was caught up in the superficial coverage of the “horse race,” the referendum coverage was trailing far behind (ID15; IB35). Unfortunately, it could never have been a stand-alone referendum, Tieleman argued that it could only have a 10-12% voter turnout and be decided on by an extremely small portion of the population – it would be undemocratic many would be outraged (ID17). It cold be argued that a voting system is considerably more significant than any one individual election, since it can change election results dramatically. However it appears that not enough voters properly understood the weight of its importance. Furthermore, “…none of the major parties were talking about STV going into the election” and without much coverage in the mainstream media, voters were simply surprised at the ballot box (IB8).
Democracies are suffering a failure of voter education, McNair claims that the normative assumption of a rational voting public is not realistic (2007, p. 21). Concurrently, theories of deliberative democracy would argue that it is “erroneous to suppose that individuals already posses a clear, enlightened, and coherent understanding of their preferences or opinions on complex social and political issues…reflective judgements, it is argued, can result only from a process of open and fair deliberation” (Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 28). The Citizens’ Assembly championed this notion of open and fair deliberation and the members arguably ended up as “nascent experts” (Thompson, 2008, p. 47). However, the assembly process that was intended to narrow the gap between experts and citizens in turn “reproduced the problem that it was intended to overcome” – the more the assembly members learned, the more they were different to ordinary citizens (p. 47). Assembly member Nick Boudin concluded, “The Citizens’ Assembly had an intensive education and that would be very difficult to emulate for the entire province” (IA26).
Renowned communication and political theorist Walter Lippmann was critical of the notion of a fully aware voting public, capable of understanding all the decisions that needed to be made all of the time; largely because of the limited amount of attention available (1949, p. 250). Therefore, the voting public will generally have to substitute the knowledge and learning of others as their own. In any case, the Citizens’ Assembly process was not difficult to communicate, it was just underexposed (IB18). However, the closer they came to their recommendation, the harder it became for the public to keep aware of their deliberations and recommendations (IB18; IE25). While the more voters knew about the Citizens’ Assembly, the more they trusted their recommendation (to the point where the “No” side felt it was unfair to mention the assembly in the referendum), this model only worked if voters were comfortable substituting the assembly members expertise for their own (Cutler et al, 2008, pp. 174-178; ID20).
In conclusion, the Citizens’ Assembly could be seen as a failure because only half the province was aware of the assembly by the time of the referendum, even less about the BC-STV recommendation and there was a significant gap between the “mini-public” of the assembly and the public at-large (Warren, 2008, p. 64). This could be linked largely to the lack of appropriate post-deliberative planning, funding and support. Furthermore, there was an experienced and vocal opposition. Finally, they lacked a reasonable education strategy to bridge the gap of understanding between the assembly members and general public of the complex BC-STV model recommended by the assembly.
There is an old saying – “Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.” This has particular relevance to the current electoral system used in Canada, which has been showing its age. Recent political events and elections have demonstrated the truth of this adage and it must now become clear to the Canadian people that to continue with the current electoral system and expect things to change on their own could be simply defined as “insane” by conventional wisdom. British Columbians were fortunate that they were given the opportunity to respond to this by means of the Citizens’ Assembly; a near-random, statistically representative sample of the population deliberating upon a tailored system with contributions from the general public. However, I propose that it is a further act of insanity to spend almost six-million dollars trying to fix a problem, doing everything right until the eleventh-hour when real change can be made and the repeating cycle could be broken, yet ultimately setting it up for defeat.
Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that, “The trouble with the contemporary condition is that society has stopped questioning itself” (1998, p. 5). Many contemporary political critiques argue that we need to move further toward a politically involved citizenry. Furthermore, this was notion was endorsed by many of my interviewees:
There are a lot of governance issues that legislators have no business talking about…We’re no longer in the nineteenth century or fifteenth century, we have an incredibly intelligent, educated public that can be used in politics. IC34-7
Citizens’ need to be more involved in the decision making process, even the use of more referendums is a start. IA28
You could apply a citizens’ assembly to all kinds of policy questions. IE42
The process was largely a successful implementation of deliberative democracy, it earned its legitimacy on many fronts and its recommendation was credible. However, the entire process cannot be considered legitimate or successful without having a sufficient communication process inherent in its design.
Deliberative democracy assumes that individuals do not already posess a “clear, enlightened, and coherent understanding of their preferences or opinions on complex social and political issues” – that this understanding requires a process of open deliberation (Button & Ryfe, 2005, p. 28). In a democracy it is clearly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively govern without consistent public support (Gastil, 2008, p. 208). If a suitable model of deliberative democracy for decision-making is then paired with a good political communication strategy, the public are much more receptive to change (p. 208). However, none of the politicians, political parties, organisations or mainstream media were proactive enough to put the referendum as prominently on the agenda as its importance should merit (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 169).
There are many minor recommendations that could be made, such as better use of the internet, that would, collectively, have had a significant affect on the referendum result. Furthermore, the referendum result could have more closely resembled the assembly’s support if the member selection was a true random sample with less civic-minded members, possibly selected in the same manner as a legal jury (ID35; IA27). If the government had better supported the entire assembly process and not required the supermajority threshold, it would have passed (with 7.7% to spare). However, the failure can largely be reduced to the significant gap of knowledge and support between the Citizens’ Assembly members and the province as a whole.
It should be surprising a near-random, statistically representative sample of the population would garner 95% support of a proposal but only 57.7% of the provincial popular vote. However, under the circumstances, even the 57.7% support was quite extraordinary. The assembly members were highly educated by the time they proposed their recommendation whereas polling showed that the rest of the province were hardly aware of the proposal (IB23; ID11). While every household in the province was sent a copy of the assembly’s final report, it was seemingly irrelevant to most voters because of the poor timing, as it arrived five months before the referendum (Ratner, 2008, p. 159). Although the BC-STV model was complex and the communication campaign was extraordinarily inadequate, it does not diminish the importance, relevance and credibility of the tailored system proposed by the assembly (IA23).
On many accounts, it could be seen as negligent for a government to spend over five million dollars on “a decision that just becomes a decision, goes on the shelf and nobody pays attention to it” (IC33). The assembly’s communication staff tried to convince the government that a neutral, objective, educational campaign was possible and necessary, but they felt that the government did not fully understand that concept because of the adversarial nature of politics (IE28). Furthermore, as journalist Andrew MacLeod argued, the government was wrongly relying on the mainstream media for most of the coverage and that is concerning because “the press’ idea of balanced is ‘he said, she said’ banter” (IB38).
Implementations of deliberative democracy are at the cusp of the political sphere, yet even if deliberations result in recommending the “best policy,” they will fail to gain acceptance if they lack the right communication environment to make it succeed, and the right environment requires the appropriate support. The mandate of the Citizens’ Assembly was to choose the “most suitable” model, not necessarily the model that would be most easily communicated. While the assembly fulfilled their mandate, there was no mandate from the government see it through. Deliberative democracy theorists argue that increased usage of citizens’ assemblies would likely result in an increased trust of the process so that voters might come to substitute an assembly’s opinion as their own (Cutler et al, 2008, p. 187).
During my interview with former assembly member Nick Boudin, he reiterated the importance of the conversation of electoral reform:
I think the results showed that the people of BC are really looking for change, even if it’s not the solution that we proposed. This kind of discussion should be continued even if it doesn’t pass in 2009. IA21
The Premier quite rightly recognised this by commissioning the assembly and later commenting “citizens have been pretty clear that there’s a fairly strong mandate there for electoral reform… There’s clearly some hunger to see an improvement” (Bains, 2005). However, the lack of funding and support from the government alongside the supermajority requirement can only be linked to either a lack of foresight or the direct intention of failure on behalf of the legislature. There is another referendum due in May, 2009 wherein the government is funding both a “Yes” and “No” campaign, each with half a million dollars, instead of just funding an educational campaign. The results of this upcoming referendum will likely be the subject of further study and ongoing conversation in the areas of both electoral reform and deliberative democracy. It is the recommendation of this thesis that the essential role of communication not be as erroneously overlooked as it was in the lead up to the 2005 British Columbian referendum on electoral reform.
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December 15, 2008
Q1 Tell me about when you first heard about the Citizens’ Assembly?
IA1. In 2003 I received a letter in the mail explaining the Citizens’ Assembly process.
IA2. I hadn’t heard much about the Citizens’ Assembly but my girlfriend at the time said that as I’m always complaining about politics this is an opportunity to go out and do something about it.
IA3. I was quite awestruck with the quality of production that went into the Citizens’ Assembly. I was quite starry-eyed and my impression was that the right processes would be in place to enable, 160 people to discuss productively.
Q2 How was your role as a Citizens’ Assembly member supported?
IA4. They provided multiple opportunities for education, a couple of different professors with slightly different perspectives, academics from other countries that used different electoral systems. We also had plenty of opportunities to discuss amongst each other and with the ordinary citizenry as much as possible.
IA5. Naturally, a lot of the citizens that came to the public hearings were electoral system hobbyists – some people collect toy trains while other people study electoral systems. In a lot of cases the people we talked to were not your ordinary Joe but had often already studied it.
IA6. There were a number of different perspectives.
IA7. The Citizens’ Assembly members themselves actually began to take over the communications process. In a meeting during out summer break, some of the CA members started up an online meeting space.
IA8. I was kind of a “lurker” in the online discussions, as I needed to devote a lot of time to university.
IA9. A core group of those most active in the online discussion were the ones who continued to be quite active after the CA process.
IA10. The online forum was an organic initiative from the CA members themselves.
IA11. The online forum was great for being inclusive of everyone’s different schedules. Although a very new idea at the time, the dialogue process online was very essential to the process and allowed more time to absorb the information.
Q3 What were some of the most interesting experiences your time as a CA member?
IA12. For me personally, being interviewed by the media was a very interesting experience.
IA13. Another interesting and really helpful experience was getting the opportunity to debate with the “no” side.
IA14. I was really grateful that there was a “no” side to debate with.
IA15. The most interesting experience was that it seemed to be the first time I knew of that ordinary citizens had been asked to participate in policy making this way. It was interesting to take part in the debate for such a significant policy change
IA16. It was interesting that everybody at the election party I was at didn’t care about which parties or candidates were being elected but were rather excited about the referendum. It was thrilling to see a majority in almost all the regions and the result come so close to the 60% threshold.
Q4 What were some of the challenges you encountered during the CA process?
IA17. The foremost challenge was trying to explain our findings to the citizenry – it just doesn’t work as a thirty second elevator speech, more of a nuanced explanation is required for this system.
IA18. Often in groups some people really take it on, are extraverted, speak well and study it whereas other people may not have as much to say, are still learning or are shy. As I was in the latter category it was a bit of a challenge to have the nerves to speak or find something to bring to the table.
IA19. I think there were some people who were influential, but for me that was largely because they seemed to have really done their research, articulated stuff well and resonated with my decision making process.
Q5 Looking back at the whole process, what to do you think the lessons are to be learned?
IA20. I think one of the lessons of importance from the CA process is that it is important to include the public in matters of public policy – they will rise to the occasion, if you set the bar high they will meet it. This was demonstrated by such a low absentee rate.
IA21. I think the results showed that the people of BC are really looking for change, even if it’s not the solution that we proposed. This kind of discussion should be continued even if it doesn’t pass in 2009.
Q6 In your opinion was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate?
IA22. Parts of the BC-STV are easier to explain than others. For example, the ability to transfer preferences was fairly easy to communicate but the calculation was more difficult. However, the advantages were quite easy to explain.
IA23. Although it is more complex to explain, adopting amore tailored system is very important.
IA24. BC is a resource-based province and those in rural areas are better off under STV. Often people in rural areas will have to drive four hours to speak to their MLA, most other proportional systems would have created less representation for rural people.
IA25. In the CA, our perspective was that because we are ordinary citizens and we understand STV then the rest of the province should understand if provided with accurate information.
IA26. The CA had an intensive education and that would be very difficult to emulate for the entire province. Therefore I think that voter education is best done at grassroots levels – from Rotary clubs through to the Internet.
IA27. The selection process of the CA members needs to be refined. If there are people who support the status quo they should be included much more in discussions.
Q7 In what ways do you think the CA model should be implemented for other uses?
IA28. Citizens’ need to be more involved in the decision making process, even the use of more referendums is a start.
December 11, 2008
Q1 Tell me about when you first heard about the Citizens’ Assembly?
IB1. I remember when they announced that there was going to be a citizens’ assembly process. Beyond that, I remember being, 19 on election night back in, 1991 and wanting to mark “none of the above.”
IB2. As a reporter I’m not a big believer in objectivity, but I think I report things in a fair way. As a voter and an individual I saw the need for it.
IB3. One election night in the late 90s, while listening to results and I started looking at groups like Fair Vote and finding who was pushing electoral reform. I saw the need, was pleased to hear that something was going forward and paid some attention from the early stages.
IB4. I didn’t get involved with writing about it until the later stages, after the Citizens’ Assembly had put out their proposal for STV. I think at that point I realised that as a journalist there it was my role to explain it. People for the most part didn’t know what it was really about, they we’re scared about it and there was lots of misinformation out there.
IB5. The earliest things I did was public service journalism of how to explain to people in a non-threatening way exactly what this is.
IB6. I remember being accused by people from the “Yes” campaign of not being aggressive enough about it, they’d hoped that I would be writing it aggressively positive.
Q2 Please elaborate more on your role as a journalist.
IB7. At the Monday Magazine or the Tyee, I had the opportunity to go into things in a lot more depth than most journalists do. A lot of times in the press things are pretty surface.
IB8. None of the major parties were talking about STV going into the election.
IB9. I felt like I was talking to people in Victoria. I didn’t see myself as a columnist.
IB10. I didn’t see a lot of straight reporting of what it was all about. For myself, I even had hard time trying to find someone to explain it.
IB11. So I thought the role I could play would be communicating it clearly; what are the arguments for and against it. But I was mostly talking to an educated Victorian audience.
Q3 What were some of the most interesting experiences with the BC-STV you had leading into the referendum?
IB12. In some ways, it was just another story. Although, with this one in particular it was all about figuring out who were the sources, people who were credible on it and those who knew about it.
IB13. The Premier who put it in motion wasn’t standing up and championing it and people like Gordon Gibson who had been involved were quieter as it went to referendum.
IB14. There were, 160 members within the Citizens’ Assembly, so the question became “who do you pick to talk about it?” Some of the Citizens’ Assembly members came forward and talked about it, but it took some effort to get in contact with them.
IB15. The supporters of STV probably see me as supportive: I have been the only reporter invited to some cross-partisan supporter barbecues. However, I wouldn’t see myself as a promoter of STV.
IB16. The coverage of the BC-STV leading up the referendum was very minor, an afterthought. Newsrooms are have all been stretched for years and it’s getting worse. Reporters are always having to prioritise which stories they think are the important stories and I thought it was an important story, but I was working for an alternative news source and the idea was to look for important stories that weren’t being told.
IB17. It felt like an important story that was being ignored. It had the occasional mention, but nothing that really told people what it was about.
Q4 What was difficult in communicating the BC-STV or the Citizens’ Assembly process?
IB18. I don’t think the Citizens’ Assembly process was at all hard to communicate.
IB19. It was difficult to quickly explain how the STV votes were counted and the “Yes” campaign had a hard time explaining it too. It got to the point where I think the message was that understanding the counting doesn’t matter because it does make sense if you do understand it – you don’t need to know how to fix your car to drive your car. A lot of people didn’t find that a very satisfying answers.
IB20. It’s a gross generalisation, but probably most reporters are people who studied English because they didn’t like math in grade ten. As a profession, we probably are intimidated by math.
Q5 What do you think can be learned?
IB21. Firstly, the sixty percent threshold was pretty ridiculous.
IB22. There are lots of things that might be better if turned over to a Citizens’ Assembly…maybe the answer is changing the governing system.
IB23. The Citizens’ Assembly had the opportunity to have professionals educate them, go out and do their own research and consult the public so that they can fully consider it. Then there needs to be some kind of model for implementation.
IB24. I’m not sure that having people vote on the recommendation makes all that much sense.
IB25. These people spend their time figuring it all out and then it goes to a Yes/No vote to people maybe do or don’t understand what they’re voting on. For the 2005 referendum, people really didn’t understand it all that well.
IB26. My sense from polls was that the people who did know about it liked it, but that most people didn’t know about it.
IB27. There were people who were worried that it was more of a poll of whether people supported their decision as opposed to whether they liked the voting they recommended.
IB28. The gap between the popularity in the Citizens’ Assembly and the popular vote certainly did surprise me.
IB29. The support was probably higher in the cities where the media concentration is greater. I doubt that people in Prince Rupert were getting many accurate representations of what it was all about.
IB30. I think the more people understood it, the smaller the gap between support in the CA and the public would have been.
Q6 In your opinion, was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate?
IB31. The BC-STV was no more difficult to communicate than any other voting system. I think people criticised it for that; but if people were genuinely interested they could figure it out.
IB32. How the votes were actually counted was harder to explain quickly.
IB33. As a voter and individual, I think the CA made the right decision. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing where you should go with expediency over suitability – how many opportunities do you get to rework how we elect people?
IB34. I think that anything that gives more power to party leaders, like MMP, would be much harder to sell – even if it’s a simpler system.
IB35. Everyone is doing the same stories, and this happened in the election too. Everyone gets caught up in the horse race of who’s ahead in the polls and what the current press releases are. The culture of reporting in this country is not one of digging into something and explaining it.
IB36. My impression was that the CA had better coverage than the referendum did.
Q7 What can be learned for future deliberative citizen involvement in politics?
IB37. The obvious answer is that you need to communicate the decision, there has to be a plan for doing that. It’s not enough just to set it up and let it run. There has to be some kind of cohesive way to communicate it in a balanced way.
IB38. It is more the governments job than the press’ job. Because the press’ idea of balanced is “he said, she said” banter.
Q8 What do you think about the campaign funding?
IB39. I would have liked to see them give a big budget to Elections BC to run a neutral explanatory campaign. Maybe have some kind of committee to keep them neutral, but I think they already do a good job of that.
IB40. Or they could give a budget to the CA to explain it. On the one hand, it could be a biased option, but on the other hand the whole CA process was designed to be neutral.
IB41. It was a neutral process that came up with the BC-STV, to then go ahead and treat them as biased is a little bit weird.
IB42. Funding a “Yes” and “No” campaign is just creating artificial balance.
December 12, 2008
Q1 Tell me about when you first heard about the Citizens’ Assembly?
IC1. I was part of a group of people that were very interested in the whole citizens’ assembly process long before it started; we supported the idea of it.
IC2. Those of us who were strong supporters of STV had tried to keep our mouths shut and not advocate actively during the CA process so that the process would remain fair and impartial. But once the CA’s decision for STV came out we weren’t organised!
IC3. In the December of, 2004 we realised that we needed to come up with something, very quickly! There was a group of us that already knew each other that started getting things rolling.
IC4. One of the first things we had to do was to find someone to run the campaign. The Canadian government didn’t accept our first choice that we all agreed on the grounds that she cannot possibly be a professional because we weren’t going to pay her enough. As a drop-back what ended up happening is that I ended up taking on the role as the campaign coordinator and tried to pull all the groups together because there was no structure.
IC5. Starting a couple of months before the referendum I began spending more than full time on the referendum…my role was to be the one organisational contact for everybody.
Q2 How did you and all the supporters find each other?
IC6. A few of us had already known each other for many years but very quickly a lot of people came out of the woodworks in the world of the Internet. People like Dan Grice from Vancouver saw that we weren’t moving fast enough so they just started doing stuff, so we just incorporated them into the campaign.
IC7. We had to do it all with no money, no real formal structure and no quick and easy way to communicate with people.
IC8. The role of the Internet was crucial.
IC9. If you came to voting systems without any prior knowledge, the single-transferable-vote is the simplest system. The problem is that everybody lives within the paradigm right now of first-past-the-post where they assume they know what’s happening, but they don’t.
IC10. Most people needed education about STV, and most education takes longer than the thirty seconds that someone will give you in an elevator.
IC11. So it was very helpful that a lot of people spent a lot of time looking online and learning about the STV for themselves. That’s one of the reasons why younger people that are more online were dramatically more in favour because they could inform themselves much more easily. People who weren’t online really weren’t getting a lot of information, so they really weren’t informed about it and the default when you don’t know is to vote “no.”
Q3 How did individuals, organisations or government support the 2005 campaign?
IC12. The government did not support any campaign at all and there was minimal support from organisations. Most of the support came from individuals that decided they wanted it and they wanted to speak out in favour of it.
IC13. Really, the single most effective thing was the, 1,500 or so talks that were organised between the CA Alumni and the Yes for BC-STV campaign in lead up to the referendum. We reached an average of, 150 people per talk. I don’t know of any other issue where as many people have shown up to public talks in BC.
IC14. We did have the support of one organisation early on that provided us with some resources – that was the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. We had almost no support from Fair Vote Canada at all. Equal Voice, the organisation involved with empowering more women in politics, not only did not support us but also were actively opposed.
IC15. No significant unions came out in favour, in fact they were sending out notices to their members to vote “No.” This was largely because the STV can be bad for the NDP. They used the typical arguments from the no side: “it’s too difficult for people to understand,” and “it’s bad for women.”
IC16. The labour movement was probably the single strongest source of “No” that was active.
Q4 What were some of the most interesting experiences you had in the campaign process?
IC17. One of the most interesting things was the wildly different political backgrounds of those who supported STV. I remember one day I was holding a conversation with one volunteer who was a hardcore feminist lesbian activist and the very next phone call I tried to make, a volunteer’s husband answered with “I’m sorry she’s not here right now, she’s just organising ‘The Right To Life’ demonstration at the moment.”
IC18. I could be sitting down in rooms with STV supporters could be thinking: “I completely and utterly disagree with everything you think about politics, but we agree on this.”
Q5 What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
IC19. Complete and total lack of any money, we got most of the money we had during the last couple of weeks.
IC20. We started with a small number of people in the organisation and were trying to cross a province of four million people; we were trying to communicate with them and we had nobody or anything.
IC21. One of my early challenges was trying to make sure that we had at least one contact person in every community. In the end, there were still places where we simply just did not find anybody.
IC22. No central organisation meant that nobody had to do what the central “Yes” committee said. People could do whatever they wanted and there was no direction as to what people shouldn’t say or do. It was difficult to get people to agree to campaign together when there was no reason why they “had” to campaign together or share information. Even by the end of the campaign we did not have one single master list of who had actually volunteered.
IC23. Without any money or anything much of it came down to trying to get newspapers to take on the task of doing something to cover it, doing some degree of editorial or to speak out in some way, shape of form about the issue. I think we were reasonably successful in that.
Q5 What do you think the lessons are to be learned?
IC24. We should have been organised months earlier. We should have had a group of people knowing that there was going to be a recommendation coming out of the CA and prepared to develop the campaign no matter what the recommendation was. There were some people who wanted any kind of electoral reform and others that thought that only MMP was acceptable or that only STV was acceptable.
IC25. There could have been more and better online resources that are interesting, informative and fun – the sort of thing that someone will enjoy and then let their friends know.
Q6 In your opinion, was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate?
IC26. The BC-STV model wasn’t difficult to communicate, the problem is that it cannot be done quickly and cannot be done in terms that people find insulting. How the votes are counted is not necessarily difficult, but people have a huge paradigm shift to go through from how it is now to how it is in STV. People have to wrap their minds around that paradigm shift and to say “don’t worry about it” insults them. To say “you don’t understand the current system, so why do you care about the new one” also insults them.
IC27. There is no simple explanation to why parties get elected with fewer votes than other parties in the current system.
IC28. The paradigm shift takes time, and people have to have the time to understand.
IC29. I can’t imagine a simpler system. For example, MMP is wildly complex if you try and explain why some people are elected differently. Running a “No” campaign against MMP would be a piece of cake because it has fundamental undemocratic flaws in it.
IC30. Keep in mind that the BC-STV vote was higher than the New Zealand MMP vote.
IC31. For people to make an informed decision after the CA makes their recommendation, there needs to be enough time and a sanctioned role for the CA to go out and explain what they did, why they did it and why they’re recommending it.
IC32. It would have been much better if the CA had started a year earlier, made the decision in December, 2003 and then spent from December, 2003 through to May, 2005 actually being given the time, energy and money to explain their decision and why they made it. That would have made a huge difference on the whole process.
IC33. A decision that just becomes a decision and goes on the shelf and nobody pays attention to it doesn’t go very far – you have to communicate the results.
Q7 What do you think of the decision to have the CA decision brought to referendum (with a 60% threshold) without funding a campaign?
IC34. There are a lot of governance issues that legislators have no business talking about. There is normally the three branches of government: the executive, judicial and legislative. The problem with that is it misses out the fourth branch of the government, which is the public, will. Public will is not reflected in the other three branches. Through elections we currently have approximations of the public will, but we have no process to test public opinion on major issue.
IC35. The system that you are selecting your legislative branch by is one the legislative branch should never have any say in. The fundamental code of conduct, the constitution of BC is something that should not be in the hands of the legislature or executive branches, it should be in the hands of some form of citizens’ assembly or referendum process.
IC36. It would be beneficial to start moving some things away from the legislative to a proper sort of public opinion and actually recognise the fact that there is a fourth branch of government and that is the people.
IC37. We’re no longer in the nineteenth century or fifteenth century, we have an incredibly intelligent, educated public that can be used in politics.
IC38. I think that it would be quite reasonable in the CA process that the minority opinion be given a voice as well as the majority, that they actively be allowed to communicate it to the public and that they be supported while they do this.
IC39. I’m not sure that there is a neutral campaign that you can do. Even the CA did not come to complete agreement. I think because it’s a one or the other referendum, I think it’s quite right to give a strong voice to both sides. If you don’t have a strong voice on both sides how do you encourage debate? If you do not encourage debate, how can you reflect the public will?
IC40. I would prefer that the referendum threshold be 50% plus one so that it is either the majority of the public will or its not. The majority of the public will was for the BC-STV, not just mildly but very strongly in favour. In 2005, the public was certainly not flocking to vote for the existing system.
IC41. The “No” side seemed to sit around and do very little because they thought that the BC-STV would not even get close to sixty-percent.
December 15, 2008
Q1 Tell me about when you first heard about the Citizens’ Assembly and BC-STV?
ID1. I first heard about the Citizens’ Assembly when the Premier announced it. Shortly after that I started looking into it and realised that it was a fairly involved process. I started writing about it in my column in the Georgia Straight.
ID2. I started writing about it and then a few other people started contacting me and we decided to set up “Know STV” because we were concerned about it.
ID3. I contacted Bob Plecas, former deputy minister in the provincial government who I’d worked with as a government communications consultant. He and I said, “Somebody better do something about this or it’s going to pass!”
Q2 How did governments, organisations or individuals support “Know STV”?
ID4. There was no government support at all. We raised a total of about $10,000 for the entire thing, so it was very minimalistic. We didn’t put out a single publication. We had a website and did a lot of public speaking and talking to the media. We found it very hard to raise any money.
ID5. I don’t think there was any paid advertising by either side.
ID6. Some people thought that it had no chance to succeed. I was never of that opinion at all – I always thought it had a very good chance of succeeding.
ID7. There were two Citizens’ Assembly members that were opposed to STV that joined our “No” group.
ID8. We had several people who had government experience, political experience and media experience (like myself). We knew how to run a campaign. I’m not sure on the other side that anybody knew how to run a campaign, to be honest.
Q3 What were some of the most interesting experiences you encountered during the campaign?
ID9. I was in Nanimo debating and one of the audience members had a question about how STV actually operated. I have a Masters degree in Political Science and when one of the “Yes for BC-STV” presenters couldn’t answer the question, I did. And they I said, “That’s why we’re opposed to it, because it’s so complicated.”
ID10. I think the challenging thing for us is that so many people said, “I don’t care how it works, we don’t even want to know, we’re just going to vote for it because we don’t like the current system.”
ID11. NRG polling showed that many people didn’t understand STV at all.
ID12. One of the reasons that I got into this was because I didn’t know anything about STV either; I’d heard of it vaguely, it’s not exactly mainstream political science. And so as I started looking into it, I really got opposed to it.
ID13. We called the campaign, “Know STV,” because we felt that if you “know” what it’s about you’ll also be thinking “no,” so we wanted to educate people about STV.
ID14. There was nothing like a leaders debate in an election.
ID15. Because it coincided with a provincial election, by obvious necessity the media are going to focus on the election. So it was always a side show, an after event.
ID16. We felt that more people knew about it, the less would like it.
ID17. The problem is that if you do a stand-alone referendum and get only a, 10-12% turnout, you could pass it with an extremely small portion of the population. It’s a fundamental change to the electoral system, so you pretty much have to do it during the provincial election, but that’s unfortunate.
Q4 Looking back on the whole process, what do you think the lessons are to be learned?
ID18. From the “No” side, if we could have raised more money it could have been helpful.
ID19. Because they had a very high threshold, the double threshold (60%), it was easy for the “No” side. As soon as the “Yes” side heard about the high threshold, they should have lobbied to get rid of it. They were too optimistic.
ID20. On the “No” side, we thought the question was highly biased. We would have preferred that the question didn’t mention the Citizens’ Assembly at all.
ID21. We got both former Premiers David Barrett from the NDP and Bill Bennett from Social Credit come out in the last week and say it was a bad idea. It was extremely helpful for us to have two political enemies agree on something.
ID22. We took some hits for having so many ex-politicians on the “No” side, but they’re not going to be effected by it.
ID23. The “Yes” side thought they found a simple way of explaining it, but I don’t think they did it successfully.
ID24. If it had been mixed-member-proportional, it probably would have gone through and half our committee would have supported it. It was solely based on it being STV; being very complicated and complex.
Q5 In your opinion, do you think the BC-STV model was difficult to communicate?
ID25. I think the BC-STV was almost impossible to communicate. It’s extraordinarily difficult. And the more you get into it and look at the “weighted Gregory system” versus this system or that system – it’s a mathematicians dream system.
ID26. One of the leading proponents was a mathematics professor and another was an engineer. From their perspective it made perfect sense, but for ordinary people it wasn’t.
ID27. From our perspective, one part where we were quite successful is that we kept saying “There are only two countries that use it as a national electoral system: Malta and Ireland. Both tiny island countries and they’ve both had it since the, 1920s and nobody else has adopted it on a national basis.”
ID28. We shot some holes in basically every argument that they put forward.
ID29. We really focused on the gigantic ridings.
ID30. Some of our members were big supporters of mixed-member-proportional If the recommendation was for MMP, about a third of our committee would have joined the other side.
ID31. MMP would have been easier to sell, you’d say “It works in Sweden, and it works in Holland.” You have a lot more models to show people.
ID32. I think the main reason that it didn’t pass was because of the complexity of STV and the relative obscure nature of it.
ID33. The green party lobbied heavily for MMP.
ID34. If they had selected MMP for the referendum, I would have campaigned against it too. I would have focused on the party list, for sure.
Q6 How did you feel about the citizens’ assembly process?
ID35. I thought that the CA members operated to the best of their abilities and with the best intentions. I support and salute them for giving up their time and participating. However, it wasn’t a true random sample.
ID36. I think the challenge is that you have a group of people that have spent, 14 or so weekends working on this suggesting that they ultimately know better than all the academics, all the former politicians, all the current politicians and anybody else that has a view about it.
ID37. There was sort of a cult supporting the Citizens Assembly at the time. They were good, ordinary folks who genuinely thought it was the best system but that doesn’t that they are highly qualified to judge how it would work in reality for the whole province.
ID38. I think it would have been much better for everybody if there had been a feedback process instead of just going to a vote.
ID39. I feel that they had a couple of unfair advantages that worked to their benefit.
ID40. I think a lot of people like citizens’ assemblies because they hate politicians. I think there is a role for citizens to play, but I don’t think politician should advocate their role on something as important as electoral reform.
ID41. I don’t think that the smartest and best-intentioned citizens, spending a relatively short period of time, can’t fully understand all the nuances and details of an electoral system – even with some expert help.
December 10, 2008
Q1 Tell me about your role in the Citizens’ Assembly and BC-STV referendum?
IE1. My prime role was media relations. Pitching and pushing stories to the media, not just doing releases but getting the follow up.
IE2. Later down the road we hired another former journalist to not only pitch, but write a series on STV and the operations of the Citizens’ Assembly for community newspapers up and down BC
IE3. My other secondary job, because of my experience with the Vancouver Sun and Province websites, was to manage and update the Assembly’s website.
IE4. We had an arms-length relationship with the government. The government did not want to be seen as pushing electoral reform or any particular model.
IE5. There was really no relationship between my job and government at all, we just never spoke and we never had to.
IE6. The sole funding for communications was just our two staff and the final report.
IE7. We managed to pull of the design and construction of two websites for comparatively little money.
IE8. If we had more money we would have done a lot of advertising, and so on, but it just wasn’t there.
Q3 What were some of the most interesting experiences you had in this role?
IE9. Well, the biggest and best experience was the end result of recommending to the chair of the assembly, Jack Blaney, that we should be using the members themselves for communication and media relations in their own communities.
IE10. Jack was more used to the thought of a central office that looked after all the media relations. It took a little persuading saying that we should turn, 154 kittens loose on the community. In fact, it turned out to be a riotous success.
IE11. We gave them some basic objective media training: this is how the media works, this is how to handle yourself, here are twenty commandments, ten things to do in an interview and ten things absolutely not to do in an interview. They picked it up really well and probably out of the membership, thirty or so became very regular commentators and authorities in their regions or communities. They were constantly being quoted in the community newspapers and on local radio stations.
IE12. There were very few who were never interviewed. But for the first thirty-to-forty people that just became part of their role. They loved it; they just went at it and did it extraordinarily well.
IE13. They did radio, television, newspapers, magazines and much more.
IE14. It didn’t just increase our capacity to communicate to the public; it was an enormous factor in it.
Q4 What were some of the greatest challenges you faced?
IE15. News judgement and the media.
IE16. Trying to sell stories on a new process that media didn’t understand, were too impatient to understand and constantly wanted to get to the end result, long before there was an end result.
IE17. We had a job persuading media that there is some really interesting stuff just in the process. Where else have you had a group of ordinary citizens pull together who are going to take a serious look at restructuring the entire electoral system in this province. It’s unique, and we mean unique. It’s a much-misused word, but we really mean unique.
IE18. It took a while to get some acceptance that this was news. But then it became so.
IE19. We got pretty good coverage considering circumstances.
IE20. Although we had a very primitive way of measuring how many stories were on or about the assembly in the media, we still managed to average 3.5 newspaper stories per day, every day for sixteen months.
IE21. There were certainly some journalists that were interested and came back with a degree of regularity for updates, but there really weren’t journalists championing it.
Q5 What was the general tone of a lot of the coverage?
IE22. The coverage of the Citizens’ Assembly itself was overwhelmingly interesting, positive and objective.
IE23. As the assembly began to close in on recommendations there were editorials that objected to the kind of system that was being proposed. Some editorials praised the kind of system that was being proposed.
IE24. Most of the positive press was actually quite neutral; they focused on their local constituent that was part of the assembly.
Q6 Looking back on the whole process, what do you think the lessons are to be learned?
IE25. During the assembly process, before their STV proposal, life was fairly simple in terms of communication. The closer they got to making a recommendation, the more complicated life became as the stories moved from the people to the voting systems.
IE26. Explaining a complicated system, a change of life to four million people in BC, cannot be done through one website and a few newspaper stories. It really needed a major educational-informational advertising campaign. There was just no money for that.
IE27. I know that the assembly and certainly I urged the government to provide a neutral, objective, educational-informational campaign. Let people know what is being talked about, what it means, how it works, what are the plusses of this system and what are the minuses of this system. I think New Zealand provided a good solid example of how you can, for comparatively little money, do an objective public educational campaign that leaves the public much more aware and understanding – they basically like or don’t like the system and can vote accordingly.
IE28. I’m not quite sure the government understood the idea of a neutral, objective campaign. I think they saw the whole approach as “Yes” campaign and “No” campaign. They didn’t want to fund what they thought was a subjective “Yes” campaign or a subjective “No” campaign.
IE29. I tried to explain to the government that this system could be described objectively. The material could include comments, quotes and bullet points from proponents, opponents and neutral people. You could, in fact, present a whole range of opinion in a substantially objective manner. That never happened.
IE30. We could badly have used some advertising money, to run some full-page ads up and down BC explaining what the assembly was recommending.
IE31. It was not easy to explain to journalists over the phone in thirty seconds, that makes it a battle.
Q7 Was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate?
IE32. Absolutely. Any new electoral systems are difficult to communicate. It is different to what people have grown up with.
IE33. Politicians hate changes in electoral systems, particularly any system that makes them more accountable.
IE34. The subject of great debate in the assembly’s closing stages was whether to recommend the system that the majority of them favoured or to recommend a system that was slightly less complicated? There was a lot of anguish about this question.
IE35. I was very proud of the assembly for sticking to its mandate and saying “We were put here to recommend what we think is best and we’re going to stick to that and if people don’t get it, then at least we’ve done our best.”
IE36. I see merits and demerits in all the systems we looked at.
Q8 Any further comments?
IE37. The members themselves were absolutely amazing. Being a former economics and political science student, I was impressed by the two professors that led the classes on electoral systems. There was no way you could have determined, at any point, which system either of them did or didn’t favour. It was a massive piece of neutral, objective education.
IE38. Often when the assembly really started to like a system, the professors would quickly respond with the complications and negatives in the system.
IE39. The public hearings up and down BC were really impressive. I thought they would, by nature, attract a bunch of axe-grinders but generally the people were really committed to understanding and contributing more. I was really quite surprised.
IE40. To my delight, the sessions became debates and tutorials – they weren’t one-way communication at all. We had hoped there would be a lot of two-way communication and there was.
IE41. It was interesting to watch people in the public meetings change their minds as they learned. They didn’t always change the same way: some came in with opinion A and left with opinion B and some came in with opinion B and left with A. It was interesting to watch the effectiveness of the public hearing, public communication process.
IE42. It was a great experience; I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been applied again. You could apply a citizens’ assembly to all kinds of policy questions.
IE43. Often if you have a series of government hearings run by a panel of government people you finish up in the end with what the government wanted after hearing what it wanted to hear.
IE44. The difficulty with educational campaigns is timing – there is no point in running one four months before the vote, it must be within the last two-to-four weeks.
January 6, 2009
Q1 Tell me about your role in the Citizens’ Assembly and BC-STV referendum?
IF1. My focus was to make the CA members into spokespeople for the assembly, so that they would be more equipped and effective at communicating their decision to the public.
IF2. My thinking going in was that we had an incredibly small staff and there’s no way we could do it. We had to leverage the fact that we had members from every region of the province that could be, and should be, the spokespeople in their communities.
IF3. After their initial training in the spring we provided them with an entire toolkit so that they were able to go out to community groups and speak to the media. Some of them really took to this and really went after it, others did nothing – you can’t really control that, all you can do is provide everything they need if they are willing.
IF4. Their toolkits included a whole range of fact sheets from the different electoral systems that they were considering to a fact sheet on the whole assembly process. We also did a video for them to use.
IF5. The idea of using a video was to standardise the presentation a bit, we realised that a number of people are not going to be good presenters. The video was our way of making it easy for them to do a presentation and making sure that they key messages did get communicated in a standardised format.
IF6. I also actively solicited speaking engagements for them and tried to match people up to speaking engagements – that was quite time consuming.
IF7. Some of them really went after it and wanted to write letters to the editor in newspapers and we would help them with things like that. Not a lot of them were really good with writing, so we’d work with them on those sorts of things.
IF8. We would proactively go after the media and see if they would be interested in doing interviews with the local member from their community.
IF9. We really tried to focus a lot on local media and leverage the fact that we had local spokespersons.
IF10. I created two weekly newsletters, one for the members and one for the general public. Every time we had a meeting around the province I would try to get people to sign up for the newsletter. We ended up sending upwards of three thousand emails that we were sending to on a regular basis.
Q2 How did government, organisations or individuals support your role?
IF11. We were totally at an arms length, I don’t recall having much support at all. The only time we had much to do with the government was when they were planning an event and invited the Premier.
Q3 Looking back on the whole process, what do you think the lessons are to be learned?
IF12. There wasn’t a strong enough communication after the assembly adjourned. There wasn’t the communications support for the process leading up to the referendum. Once the assembly closed it almost went dead. The CA members were left on their own.
IF13. It wasn’t until really really late in the game that we became aware just exactly what the government had in mind. We had been pestering them for months ahead of time asking what there plan was, what was going to happen after the assembly closes and we only heard right at the very end.
IF14. It was a bit of a shock that there wasn’t more support for the whole process.
IF15. I think the assembly idea is a good idea, however, it isn’t the answer for every public issue. The assembly members gained a lot of credibility over the time.
IF16. STV was so different from our current electoral system that people had a very hard time getting their minds around it.
IF17. It was the credibility of the CA that was a very big factor in how well the referendum went – I felt like we had done a very good job in creating that over the sixteen-months that we had.
Q4 In your opinion, was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate?
IF18. The BC-STV was difficult to communicate because it was so very different from what we’ve had.
IF19. We tried to find ways of communicating it that would make it easy. It’s not easy to talk about in a verbal way.
IF20. It’s actually not a difficult model, excepted when you’re so mentally steeped in our existing model. It’s very hard to make the leap. If you were brought up with STV voting, it would have been simple as pie to you. It just didn’t fit our pre-existing context.
IF21. The alternative model proposed, MMP, was also just as complex, if not more complex. The difficultly that we ran into was the spin that was put on STV by stakeholders who had something to gain or lose by the electoral system. For example, the NDP were very opposed to STV because it would dramatically change the election results for them. Also, the Green party was pushing for MMP because they would be able to be elected by the province-wide popular vote.
Electoral Reform Conference and 5th Anniversary of the Citizens’ Assembly
January 10-11, 2009
CA1. Quoted Vaughn Palmer: “Last weekend, you and Premier Campbell were in Vancouver handing out certificates of achievement to the members of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. I have to say, Mr. Attorney, I was in the class of scoffers when this thing was set up. I never believed that you would be able to get, 160 citizens chosen at random to sit down for an entire year, study a complicated thing like electoral reform, get along – magnificently, I have to say – conduct themselves with far more dignity than the Legislature, I might add – there’s another cheap shot – and come up at the end with a recommendation, all of which they have done. Did this thing go even better than you imagined?”
CA2. Canadian’s don’t like negativity, Canadian’s don’t like personal attacks. However, in first-past-the-post, that’s how things are done!
CA3. A preferential ballot rewards cooperation
CA4. We need a political system that places the common good above partisan interest
CA5. An electoral reform is not a sufficient condition, but it is a necessary condition for any kind of democratic reform
CB1. People wanted a voting system that reflected the intentions of the voters
CB2. In STV, a successful party will be one nominating diverse candidates that will represent their constituents
CC1. The government did not provide any education funding after the Citizens’ Assembly disbanded
CC2. Contact for the CA Alumni statement
CD1. The BC Citizens’ Assembly were statistically representative of BC.
CD2. The assembly members learned about what electoral systems can and can not do.
CF1. The only failure is not to try.
CG1. Representing the people is what governments are for. However, most British Columbians do not have a MLA representing them in Victoria.
CG2. One person cannot represent all the points of view from within an area
CG3. In the current system, it is not a local ‘representative’ that is sent to Victoria, it is a local ‘delegate’
CG4. Under BC-STV a politician can tell the party that if they supported a particular party policy they will lose the next election.
CG: David Wills (Citizens’ Assembly Member)
CG1. STV in Ireland vs FPTP in BC – 40% rule (check stv.ca)
CG2. With an average of 4.25 seats per district, British Columbians would be even more proportionally represented under the BC-STV than Ireland are with 3.86 seats per district.
CH1. BC-STV is not only about proportional representation or local representation, it is also about voter choice between candidates.
CH2. I have so many choices all the time, but when it comes to voting I only get to put one “X” in one circle
CH3. By choosing candidates within a party we can change the direction of a party to suit the voters, and we can do it much quicker.
CH4. What can we learn from the 58% acceptance of the BC-STV? Voters want greater choice.
CI1. Political elites did not expect it to get as much as 58%, they thought that if they ignored it than it wouldn’t pass.
CI2. It is not about defending STV, that is an uphill battle; it is about putting FPTP on trial.
CI3. Response to arguments against STV
a. Simplicity: Voters must chose one that is simple to count or one that has results that are simple to understand.
b. Antii-party: What evidence do they have
c. Local link: Most people in a constituency are not currently represented, with STV most people would have someone that represents them.
d. Diversity: The current FPTP system is not diverse. Diversity in the elected representatives is more than just the responsibility of the electoral system.
e. Not proportional (enough): No system of proportional representation is completely proportional. Furthermore, no electoral system is immune to tampering.
f. Instability: Unstable governments often result in elections being held more often. However, countries that use proportional representation have slightly fewer elections on average.
g. Party dominance: The check on proportional representation is the competitiveness of having multiple parties represented.
h. Accountability: Who are they accountable to? The 60% that voted against them or the 40% that voted for them?
i. Majority governments: In BC and Canada, almost every majority government has been a false majority; a majority of seats but not votes.
CI4. Why did the government set the threshold to 60? Before the recent referenda in BC and PEI, no establishment of any voting system in the western world has required a supermajority.
CI5. One major problem is that people are ignorant about their ignorance.
CJ1. The emphasis of voter choice was a prominent and important criterion for the Citizens’ Assembly, but it has not previously been a prominent feature for academics or politicians. This demonstrates that voters think differently.
CJ2. Under STV, parties will have good reasons not to over nominate candidates
CK1. See graph of the proportion of public awareness of the CA, referendum and STV
CK2. The question then becomes, did the presence of the Citizens’ Assembly change the way that voters decided.
BC-STV and Effective Political Communication
I, __________________(participant’s name), understand that I am being asked to participate in an interview that forms part of Luke Freeman’s Honours Thesis at Simon Fraser University (SFU). It is my understanding that this interview will cover the BC-STV, British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly and the STV for BC Campaign.
I have been given some general information about this project and the types of questions I can expect to answer. I understand that the interview will be conducted at a place and time that is convenient to me, and that it will take approximately half an hour of my time.
I understand that my participation in this project is completely voluntary and that I am free to decline to participate, without consequence, at any time prior to or at any point during the interview. I understand that, with my permission, this interview may be audio recorded and that any information I provide during the interview will be kept confidential, used only for the purposes of completing this thesis, and will not be used in any way that can identify me without my consent. All interview notes, tapes, or records will be kept in a secured environment and all raw data such as tapes, transcripts, notes, and electronic files for a minimum of two years (as per the SFU Research and Ethics Board requirements).
I also understand that there are no risks involved in participating in this activity, beyond those risks experienced in everyday life.
I do / do not (select one) consent to have my name appear on the final Thesis and/or appendices upon review of interview transcript.
I do / do not (select one) consent to being contacted at a later date for consent to have textual or audio proceedings of the interview used for further research and/or production.
I have read the information above. By signing below and returning this form, I am consenting to participate in this project via either a telephone or face-to-face interview as designed by Luke Freeman of Simon Fraser University.
Please keep a copy of this consent form for your records. If you have other questions concerning your participation in this project or would like to obtain a copy of the research results, please contact me:
Luke Kevin Freeman
Phone: +1 778 385 5632
or my Simon Fraser University thesis supervisor:
Dr. Kathleen Cross
Phone: +1 778-782-3861
Concerns or complaints must be directed to:
Dr. Hal Weinberg
Director, Office of Research Ethics
Thank you for agreeing to participate in my research.
This study is designed to investigate the communications process in the dissemination of the BC Citizens’ Assembly recommendation of the BC-STV to the general public and its level of success.
As to gain a greater understanding, interview subjects (participants, administrators and journalists) will be asked the following questions about the BC-STV, Citizens’ Assembly and their individual roles and opinions.
(1) What was your role in the British Columbian Citizens’ Assembly and/or the BC-STV referendum?
(1.1) How was your role supported by the government, organisations or individuals?
(1.2) What was your former experience in this kind of role?
(1.3) What the most interesting experiences in your role?
(1.4) What challenges did you encounter while conducting your role?
(1.5) What was your role in communications?
(1.5.1) Who else was involved and what were the main activities?
(2) Now that you look back on the whole process, what do you think are the lessons to be learned?
(2.1) Regarding communications:
(2.2.1) Could it have been more successful with other methods of communication?
(2.2.2) Was the BC-STV model difficult to communicate
(2.2.3) In your opinion, would it have been worthwhile sacrificing the complexity of the system for widespread ease of acceptance?
(2.2) Regarding Education:
(2.3) For the overall process:
(3) What recommendations would you make for future deliberative processes or citizens’ assemblies?
(3) Any further comments?
BC-STV | British Columbian Single-Transferable-Vote
CA, Citizens’ Assembly | Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform (British Columbia)
FPTP | first-past-the-post
BC Liberals | British Columbian Liberal Party
MLA | Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia
MMP | mixed-member-proportional
NDP | New Democratic Party
“No” | campaign: KNOW STV Coalition; side: those opposing STV
STV | single-transferable-vote
“Yes” | campaign: Yes for BC-STV; side: those supporting STV
Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform | the, 160 members, small staff and processes of the assembly commissioned by the provincial government to deliberate on the electoral system used in British Columbia and, if necessary, recommend an alternative.
citizens’ assembly | a large-scale implementation of deliberative democracy.
deliberative | see deliberation.
deliberative democracy | a system of political decision-making combines methods of direct and representative democracy and relies on citizen deliberation to make sound policy.
deliberation | a process of open and intentional dialogue in order to reach a decision.
dialogue | an open, inclusive discussion focused toward exploration of a topic or idea.
first-past-the-post | a plurality, single-winner voting system based on single-member constituencies where the winner in each constituency is the person with the most votes; there is no requirement that the winner gain an absolute majority of votes or that aggregate winners resemble the aggregate political party support in the electorate at-large. This system is used throughout most of Canada.
lurker | a popularised term used to describe people that spend time reading online forums without contributing.
majoritarian | a voting system that abides by a winner-take-all mentality, only if the winner receives over 50%; also used to describe the political values of people that support pluralitarian or majoritarian systems.
mixed-member-proportional | an additional member voting system used to elect representatives so that the overall total of party members in the elected body is intended to mirror the overall proportion of votes received; it differs by including a set of members elected by geographic constituency who are deducted from the party totals as to maintain overall proportionality.
orphan voters | used to describe people who’s votes do not directly contribute to electing a representative.
pluralitarian | similar to majoritarian, however it does not require that the winner has more than 50% support, only that they have more than the runner-up.
proportional representation | both an ideal and a family of electoral systems that aim toward a close match between the percentage of votes that groups of candidates (usually political parties) obtain in elections and the percentage of seats they receive in the representative body.
simplemajority | (or majority) a requirement for a proposal to gain more than half the support in order to have effect.
single-transferable-vote | a system of preferential voting designed to minimise wasted votes and result in near-proportional representation while ensuring that votes are explicitly expressed for individual candidates rather than for party lists; it achieves this by using multi-member constituencies and by transferring all votes that would otherwise be wasted to other eligible candidates.
supermajority | a requirement for a proposal to gain a specified level or type of support which exceeds a simplemajority in order to have effect.