Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Let's link future electoral reform and Citizens Assembly proposals to the Initiative Process

I can see another role for the initiative process--as a next stop for decisions made about electoral reform or other subjects bruited in a Citizens' Assembly. Going directly from an isolated island of deliberation into a referendum campaign didn't work in BC or Ontario, simply because reflective citizens chosen by lot are very different from unreflective citizens in the context of an election campaign. If the Citizens' Assembly had submitted its proposal to the Legislature, the Legislature either could have passed it, or proposed amendments to the Citizens' Assembly. If the Assembly didn't accept the amendments, then it could then have opted to go to a referendum.

The value of this to-and-fro of institutionalized dialogue between Citizens assembly and the BC Legislature would have been twofold. First, it would have dispensed with the fiction that our elected representatives were disinterested parties. The BC Liberal caucus prevailed upon Gordon Campbell to raise the threshold to 60%--which is what defeated BC-STV in 2005. The decision to eliminate the reference to the Assembly in the 2009, combined with the ability of politicians on both sides of the aisle to avoid discussion of the proposal, were critical factors in determining the outcome. Our politicians should have been put back in the deliberative hot seat, forced to defend their positions rather than simply being given a free pass to avoid doing so, while still influencing the outcome behind the scenes.

Second, the effect of this exchange between the Assembly and the Legislature would be to greatly increase the overall involvement of the population, raising the deliberative quality of the Legislative debate and (if it goes to referendum) the referendum debate as well. The controlling assumptions and procedural constraints that guide the Assembly to its (some would argue, overly perfectionistic and politically unrealistic) positions could then be relaxed as the Assembly and Legislature either hammer out a mutually acceptable compromise or (if the Legislature doesn't pass the initiative into law and the Citizens' Assembly doesn't accept any amendments put forward by the Legislature), the impasse necessitates a referendum on the question.  The original rationale for raising the referendum threshold to 60%--the insufficiently deliberative quality of referenda campaigns--would no longer apply, so the bar could be lowered once again to 50%.

It is not hard to imagine how this could have played out in 2009. The Legislature could have proposed a moderation of the BC-STV proposal in order to avoid monster ridings in the interior and monster ballots in the urban population centres--e.g. a STV lite or "Preferential vote" featuring single member constituencies in the Far north, dual ridings in the interior and 3-member ridings in the cities. The Assembly might well have accepted this as a clear improvement over the status quo. OR the Legislature might have chosen to defend the existing system. OR , the Legislature might propose a MMP party -list system, which the Assembly might well have argued went too far in terms of parties retaining control of the process. In the subsequent referendum, British Columbians would have been able to choose between the two main models for reform.

The crucial difference that such an institutionalized dialogue would have made was that the yawning gap between our three main "modes" of democratic decision-making --deliberative, representative, and plebiscitory--would have been greatly reduced.  Our democratic constitution would have been made much more coherent than it is now. and ,  I would add, much more democratic.


Antony Hodgson said...

Excellent idea, Mark. Sorry I didn't see this closer to the time of posting. I wonder what you think about using this idea in the context of Royal Commissions (presuming that they are given a sufficiently narrow mandate, rather than producing a large list of recommendations). With the current approach, Royal Commission reports are essentially advisory in nature and don't involve any of the back and forth debate and refinement that you're advocating.

Mark Crawford said...

Some Royal Commissions produce general recommendations (e.g. macDonald Commission on Free trade) but it is possible that if Parliament decides ahead of time that it wants legislation, it could mandate a specific citizens' initiative as the outcome. FOr electoral reform, the citizens' assembly could be empowered to suggest that initiative.