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Vol 38  No 10
February 23, 2006



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Doing democracy differently

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Dr. Kenneth Carty will deliver the Galbraith Lecture March 8.

One of Canada’s foremost authorities on political parties and electoral systems will be on campus in March to speak about democratic reform in this country.

Dr. R. Kenneth Carty, professor of political science and the Brenda & David McLean Chair in Canadian Studies at the University of British Columbia, says citizens are increasingly eager to address the “democratic deficit” in Canada by changing the way governments are elected.

“There’s this whole argument that unelected people in Ottawa have more power than those who are elected,” Dr. Carty noted. “That suggests Parliament is not the kind of institution our constitutional and legal theories would have us believe it should be.”

While reforming the ballot system is not a magic bullet, Dr. Carty believes it could strengthen our institutions. “Central to our democracy are processes that aren’t as vibrant as they could be. If we can enliven and invigorate these, we could make Parliament more effective and better able to govern. That would go a long way to righting the imbalances in the system.”

Dr. Carty, who will deliver the Galbraith Lecture at Memorial on March 8, said several factors have fostered a desire for reform. These include a fragmented party system that frustrates citizens, and a growing unwillingness to accept results that see the party with the most votes lose the election.

Successive minority governments in Ottawa can also mean less support for the status quo.

“One of the justifications for our current system is that at least it gives us majority governments, which can be held accountable. If it’s not going to produce majorities, than one of the strongest arguments in its favour in no longer effective,” he explained.

“All this has made electoral reform a pressing issue,” said Dr. Carty, who served as the chief research officer on BC’s attempt to find answers to electoral reform: its unique Citizens’ Assembly (see story below). “Not surprisingly, the issue is bubbling up from the provinces, and at least half of them have actively engaged the question of electoral reform.”

Dr. Carty cautions that electoral reform is not a one-size-fits-all proposition; what works in one province won’t necessarily work in another, or federally. Collectively, however, he said these initiatives reveal interesting prospects for genuine democratic reform.

Dr. Carty will address those prospects in his public Galbraith Lecture, Doing Democracy Differently: Is it Time for Electoral Reform in Canada? on Wednesday, March 8, at 8 p.m. in the Inco Innovation Centre. He will also speak to political science classes, and to the Institute of Public Administration of Canada, while in St. John’s.

B.C. Citizens’ Assembly an international model

In 2004, Dr. Carty served as the chief research officer on British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly, a unique initiative that’s now serving as a model in Canada and abroad.

This independent, non-partisan project brought 160 citizens together to examine the province’s electoral system over 11 months. The citizens, who were chosen at random to represent their ridings, conducted research, heard input, read submissions and recommended a system called BC-STV.

Similar to an electoral system used in Ireland since 1922, BC-STV would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference. Voters could choose from more than one candidate per party, as well as from independent candidates. While the number of members in the legislature would not change, fewer ridings would encompass between two and seven legislative members, depending on population. According to its promotional materials, this system would be more proportional, more fair and give more power to the voter.

Last May, British Columbians voted 57 per cent in favour of BC-STV, but the referendum required a 60 per cent affirmation. Dr. Carty says the BC government will hold another referendum in 2007. This time, he notes, voters will have the benefit of an electoral map showing what an STV system would look like. And funding will be available for both pro and con campaigns, he said, promising more vigorous debate this time around.

Now, the citizens’ assembly concept is being replicated in many places. According to Dr. Carty, Ontarians and the Dutch will undertake similar initiatives this year, and some political players in California are looking at the BC model. “It’s a unique way that citizens can take charge and have input into their democratic systems,” he said.

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