The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

This is how democracies end

As we contemplate the state of Canadian democracy in view of the crisis in Ottawa, it is worthwhile contemplating the referedum being held in BC on Tuesday in connection with the general election there.

The current BC Government fulfilled an election promise to review the nature of the voting system in the province. In a quite unique proceeding, they set up a Citizen's Assembly to discuss whether BC ought to change from first-past-the-post, and if so, to what. The membership of the assembly was chosen at random from an interested subset of the BC electorate and spent weekends over the better part of a year to learn about voting systems, to discuss them, and to devise a new system. Ultimately, they decided that a change was necessary, and recommended their "BC-STV" system.

This variant of the single-transferable-vote works with multi-member ridings. The voter gets a list of candidates and ranks them as desired. The counting is somewhat complicated, but the upshot is that the results will be closer to proportionality than at present. The voting requires some thought, but that is required to give control to the voters, rather than the parties. In some systems, the party sets the order of the candidates, but here it is the voter's choice as to which candidate he prefers. The Assembly listened to the voters, and gave them what they thought the people of BC wanted; real control over the Legislature.

It goes to a vote on Tuesday and requires a 60% overall positive vote and majorities in 60% of the ridings to pass. If you believe the UBC Election Stock Market (scroll down), it hasn't got a chance of passage. And if it doesn't, the reason will be the over 60% of British Columbians know very little about it, and probably don't care.

Citizen apathy is the greatest danger democracies face. If British Columbia turns down the chance for a more-directed say in the election of its legislators, then they deserve to have plenty more Legislatures like the last one (77 of 79 seats for the Government). And they can stop complaining about it.

In the same vein, the Globe and Mail is running with this meme about "angry Stephen Harper not sitting well with the electorate". The issue isn't that Harper is angry. He has every right to be angry. Red-hot-flaming furious. No, the scandal is that most Canadians aren't angry. That the newspapers seem to think that what's important are polls showing that most of the people polled "don't want an election now". That the media seems to thing that the reactions of focus groups to political talking points are important. That even when the election takes place, 40% won't even bother to go and cast their simple, one mark, first-past-the-post ballot. That Canadians don't understand the workings of their own governance.

In Ukraine, in Lebanon, in Iraq, the people there understand what is at stake in a democracy. But complacent old Canada? Rob us blind. We don't care. Bribe us with our own money. We'll vote for you again. Deny the fundamental workings of the Westminster system. Game the confidence of the House. Whatever.

Democracy fails when the citizenry no longer cares enough to know what is going on, to know how the system ought to work. If we can't figure out anything more complicated than a first-past-the-post ballot, if we can't recognize that the governement has lost the confidence of the house unless the word "confidence" is expressly used, if even the Governor-General can't see it, or won't do anything, then democracy in Canada is dead and it is time to hang out an advertisement for a dictator.

If you're in BC and you care about democracy, vote YES. Meanwhile, contact the Prime Minister, contact the Governor-General, write your local paper. Get angry.

(Also read David Warren's cogent comments on the situation.)

UPDATE: Things may not be as bad as all that in BC. As Andrew Coyne points out, things are looking up for a YES victory, and from the grass-roots level.


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