How will we re-democratize government?
By Rob Wipond, April 2013
Greater Victoria candidates in the BC provincial election speak out on how to correct growing democratic deficits.
For years we at Focus have been observing an erosion of democratic processes and participatory public engagement at all levels of government. In our opinion, this is worsening government decision-making with respect to many of the challenges we’re facing as a society. And we know we’re not alone.
On the streets, mass movements like Occupy and Idle No More have placed visions for participatory governance high on their agendas, while in our houses of government our elected politicians have been struggling with their own disempowerment: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed omnibus-bill antics have raised the ire of elected representatives of the majority of Canadians to little avail; and hardly a month has gone by this year where a disgruntled, departing BC Liberal hasn’t (finally) complained publicly about Gordon Campbell’s years of centralized, iron rule. Many of us have ideas for what needs to change that could fill a book, but with an election coming it seemed like a good time to ask candidates what they think.
So we decided to ask provincial election candidates in five Greater Victoria ridings to respond to these two questions: First, which erosions of democratic or participatory principles and processes have you observed that you think are the worst, and what negative impacts have you seen? Second, what do you propose to do, or feel should be done, to help re-invigorate our democracy with respect to the issues you raise in your first answer?
We encouraged them to reply personally, rather than with pre-packaged party platform statements. Some candidates commented on many issues and overlapped with each other, while others chose to focus on just one or two key issues. Space constraints limit us to publishing only selected excerpts from their written replies to highlight some of the key themes that emerged. We suggest contacting your area candidate directly for more details on his or her thoughts on these topics. As of press time, several candidates had not responded; some parties had not yet nominated a candidate in the ridings included in our survey.
Strengthen MLA responsibilities to constituents
Susan Low: Public engagement has become one of many hoops for officials to jump through before legislation is passed, instead of being the way most legislation is started and shaped. The process of civic engagement is being relegated to a mere formality…The negative impact is that people can feel cynicism, and public participation in democracy is evaporating as a result…I propose to increase the public’s access to their elected representatives by having bi-monthly townhall meetings in provincial ridings, and regular times when MLAs commit to being in their office to meet with anyone who comes in… MLAs should report on how they have listened to their constituents, and how that has influenced their voting or actions in government.
Lana Popham: I think one of the main jobs of an MLA is to be an active listener—to constantly gather feedback and input from people about what matters to them and what they want done about it…My community office has organized over two dozen public events, including several large public meetings where hundreds of residents came together to engage with ideas such as sustainability and the benefits of buying local…I organized a community event to discuss solutions [to the high accident rate at Pat Bay Highway & Sayward Road], inviting the public and key staff from the Ministry of Transportation. A proposal for safety improvements was developed and I held another public meeting to share those ideas and gather feedback…The improvements have already started…
Jane Sterk: I plan to have citizens’ advisory groups—seniors, students, business, ethnic and faith-based, transition towns. I want to convene citizens’ assemblies to discuss issues of public policy—amalgamation, budgeting, police, etc. I plan to host annual or semi-annual days where we get large numbers of people together to discuss local issues that need provincial support.
Hold sittings of the legislature
Rob Fleming: For me, the hallmark of democratic erosion during the BC Liberal decade is how moribund the legislature has become. The current government started off with some good ideas—two regular fall and spring scheduled sittings, fixed election dates, Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform—but for most of their mandate, the legislature has barely met. They’ve made a mockery of their own reform. We’ve had fall sessions cancelled entirely more often than not. This eliminates the daily accountability of question period, and jams debate on the budget and legislation into an impossibly compressed time-frame. To enforce this, the BC Liberals now use “closure”—ending debate by decree—on a routine basis. It’s an arrogant way to run government. And it diminishes the role of an MLA as a legislator by giving too much power to the premier and cabinet. We’re seeing in BC and federally a creeping “presidentialism,” where the legislature is increasingly sidelined while the premier’s and prime minister’s office run things unchecked…I’m confident we can make the legislature work a lot better. First, we need to have the Assembly meet regularly. That’s an easy but important fix for accountability and scrutiny of government.
Allow free votes in the legislature
Andrew Weaver: In a parliamentary democracy, such as the one we have in British Columbia, MLAs are elected to represent their constituents in government. As such, one would expect them to be allowed to vote freely on many issues, including private members’ bills brought in by independents and opposition parties. But the party whip system of the NDP and Liberals in BC has meant that this has not occurred. Instead, most individual MLAs are told how to vote and hence end up ensuring that party interests are put ahead of the interests of the MLA’s constituents. I support the democratic reform agenda put forward by Independent MLAs Bob Simpson, Vicki Huntington, and John van Dongen. One of the items on their agenda was to seek ways to “Relax party discipline so that MLAs can cast free votes in the legislature on non-confidence matters, without fear of repercussions.” In fact, this is fundamentally why I chose to run with the Green Party of BC, as free voting on non-confidence matters is already central to party policy.
Resuscitate the legislature’s committees
Parliamentary committees have been so underutilized in recent years, many British Columbians probably don't even remember what they are. The BC government’s website explains that committees are made up of small, representative groups of MLAs who can travel around the province soliciting input and holding hearings on issues, which they can then summarize into reports and recommendations to the whole legislature.
Carole James: There are currently standing committees of the legislature in a range of topic areas, such as education, First Nations, and health. These committees have members from both government and opposition…They rarely meet. I believe these committees could be better used, taking topic areas out to the public for real public engagement.
Rob Fleming: As the NDP’s environment critic, I’m always pointing out that the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Environment hasn’t met since 1996! At a time when BC needs a well-informed public to understand the climate change and energy challenges and policy choices we face, this just makes no sense. We need a robust committee system that addresses the big issues out there. And this will give MLAs more opportunities to work across party lines while providing a key avenue for the public to influence government.
Andrew Weaver: The Legislative Committee structure needs to be reinvigorated. The last time the Standing Committee on Education met was in 2006 when they developed a report outlining a strategy for adult literacy…As far as I can tell, the Select Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs has not met since 2001. Policy needs to be debated openly and needs to be informed through input from diverse stakeholders, such as those who would present to standing committees.
Empower independent offices
Jessica Van der Veen: The Liberal government has weakened our environmental assessment process…and undermined key government watchdogs such as the Auditor General and the BC Utilities Commission. Two specific negative outcomes are: the giveaway of forest lands at Jordan River, despite the findings of the Auditor General; and the privatizing of rivers and streams for private power projects, despite the finding of the BC Utilities Commission that these projects are “not in the public interest.” We need to strengthen environmental assessments and fully include the public…[and we] need to give government watchdogs the power they need to do their jobs.
Reform campaign financing
Rob Fleming: The BC Liberals get more than 75 percent of their funds from corporate donations and a very small percent from actual people who can vote…I’m all for getting big money out of politics by putting in place limits on donations from corporations and unions like we see federally and in Manitoba. This will put the average voter at the centre of politics again. Campaign finance reform would reduce cynicism about politicians being in someone’s pocket and increase voter participation.
Jane Sterk: [The Green Party would] eliminate corporate and union donations to restrict donations to British Columbian [citizens], and limit the size of donations. We would also lower the amount of money that could be spent on campaigns.
Branko Mustafovic: How can we expect that a politician will be unbiased, when they literally owe those who made substantial contributions to their campaign to have their needs heard loud and clear? There’s only one way to be 100 percent sure no elected politicians will ever dangle from the strings pulled by special-interest groups who helped put them there. The ultimate solution is for government to provide an identical amount to each eligible candidate to spend on their campaign, with that amount being the maximum they may spend. That’s truly democratic.
Engage disenfranchised and cynical voters
According to Elections BC, about 75 percent of eligible BC voters are registered, while in 21 districts that number falls to fewer than half of eligible voters.
Jane Sterk: The fixed election date is in the spring, which disenfranchises students…We no longer enumerate house to house. “Registered” voters are now identified by driver’s licence and filed tax returns. This disenfranchises people who don’t drive and those who don’t pay taxes.
Rob Fleming: Reversing the decline in voter participation won’t be accomplished overnight. But we have to make voting opportunities easier so that low-participation groups, like young people, get on the voters list…I like Adrian Dix’s idea to begin voter registration earlier, at age 16, in order to be enumerated by their 18th birthday…We also have to change the tone of how politics is conducted. BC has a reputation for “politics as a blood sport” and this is reflected in statements by politicians and the media. It seems to me that this may be the biggest contributor to disenfranchising voters and turning them off what government and public service in elected office ought to be about.
Carole James: We have seen the government using public money for partisan advertising, creating cynicism in politics and the political system, which leads to lower voter turnout and involvement…The NDP has introduced legislation that would result in the Auditor General reviewing all government advertising to build back trust in the process of the use of public dollars.
Implement electoral reform
Jane Sterk: Should I be elected premier…[I would] instruct Elections BC to prepare a plan to implement a system of proportional representation for the 2017 election. To avoid debate about which system to adopt, I would mandate use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and accepted in 2005 by 58 percent of BC voters. To prepare for use of this system, I would include a requirement that Elections BC find a structure for STV that would address the concerns from the large and rural ridings. I would also require that Elections BC conduct a process of [educating the public about STV].
Rob Wipond thanks all the candidates for participating in our democracy by running for election.