Monday, May 16, 2005

British Columbia (Canada) referendum on adopting Hare-Clarke voting system: "The thing that interests me even more is the way that the referendum came about. A couple of farcical election results (the current BC parliament has 77 government MPs to 2 lonely opponents) sowed the seed for change, but there is an obvious problem here. When discussing electoral reform, if every MP with a conflict of interest left the room you’d have an empty chamber. Independent inquiries are all very well, but often end up being made up of a bunch of retired pollies, who may not be much better. So the BC government did something really radical – they trusted the people. Not by handing them a referendum most people couldn’t understand, but by setting up a “Citizen’s Assembly”. 160 people were selected off the electoral roll at random. There is no evidence that any of them had even thought about the issue before, let alone held a formed opinion, but for 11 months they read submissions, quizzed experts and discussed.

"In the end an overwhelming majority agreed that the electoral system should change, that the change should be to what they call BC-STV (basically Hare-Clark but with electorates of varying populations and numbers of MPs) and a referendum giving final choice to the voters. The whole process restores one’s faith in the wisdom of the population. In discussing their conclusions the assembly members get to the heart of what democracy should be about, and they weighed up which system will best provide this. What's more, they communicated their decision in clear and moving prose of the kind that is now an endangered species in Australian political discourse.... It may all come undone. The major flaw in the BC process seems to have been the post recommendation publicity. An opinion poll taken a few months before the referendum showed that most people were still confused about the whole thing, and quite a lot didn’t even know it was on."

The British Columbia proposal, apart from some electorates having only two members, is a reasonably pure form of the Hare-Clark quota preferential method, and includes such advanced features as 'Robson Rotation'. A good case can be made that the Hare-Clark quota-PR (STV) system with its latest refinements is about the best and fairest method of electing representative bodies that is possible. And one must admit it is gratifying to see that a Citizen's Assembly comprised of people selected at random has also come to that conclusion. The first-past-the-post system is primitive, and it is symptomatic of how difficult and slow reform, politics and activism is that such primitiveness could endure for so long when plainly superior alternatives have long been known.

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