22 April 2009

Comparing Campaigns: BC-STV, Charlottetown Accord

Peter Ewart reflects on the grassroots campaign in 1992 which defied politicians, their party advisers and the media moguls, who worked to cajole and scare Canadians into accepting their view of the way things ought to be, i.e., to accept the Charlottetown Accord. Ewart compares the Canada-wide grassroots opposition, driven by citizens seeking to wrest power from the elites and to guide their country's course themselves, to that he is seeing in BC now on the issue of electoral reform.
The Charlottetown Accord was supposed to have formed the basis of a new Canadian Constitution.

This Accord was cooked up behind closed doors by the Prime Minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, and the provincial premiers, with the support of the opposition parties. It was all supposed to be a “slam dunk,” with voters meekly falling into line and rubberstamping the Accord that, as the political leaders claimed, would “save Canada.”.

But what a miscalculation it was. From the beginning, people felt that the process was anti-democratic and elitist. In its arrogance and haste, the federal government hadn’t even bothered to make sure that copies of the Accord were in the hands of voters in a timely fashion....

Sound familiar?

But Canadians were going to have none of it. They fought back against the presumptions of the few who thought they could foist their vision on the many, an entire population:
Meetings and debates were organized in hundreds of cities. On the “no” side, enthusiastic volunteers wrote up literature, and just as quickly photocopied and widely distributed it. They hit the streets and organized countless public debates, kitchen meetings and other events. Above all, they engaged people in discussion, educating them about the positions of both the “yes” and “no” sides, and providing analysis, so that people could make an informed decision.

The “yes” side ... had few volunteers. Instead, it mainly relied on a blizzard of glossy and expensive ads in newspapers, radio and television, and a bunch of sleek politicians warning of “chaos” and “the break up of Canada” unless the Accord was adopted.

The techniques used by the Yes and No campaigns spoke glaringly of the class differences, which is highlighted in this vignette:
In the course of the referendum campaign, I remember staffing an information table for the “no” side with a couple of others in an open area of a large shopping mall in Southern Ontario. Our table was directly across from the “yes” side table....

All of our campaign finances had come from volunteers, and there wasn’t a lot. Thus our information table had been thrown together with a couple of borrowed card tables and an old tablecloth. Our signs and banners were hand drawn with magic markers. Although our campaign literature had been photocopied on the cheapest plain white paper, it was packed with information, history and analysis. We wanted to educate voters to make an informed voice. And the people ate it up like there was no tomorrow.

The “yes” side, on the other hand, had beautiful campaign material. Big bright signs. Glossy brochures. Professionally crafted banners. Balloons. Streamers. Boxes and boxes of buttons. And, of all things, they had hired a string quartet to play classical music beside their display table. Behind the table were a local MP and several young paid staff from his office.

However, there was another thing that glaringly distinguished our table from theirs. We had a long line up of people wanting to get literature and have discussion with us. Their side had almost no one, and that was the way it went the whole day. The string quartet played and played beautiful music, the tunes wafting down the corridors of the shopping mall. But to no avail. People flocked to our rickety little table.

Now in BC, the side advocating the status quo, the first-past-the-post electoral system which maintains power for the few, is trying similar tricks. And citizens are rising up again, not just in this province but across this country, to reform the system.
Such is the dissatisfaction of the people with the existing political process. People want more control over politicians and more control over government, and they want their will to be more effectively expressed. And that is the third reason, in my opinion, why so many people in BC are saying yes to BC-STV.

For more information on the system recommended by the BC Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform - who voted in favour of STV by an overwhelming 146 to 7 - visit the BC-STV campaign website.

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