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Redrawing the B.C. political landscape

Nobody cheered the visiting MLAs from across B.C. as they wandered into the Legislature last month for a brief sojourn after their 256-day absence.

The voters’ silent disrespect raises a question: Why do so many Canadians scorn their chosen representatives at a time when street crowds in the Arab world are shouting for “democracy?”

Because people are fed up, so it seems. They are disgusted, not just by what many voters see as the stumbling B.C. Liberals and the crafty dictatorship of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but by the entire political system.

Contempt for elected office-holders is an old story. Long-ago cartoonist Al Capp packaged it in the comic-strip character of U.S. Senator Jack S. Phogbound.

But politician-bashing has become more shrill, especially in B.C. This province is now a caricature of everything that is wrong with the political process.

Politics-as-usual pleaders say: “Democracy is messy and we have an understandable extra muddle here because leadership contests left nobody in charge.”

That’s exactly the point. B.C. Libs are so reliant on the premier’s power that they left a $1 billion blank space in the budget for the future boss to fill. They abandoned the myth that legislatures decide, by a majority, how to resolve opposing interests fairly, run the province, and raise and invest money for the general benefit.

Libs acknowledged that they have made the B.C. political machine dependent on a solo managing engineer. But there is a comforting counter-trend added to the likelihood of a people-sensitive NDP government.

Politics is beginning to reinvent itself. The startup is faulty but substantial. It includes recall and initiative under cautious early-stage rules that make success nearly impossible and bungled experiments like ex-premier Campbell’s pretence of opening up legislative representation by citizens and referendum.

It includes licensed critics such as auditors general and children’s advocates, and such public policy organizers as Roy Romanow, whose health commission orchestrated the knowledge, wishes and skills of citizens, experts, political technicians and creative visionaries.

Romanow marked the way to the re-tuning of health care. Dr. Michael Rachlis and other analysts laid out numbers and case histories to show how the public system could be made more efficient and sensitive.

But Harper-Campbell Liberal-Conservative governments ignored the key findings of Romanow, Rachlis and a number of health economists, and — against majority wishes — encouraged privatization.

Contrasting but related signals are reaching us from the large percentage of people in North America who refuse to vote, and the angry crowds on the Arab streets.

In both realms, a rough form of direct people-power is shortcutting political controllers. The signals invite citizen groups to hurry change along.

Britain’s early-19th-century riots forced limited, grudging parliamentary reform that cancelled “rotten-borough” ridings with no inhabitants, controlled by peers and landed and merchant gentry.

In Canada, which has hacked out its own redraft of the Westminster tradition, Lib-Tory governing parties, controlled by prime ministers, juggle interest groups and make common cause with the strongest and loudest combination of dollar-heavy lobbies, while blowing out clouds of vote-seeking blather.

But a new player, the organized general public, may force a game-change.

In B.C. we dimly realize that the traditional job of legislatures, even if they were to do it, is not enough. We are beginning to gain a direct popular voice in decisions, beyond the authority of the legislature and the control of the premier and her or his news-doctors.

Custom and usage is giving us that direct voice, whether or not a “branch four” of government (mobilized, informed, critical public opinion added to prime minister, legislature and law courts) is formally recognized.

Real-life counterparts of Jack S. Phogbound will continue to amuse and infuriate us, but debate could be entertaining and useful within randomly chosen citizen policy juries, authorized to advise lawmakers or order the taking of referendums.


—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It appears every second week in the Gazette.