Column: ripping yarns
This article appeared in North Shore News on Sunday, February 21, 1999
LET’S get direct about direct democracy.
I doubt that the residents of North Vancouver District have the stomach for it.
That goes for the residents of the other two North Shore municipalities too.
It requires too much work; it requires the direct democrats to have too much interest in the affairs of their local town hall.
If you go by the traditional voter turnout to local municipal elections, that interest applies to about 30% of the population.
In North Vancouver City make that 20% if you’re lucky.
So while the case for direct democracy is compelling, history dictates that it is a local non-starter.
North Vancouver District council is set to vote March 8 on whether direct democracy should drive the municipality’s political agenda.
My fearless prediction is that it will fail.
This even though it would be beneficial to the overall good health of this great neighbourhood called the North Shore by engaging far more local residents in the running of their municipal government.
And local government, while it may not have the sex appeal of higher political strata, is where your local quality of life resides.
It’s where the heavy lifting of such mundane services as garbage, police, fire and sewage is done.
It’s also where decisions on local development are made.
It is, as they say on the street, where you live.
Citizen-run democracy is not new. But in most constituencies it has fallen under the wheels of special interest groups and well-lubricated political party machinery.
And, too, it has fallen victim to those twin viruses that plague democracies everywhere: apathy and complacency.
It’s surprising then that this comfiest of comfy West Coast neighbourhoods would spawn a direct democracy movement.
But that it has in the form of Canadians for Direct Democracy. Its president is North Vancouver’s Reimar Kroecher, an economics professor and fulltime democracy enthusiast.
Not much of an enthusiast of how it is practised in Canada, mind you.
His view of Canadian democracy from his North Shore vantage point: “utterly dysfunctional.”
The work of Kroecher and various other local direct democracy fans such as North Vancouver District Coun. Ernie Crist and North Vancouver Reform MP Ted White helped push the issue onto the district’s agenda.
And it has led to the recently released task force report on direct democracy.
Among other things, the report calls for a direct democracy bylaw that would enable district residents to initiate referenda covering all district affairs.
Those referenda could be launched with a petition supported by 5% of eligible district voters.
If council votes to adopt the report’s recommendations, the direct democracy bylaw would be put to a referendum at the upcoming November municipal elections.
There remain, however, some hurdles to opening up the local political process.
As the direct democracy report points out, B.C.’s Municipal Act will need some retooling: it gives councils alone the legal authority over zoning decisions.
But if the local Squamish band can develop its lands without adhering to any Municipal Act red tape then the way should be open for other local governments to do the same.
At the very least Victoria needs to change the Municipal Act to allow citizens to directly control what goes on in their neighbourhoods and municipalities.
But that could be the trickiest part of the local direct democracy process. The current government in Victoria has no interest in democratic processes on any level.
That’s not to throw too much cold water on the direct democracy movement.
It’s already operating in B.C. The Kootenay town of Rossland has adopted citizen-initiated referenda and bylaw to drive its local government since the early ’90s.
Chaos? The end of municipal government as we know it? No and yes.
According to Rossland City administrator Andre Carrel, direct democracy has been beneficial to local government and residents alike.
Apart from anything else:
“… council has earned the respect and trust of citizens and that has enabled (it) to explore new ideas, to look to the future, to create a vision. Council knows that if it leaves the community too far behind, citizens have access to a civilized and effective process by which to rein in their council.”
So chaos no; but the end of local government as we know it, quite likely. And thank God for that.
The rationale behind the recommendations contained in the local direct democracy task force report include such simple principles as
“… the conduct of district business should be open and transparent, with a well-developed district-wide communication system.” And that “council should always recognize that it is accountable to district residents.”
If you are nodding your head after such sage and simple ideas then you might want to nod your head a little harder for direct democracy right here right now.
But as noted: the political will to incorporate such grassroots ingredients in the local political process is, for the most part, lukewarm at best.
There is, after all, sensitive political and bureaucratic turf to defend.
And community interest in local democracy is several degrees cooler than lukewarm.
I wish I were wrong for once.
Maybe someone will surprise me.
By Timothy Renshaw, Managing Editor, North Shore News, North Vancouver, B.C