When the New Democrats recruited four academics to vet the public consultations on electoral reform, they asked them to take a vow of silence about the government’s methods, process and findings.
“You are one of four academics invited to provide advice and would be privy to confidential information, including draft materials and related commentary,” read the formal invitation from the Ministry of the Attorney-General.
“As a condition of your participation, we ask that you agree to abstain from public comment or academic research related to the B.C. government’s survey methodology, survey results or consultation process.”
The letter went out last Nov. 3 to four political scientists with expertise in electoral reform: Maxwell Cameron from the University of B.C., Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Simon Fraser University, Jonathan Rose, Queen’s University and Peter Loewen of the University of Toronto.
The first three have spoken favourably about the need for electoral change. Only Loewen has much good to say about the status quo first-past-the-post system.
But from the outset, the quartet was presented with a bit of a fait accompli — a questionnaire about public attitudes on electoral reform drafted in advance by the government, with a tight time frame to offer comments and shape the final version.
All four wrote back over the next week or so, doing their best to shorten, clarify, correct and add balance to the initial draft. Not all of the advice was taken.
“Are you planning a citizens’ assembly?” asked Prof. Johnson, suggesting an assembly or some other form of public review would be critical to build support and understanding. “Voters have to become very familiar with the alternatives to our political system and the reasons why they are stronger. This can’t be rushed.”
Despite the caution against rushing, the New Democrats had already put the process on the fast track.
“We do not have time to do a citizens’ assembly process,” returned Neil Reimer, director of strategic initiatives in the A-G’s ministry and the lead public servant on electoral reform process. “We have been given fairly tight timelines.”
I’ll say. The date of that email — obtained by the B.C. Liberals under an access to information filing, like other documents quoted here — was Nov. 13. Two days later, Reimer got back to Johnson and her colleagues with a revised questionnaire and solicited a second round of feedback, with responses due by noon on Nov. 17.
The following week the New Democrats launched the public engagement process and the final version of the questionnaire. Included on the How We Vote website, was a carefully crafted nod to the limited role played by its four external academic advisers.
“They reviewed the questionnaire and voting system information presented on this site. They are not responsible for the website’s design or content.”
Next morning, all four received a cautionary email from Kevin Atcheson, the senior policy and legislation analyst in the Justice Services Branch.
“We understand you may receive media requests on the topic of electoral reform and your role in the review of the government’s educational material and questionnaire,” it began before acknowledging that they were, of course, free to comment on the wider referendum process and voting systems in general.
But then came a reminder of the terms on which they entered into the exercise in the first place: “As indicated in the letter requesting your participation, please refrain from commenting on the specific advice you provided and whether that advice was followed.”
Particularly the latter. Much as the New Democrats were happy to cite the four as validators, the last thing they wanted were mouthy academics critiquing the process, the questionnaire and the possible results.
Besides, as one of the quartet disclosed, “I provided some feedback on the survey, but that’s about it.” The more important role in shaping the final text of the survey was the one hinted at in another of Reimer’s emails: “Our minister’s office has also had input.”
Last week, Attorney-General David Eby ducked questions from the B.C. Liberals about the role played by the political staff in his office. Tuesday he admitted all.
“My office did guide the questionnaire,” said Eby, suggesting that his staff had no choice but to take charge because “some of the (academic) experts provided contradictory recommendations.”
Instead of letting the academics speak out publicly about where they disagreed with the NDP questionnaire and why, Eby’s ministry reminded them of the obligation to say nothing on that score. Then Eby and his staff handled the finishing touches themselves.
“So decisions have to be made in politics,” he told the house. “One of the decisions that my office made, and that I stand here accountable for, was to release the survey in the form it was released to the public for completion. I believe the survey struck the right balance.”
I’m sure he does think it struck the right balance. For in many readings of the survey, it was found to be skewed in favour of proportional representation — the outcome sought by both Eby and Premier John Horgan, who appointed Eby as the “neutral arbiter” on this process.
I further expect that when the New Democrats finally get around to setting the question or questions for the referendum, and deciding the other arbitrary rules and procedures, neutral arbiter Eby will say those strike the right balance as well.
All part of an NDP-led deck-stacking exercise that began last fall and continues to this day.