By Guy Dauncey
First Published in Common Ground Magazine, April 2004
This column is about democracy, and a truly remarkable process that is underway here in BC. But first, a trip into our past.
From what I have observed from my life, and my reading of history, we humans seem to be attracted by two differing impulses: one that inspires us to domination, and one that sings of partnership.
For most of our history, we have lived under kings, chiefs, or war lords. Where there has been polygamy, first wives have fought to retain dominance over second and third wives.
And it’s not just the past. In most families, the mother or father assumes power, and quietly or noisily (sometimes violently) assumes dominance over the other. Hands up how many of us have parents who truly knew how to share power and influence? A dominant partner will use all kinds of put-downs and non-consensual decisions to claim his or her place as the dominator; they learnt it at their parent’s knees. If young couples entering a relationship don’t take active steps to unlearn this behaviour, they will almost certainly repeat it. For the partner on the receiving end, the painful choice is often to live with it, or to leave, because challenging it often brings out the worst in the challenged partner.
In her book The Chalice and the Blade, Riane Eisler lays out the evidence that there was a period, in the early neolithic era, when matriarchal cultures seemed to live in a completely different way, using equality, partnership, and respect for nature as their guiding stars. We are not fixed in the dominator mode, she says; we’ve just got stuck in it, and we can learn our way out of it.
Deep within the human heart, and, I believe, within our evolutionary impulse, there lies a desire to live in partnership, not domination. Throughout recent history, whenever the threat of conflict has retreated, the instinct for partnership has sought to emerge, pushing domination aside. In the past 300 years, it has put an end to slavery, abolished child labour, won the right to form trade unions, won rights for women, and most important of all, it has created democracy, that wonderful but imperfect system by which we grant ourselves the right to change our rulers by voting them out of office when we no longer like them.
We think of democracy as a “thing”, but really, we should view it as an evolving process by which the impulse for partnership gradually moves into the psychic and political space that has been claimed by the impulse for domination. Democracy is imperfect only because we ourselves are still undecided whether we want to live by domination, or partnership. Whenever a government remains unchallenged for too long, the impulse for domination re-emerges, and we see corruption. If we use our democracy wisely, we will use it to improve democracy itself, so that it strengthens the impulse for partnership, and slowly but surely assigns the impulse to dominate to the naughty massage parlours, and the history books.
So back to the present. The process that is underway in BC is the Citizens Assembly, an independent, non-partisan assembly of 160 randomly selected British Columbians, one man and one woman from each of B.C.’s 79 constituencies, plus two Aboriginal members, who are spending 2004 studying electoral systems around the world. Starting in May, they will be holding public hearings around the province, and accepting submissions, before they reach a recommendation as to how the votes that we cast in our provincial elections should translate into seats in the Legislature.
Under our present system, known as “first past the post”, minorities are often dominated and ignored by majorities, and yet a government elected by a minority will often win a majority of the seats, and go on to form the government, even though the majority opposes it. No wonder some people feel jaded with our so-called democracy. Under another system, such as proportional representation, there could be a much more fair system that encouraged participation, and partnerships.
The Citizens Assembly is such an unprecedented process that people from 103 different countries have visited its website, and many are coming to see it in action. With the Public Hearings about to begin, now is your chance to participate. They begin in Vancouver on May 3rd, and continue on to Richmond (4th), Burnaby (5th), New Westminster (6th), and Surrey (8th), and then around the province, ending in Kelowna on June 24th.
If the Assembly’s members propose a change in the system, their recommendation will be put to BC voters in a referendum at the next provincial election on May 17, 2005. To pass, it will need to be approved by 60% of the voters, and by a simple majority of voters in 60% of the 79 electoral districts. If we endorse a new system, the government has said that it will be put in place for the provincial election in May 2009. Democracy will live!
Guy Dauncey is the author of Earthfuture: Stories from a Sustainable World (New Society Publishers, 1999) and other titles. He lives in Victoria. www.earthfuture.com