By TOM VARZELIOTIS
Last May, Salt Spring’s three elected officials — “3-EOs” — announced debates if a referendum on incorporation materializes. This seems superfluous because Salt Spring is renown for its propensity to debate; the timing is equally perplexing.
A probable cause was to ease the people into a “not worry” regime, to safeguard against dissent for farming out the formation of the public will to offshore consultants, fronted by local committees hand-picked by the 3-EOs. Additionally, this would pre-empt “unauthorized” debate.
The 3-EOs had already asked the province to finance the debate, thereby insinuating it would be sterling. All of which converge to imposing the plan via people’s study committees, neutral consultants and tightly controlled free debates.
Th 3-EOs promised updates about the debates, but made none in the ensuing nine months, until Jan. 17, when I filed a request.
Fascinated by the process, I pursued the “debate” issue and what I found made me uncomfortable. They have had a debate scheme in place since last May, but they had it under wraps.
According to the www.latest.ssiincorporationstudy.com website, the 3-EOs have even selected a debate moderator, “an authoritative, impartial, well-respected former politician to moderate the debates.” They would not disclose the name lest, I suspect, those who “formerly” voted against that politician debate his/her suitability. The exuberance of the introduction could ease us into a belief that the debates would be impeccable. Building credibility into “PRpaganda” is crucial to its effectiveness.
They revealed more of the scheme, which they apparently devised with the consultant. They will advertise for, interview, select and appoint people to do the debate. Just like they did with the governance study and incorporation study committees; they will split the recruits right down the middle into two debating teams of opposite persuasion and have them slug it out publicly. The moderator will be flanked by the consultant, who will defend the “facts” packed in the incorporation study report, thereby confining the debate to the fluid, emotional aspect of incorporation.
No, they did not forget the people, they factored us in, too. Show attendees may claim one minute at the mike. If no “fact” is offended, the consultant would signal the moderator to allow the team captains to answer the question. Then, the 100 or so who attended will knock on doors to inform the 9,900 (minus the ineligibles) on the outcome of the debate. Presto, the whole society would be readied to vote!
This is a prescription for regimentation and control. Whether intentional or not, this scheme delivers control of the process to its architects. This, in turn, endangers the “democaticity” of the referendum and the integrity of the verdict. Too much is at stake to keep silent on this.
The 3-EOs have a website to post citizens’ questions and answers them all. I found it irresistible and I sampled the system with three queries. The “responses” came back highly disappointing, but it was worthwhile for these draw the cover off the debates scheme.
I feel that the credibility of the website is dismal. My queries of Dec. 19 and Jan. 7 were censored; that of Jan. 17 is posted on the website, but mutilated, digested and “de-authorized” — all for the glory of fairness!
One cannot stand silent vis-a-vis such implementation of such a plan. This debate scheme and what little else we know about the incorporation process cause serious worries. But now, I would rather move on to suggest a fair debate. There are ways for that. The best I know of is the “ideas bank” and this I will outline next.
The ideas bank is a website geared to serve as a depository and a showcase of public contributions. It would accept submissions only in writing, preferably emailed. All contributions longer than (let’s say) 50 words to be accompanied with an “abstract” of no more than 50 words. Shorter submissions and abstracts of bigger submissions will be showcased. Long submissions will be posted in their entirety, but not showcased. They would be available by a click on the abstract to which each links.
Submissions would be posted “by right,” meaning the “submitters’ right,” because when freedom of speech is licensed, democracy is no longer. “Borderline” submissions would be arbitrated on the basis of whether they offend existing law, and for “relevance,” only. Absolutely no other “reason” would prevent any citizen from accessing the governance ideas bank. Calls for “decorum,” “civility” and similar notions are buzz words for “licence to censor” and to channel the debate to a set “truth” — be leery of those who advocate them.
Anonymous submissions would be welcome for the same reason for which we have the secret ballot and whistleblowers protection acts.
Involvement is a function of the perception of effectiveness and anticipation of recognition. With the ideas bank, citizens would know that their contributions will not be wastebasketed. People will be assured of fair process, which would make involvement worthwhile.
Ideas are entitled to the time for their evaluation. Bringing coal to Newcastle takes seconds to recognize, but notions that take hours to evaluate are potentially meritorious. Wastebasketing is very dangerous to a free and civilized society.
An inherent benefit of an ideas bank is that writing down our thoughts is constructive. Moses would not have been as memorable if he had not carved the words in stone.
Submissions showcased in the ideas bank would be exposed to the whole society, to be reviewed and judged on their merit; to become stepping stones for the discourse to leapfrog to a higher level of expanding awareness. The boost to public participation will result in cross-pollination and the birth of more ideas and suggestions. The ideas bank would excite latent talent and impregnate promiscuous minds to produce the fruits of democracy.
The ideas bank is “outside the box,” but it sits foursquare within the domain of the reasonable.
The writer is a retired engineer living on Booth Canal who has a keen interest in local government issues.