The B.C. Green Party faces a fork in the road — democracy vs. subsidiarity

There are many people who could say, with conviction, “Decisions should be made as close as possible to the people who will implement them and live with the consequences.” It is often assumed that the statement is necessarily indicative of democracy, but such is not the case.

The important question is, who makes the decision about the locale of subsequent decisions.

Democracy is reflected in the idea that the decision about the locale of subsequent decisions should be made as close as possible to the grassroots.

Subsidiarity is reflected in the idea that the decision about the locale of subsequent decisions should be made at the top of the pyramid, by the paramount leader, or a small cadre of leaders ‘at the top’.

Subsidiarity is the antithesis of democracy.

For the Green Party of B.C., the immediate question is this: should the Party be organized from the bottom up or from the top down?

History favours the top down approach, which is certainly how all the ‘old-line’ parties in Canada are organized.

My life’s experience has driven me away from that model, for reasons that I share with many other Canadians. On the rebound, I have been attracted to the Green Party of B.C. because of the prospect that it would be the ‘life-lab’ for creating a Party that could emerge from the grassroots up, and thrive.

Amendments being proposed to the Constitution of the Party represent a significant step in the direction of top-down control, and they apparently preclude local self-government of constituency associations. Not only are riding associations being incorporated in the provincial constitution: all references to constituency associations (which can register with Elections B.C.) are being removed. There is no time limit on this centralization, no alternate route for achieving local self-government, and no limit on the extent of central control.

The apparent rationale for the proposals is entirely consistent with the history of subsidiarity. The central party, it is said, has more experience and capacity than do local constituency associations. Centralization, it is said, is cheaper and more efficient than decentralization.

I see a number of problems with this course.

In the absence of a risk assessment and a risk management plan, the proposal suggests ignorance of the dangers inherent in moving close to the old-line parties in this way. If these amendments are adopted, the Green Party will lose one of the main distinctions that set it fundamentally apart from the Liberal Party or the N.D.P. Constituency associations will not be nurturing/controlling the development of the central party: the central party will be nurturing/controlling the development of the riding associations.

Centralized organizational control may eventually undermine the Green Party commitment to representative moral autonomy. It will likely be hard to remain “whip free” in the Legislature when the entire organization is centrally oriented.

Centralized control weakens, and may eventually entirely thwart, the development of local capacity. It seems clear that the old-line parties, which are centrally oriented, have failed to maintain strong local capacity. (It may well be true that centralized control is more resource efficient and economic in the short term. Business often experiences a tough choice between higher startup costs being traded off for lower on-going costs versus lower startup costs being traded for higher on-going costs. Leaders and coaches often face the same dilemma. It seems easier to do the job oneself, because teaching and mentoring and picking up the pieces when others fail is more ‘costly’ than doing the job oneself. Both for business and for coaching, the higher startup cost is generally a better investment in the long term.)

In times of great change and turbulence – which seems likely to characterize the present and the next 20 years of political life in B.C. – nature is clear that the best response is decentralized control, great diversity, and simultaneous tight-loose (very elastic) ties, with options. If the party were to emulate nature, it would not be proposing these amendments.

In the absence of any report that sets out the assessment process applied to the current situation, and the imaginative process of considering alternatives, one plausible conclusion is that the amendments represent either a failure of imagination or a problematic trade-off of startup versus on-going costs.

That said, politics is a dynamic process. It will be interesting to have the Party experience the debate and make the most of the outcome.

I am concerned, but I am also hopeful.

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