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Making BC's Referendum Act Workable

1997-05
Common Ground Magazine

by Anthony Marr

 

BC's Recall and Initiative Act for citizen initiated referendums does not work.

 

Anthony Marr found that out the hard way, working for six months on a Bear Referendum that failed. Compared to California and Washington state, our act is designed to fail and does not serve the public. Here is a proposal to make the act workable.

 

In June 1989, thousands of Chinese students died in Tienanmen Square for democracy, some shot, others crushed in their tents by tanks. Had my family never escaped from China, I would likely have been in their midst. Living instead in Canada, I do not take my freedom for granted. I safeguard it with my life, and make sure I use it to its fullest extent towards making the maximum difference for as long as possible.

 

This is why, seeing that BC is the only Canadian province with the provision for citizens to launch referendums through the Recall and Initiative Act, I expended six full months of my life on Western Canada Wilderness Committee's (WCWC) Bear Referendum campaign last year. This is why, after the exercise in futility, I have come to abhor the true lack of full and real democracy in BC, and therefore in Canada.

 

What we have here is at best semi-democracy, if not downright pseudo-democracy. We have the right to vote for politicians who are usually little more than the least of several evils, who then behave more like dictators than democrats. Most of all, the Recall and Initiative Act is all semblance but no substance.

 

On July 13, 1996, the Editor-in-Chief of the Kamloops Daily News, Mel Rothenburger, wrote: "Nobody ever promised democracy would be easy. Anthony Marr, who grew up in Hong Kong, is learning all about that in Canada. Marr was in town this week as part of a tour of BC cities setting the stage for what he hopes will be a provincial referendum on bear hunting. Aside from the cogency of his argument, what struck me most about his objective is the near-impossibility of success . . ."

 

Having traveled 20,000 km from city to city debating trophy hunters by the hundreds face to face and on various media, generating some 200 newspaper articles around the province, working hard with some 2,000 volunteers in the Initiative Petition phase of the Referendum campaign in sleet and snow, and still ending up short of the impossible goal set by BC's Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh, I declare the process unworkable-by-design, and the government's purported wish to share legislative power with the people totally insincere.

 

How our Act compares to those of California and Washington State

 

The fact that no other Canadian province has even BC's pretence of a citizen-launchable initiative makes Canada a less-than-first-class democracy. First, let me recap the current rules and regulations in Election BC's Recall and Initiative Act, and compare and contrast it against other proven, workable systems around the democratic world whenever possible:

 

To force a province-wide referendum, the Proponent must first collect signatures from at least 10% of the registered voters in each and every one of the 75 electoral districts in the province, which should total about 220,000 province-wide. If only one electoral district falls short by even 1%, all is for nought. In contrast, California and Washington state, for example, require only 5% of the number of voters who actually voted in the previous election, which given a 60% turnout is equivalent only to 3% of the registered voters, and at that from anywhere in the state.

 

The BC signatures must be collected by government approved and registered “volunteer canvassers”, who must themselves be registered voters. To register a canvasser according to Elections BC protocol requires five stages of mailing, spanning about three weeks. California and Washington state, on the other hand, have no such requirement; petition forms can be displayed, distributed and circulated by anyone.

 

75 different sets of petition forms are issued by Elections BC, one for each electoral district. This means that canvassers have to carry around multi-sets of forms, in case some of the people they approach in a certain electoral district, or who approach them, have come from another district. This also means that many people from other districts would have to be turned away if the canvasser happens not to have the right petition form.

 

In Vancouver and Victoria in particular, canvassers have to carry all 75 sets of forms, which makes the exercise extremely tedious, awkward, expensive and time consuming. California and Washington state, on the other hand, issue only one set of petition forms, applicable to every corner of the state.

 

BC's Proponent has only 90 days to collect the signatures of 10% of all registered voters, whereas California's and Washington's proponents have 150 days to collect the signatures of 5% of those who voted in the last election.

 

In BC, there can be only one Proponent, and at that it must be an individual instead of an organization, whereas there can be any number of Opponents, who can be organizations as well as individuals. In the Bear Referendum's case, there were 107 registered Opponents, comprising 38 individuals and 69 organizations headed by the 35,000-members-strong BC Wildlife Federation (a misleading title which should be more truthfully renamed BC Hunting Association).

This obviously is biased in favour of the Opponents in terms of fund raising and networking potential.

 

The disparity is made even more pronounced by that whereas the Proponent needs to work on all 75 electoral districts to ensure that they all succeed, the Opponents need concentrate on only two or three to ensure that at least one fails (see point #1).

 

While debating hunters, one of their arguments is:

 

"Who are you, from Vancouver, to tell us up here what to do?"

 

First, if the referendum succeeds, it would be the entire BC electorate's decision, not just the people of Vancouver. I can understand that some measure of regional representation is fair, but if hypothetically 74 districts get enough signatures, who is the one dissenting district to derail all the rest?

 

It would be fair, in my opinion, that the electoral districts also follow the democratic principle of a simple majority, namely that 38 out of the 75 should suffice.

 

In BC, unlike in California and Washington state, the success of the Initiative Petition does not automatically guarantee a referendum vote. In fact, the legislature still has the power to trash the petition as it sees fit.

 

When it comes to the referendum vote, California and Washington state requires the usual simple majority of those who turn out to vote, whereas in BC, a majority of the registered voters is required. In other words, if 50% of the registered voters turned out to vote, and 100% of them voted for the proposal, the Referendum would not pass. It would fail by one vote.

 

Even if the referendum vote is won, it still goes back to debate in legislature which still has the power to trash the vote, whereas in California and Washington state, legislative change is automatic.

 

Although there is a provision to prohibit direct interference by the Opponents in the Initiative Petition process, such as intimidating those who came to sign, which some Opponents did violate, there is no provision to prohibit indirect interference, such as the Opponents threatening to picket and boycott those malls that allow the Proponent to set up booths, which the Opponents took full advantage of.

 

Since the Recall and Initiative Act originated as a provision for citizens to recall politicians in whom they have lost confidence, the government sees itself being naturally in the Opponent camp, which in part explains the above anti-Proponent bias.

 

When Mr. Dosanjh was challenged by provincial Liberal leader Gordon Campbell on the unworkability of the rules, he cited the $18 million cost for a referendum vote as justification for the difficulties imposed to rule out wanton launches of referendums on “trivial issues”, which the bear-hunting issue certainly was not.

 

Indeed, as a lone-standing event, an Initiative Vote would be exceedingly expensive -cranking up the entire voting machinery throughout the province in terms of voter registration, setting up and manning polling stations, publicizing the event, counting of votes, etc.,

 

But this is circular argument in his own favour. It was Mr. Dosanjh himself who caused the process to be expensive by making the Initiative Vote a lone-standing event in the first place. In contrast, referendums in California and Washington state are appended to political elections at minimal cost, and there is no disadvantage to it.

 

Coinciding with BC's bear referendum, there was a bear referendum in Washington state in their last political election on banning the use of bait and dogs in bear hunting, and their referendum was won.

 

I congratulate them, especially considering that they would have lost had Washington state's rules been the same as BC's.

 

Conversely, had BC's rules been the same as Washington state's, we would have succeeded.

 

If the comparison is still found unconvincing, I can cite the case of Switzerland, where for the last 130 years, the signatures of only 1% of the registered voters are required to force a referendum vote to challenge any existing policy or law, and only 2% for the proposal of new laws.

 

Citizen-generated referendums are tools for truly democratic governments to place the power with the people. It is the way public servants live up to their true calling in a truly democratic society, however much remuneration and prestige they deem fit to reward themselves. If this province's Attorney General is truly sincere in elected government sharing legislative power with the people, he will change the referendum rules to be more democratic.

 

We need to change the Act. To this effect, WCWC has prepared a petition to the BC government outlining 12 realistic points to make BC's referendum act workable. We encourage you to obtain a copy, sign it, gather more signatures, and take part in the democratic process of changing our referendum act.

 

Petition to Change the BC Referendum Act

 

We, the people of British Columbia, wish to amend the current Recall and Initiative Act as follows:

  • The Initiative Petition to call a referendum shall require signatures from at least 3% of the registered voters province wide.

  • The provincial total shall include signatures from at least 3% of the registered voters in at least 38 of BC's 75 electoral districts.

  • The time frame provided for the gathering of these signatures shall be 150 days, which will begin on a date jointly decided upon by the Proponent(s) and Elections BC.

  • There can be any number of Proponents and Opponents.

  • Both Proponents and Opponents can be individuals as well as organizations.

  • There shall be only one set of Initiative Petition forms instead of the current 75 different sets.

  • Signatures can be collected by anyone regardless of his/her being a registered voter.

  • Opponents shall not use intimidation tactics to directly or indirectly interfere with the signature collection process.

  • A successful Initiative Petition shall automatically bring about an Initiative Vote.

  • The Initiative Vote shall be appended to the first provincial election after the conclusion of the Initiative Petition.

  • The Initiative Vote shall be won by the Proponent(s) with a simple 50%-plus-one-vote majority of popular votes province-wide, and simple 50%-plus-one-vote majorities of the popular votes in at least 38 of the 75 electoral districts.

  • The proposed amendment or removal of an existing law or policy, and/or introduction of a new law or policy as stated in the Initiative Petition, shall automatically take effect in legislature upon the winning of the Initiative Vote by the Proponent(s).

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