Dermod Travis: Democracy takes hit in HST referendum campaign
By Dermod Travis
Checking in at a bargain basement price of only $8.9 million and change, this summer's HST referendum may yet turn out to be both one of the cheapest and one of the most costly referendums in Canadian history.
While the B.C. government shaved a few million off its costs by switching from the traditional ballot box to the postage stamp method of casting votes, the shrapnel that B.C.'s democracy took to the chin have consumed those savings in spades regardless of how the vote comes down later this month.
Upon assuming office, Premier Christy Clark had a chance to show that it wouldn't just be "families first", but that she was also going to put "B.C. first" through the introduction of new measures to restore the faith of British Columbians in their democracy.
For Clark and the B.C. Liberals, the HST referendum was the political equivalent of staring a gift horse in the mouth, but true to form, party insiders fell back on the one thing they seem to know well: tactics that can only be called "too smart by half".
They opted to confuse and lie to voters, to try and suppress voter turnout, and then worst of all they talked down to the very people they needed to win over.
Before cheering too loudly over the estimated 52.2 percent turnout of B.C. voters as announced by Elections B.C. this week, keep in mind that this is still three percent lower than the turnout in the last provincial election. It's also a far cry from the 86 percent turnout in the 2008 presidential Oregon mail-in vote that the Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer cited this week in defence of the mail-in vote process.
And in theory, when one accounts for the close to 3.4 percent of ballots rejected in the 2002 referendum on treaty negotiations, it's entirely possible that fewer than one in four eligible British Columbians will have decided the fate of one of the most important tax policies ever to be voted on in a provincial referendum in Canada.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, attempts at suppressing the turnout may work in favour of the better financed pro-HST lobby. With the advent of robocalls, the Smart Tax Alliance, and its allies, were likely better positioned to have identified their support and ensured that those in favour of the HST voted.
But regardless of how the vote comes down, the B.C. Liberals should be ashamed. They could have kicked off the referendum campaign with a sincere mea culpa for the way the HST was foisted on British Columbians. Clark may not be Gordon Campbell, but she leads what was Campbell's government and had a chance to seek forgiveness: not necessarily for a bad policy but bad politics.
From there, the B.C. Liberals could have ditched the stickman in favour of a well-reasoned education and awareness campaign spelling out the merits of the HST. They might have appealed to the best in voters, but they opted to appeal to the basest in politics.
Assured on the merits of the HST, Clark could have insisted on strict spending limits and an official Yes and No committee led by the B.C. Liberals and NDP to oversee spending. Clark already had the legislative tools at her disposal to do so.
Instead the B.C. government wittingly unleashed the pro-HST Smart Tax Alliance onto unsuspecting voters to sell the tax.
In its 2004 decision on third party spending, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that: “without spending limits, the political discourse would be dominated by the wealthy...the less affluent and the political parties that represent their views would be 'drowned out.'”
And the HST referendum campaign was "dominated by the wealthy". The less affluent were “drowned out”. Bill Vander Zalm's Fight HST was outgunned and outspent.
B.C.'s corporate interests spared no expense to try and salvage a multi-billion dollar tax transfer from the wallets of ordinary British Columbians to their bottom lines.
But even if the HST continues to burn bright after the vote comes in, the disproportionate spending between the two sides will delegitimize a No vote. British Columbians will be condemned to revisit the HST again and again, from election to election until it attains the moral authority among voters it so sorely lacks.
However, the shame for this disappointing state of political affairs doesn't just rest on Clark, the B.C. Liberal government, or the Smart Tax Alliance.
B.C.'s acting chief electoral officer Craig James should also be ashamed. James has given the term "acting" new meaning.
Elections B.C. is a non-partisan office of the legislature and is—in its own words—the “custodian” of the right of British Columbians to vote. Some custodians.
At virtually every turn, decisions by Elections B.C. during the referendum reeked of political bias. James has broken the very prerequisite necessary for the conduct of his office: neutrality.
And if perception is reality, James has politicized Elections B.C. to a point of no return. Hopefully, Keith Archer, the new chief elections officer will understand that the “custodian” of the right to vote has a duty that transcends partisan politics.
Premier Clark may be smoother and a little more glib with the lips than her predecessor, but her performance throughout the campaign proved to be too reminiscent of a peekaboo Gordon Campbell in drag. Yet, British Columbians will still have a chance to pass judgement on her performance.
Voters don't get a chance to pass judgement on James, but hopefully his conscience will let him pass judgement on himself.
Dermod Travis is the managing director of IntegrityBC.