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Parties prohibited from promoting referendum positions

The B.C. Green Party has long supported electoral reform, but leader Jane Sterk said they won't be mentioning that on their election material.

“Political parties can't advertise [support for electoral reform] in print advertising,” said Sterk. During the pre-election period from February 1 until May 12 the party will have to remove references to the referendum on changing the voting system from its website, she said. Party officials are also cancelling plans to promote a 'yes' vote on Green Party brochures.

A Green member discovered the prohibition in mid-November deep in the regulations governing the referendum on BC-STV, Sterk said. The party checked with Elections B.C., and confirmed that while candidates can voice support for a 'yes' vote, they may not advertise that position.

Penalties for breaking the regulation are a fine of up to $10,000 and up to a year in jail.

“Since we're the only party that's advocated electoral reform for 25 years . . . it's primarily restricting us,” said Sterk.

Attorney General Wally Oppal said he has heard concerns about the regulation and has asked Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld to look into what is and isn't allowed. "I think the ultimate solution will be that all of that will be in his hands."

An Elections B.C. spokesperson, Wendy Stewart, confirmed the agency's interpretation of the regulation and the Election Act that parties can not combine election and referendum advertising. Also, she said, political parties may not register as sponsors of referendum advertising. They would, she said, be blocked from advertising a position on the electoral reform referendum.

While unhappy about the regulation, Sterk said the party will not mount any official challenge. “To try to fight what I see as the unfairness of the regulation would be a distraction from the election itself,” she said. “When you have to fight an election, you have to look at what are your priorities. We clearly want to win some seats if that's the will of the electorate in 2009.”

Under former leader Adriane Carr, who preferred a different system of proportional representation than the one forwarded by the Citizens' Assembly, the Greens were slow to support BC-STV. Sterk, who won the leadership a year ago, has been a solid supporter of a 'yes' vote.

University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon, who last year published a book on electoral reform, said the Liberals want to see electoral reform defeated in the May 12 referendum and have realized the Greens will likely campaign vigorously for a win.

“This is a typical kind of dirty pool,” said Pilon, adding that Ontario had a similar prohibition in place for its recent referendum on electoral reform. “It's a referendum on democracy and they want to limit people's democratic rights.”

A spokesperson for the ministry of the Attorney General, Shawn Robins, said the government is working with Neufeld and Elections B.C.. "The intent is not to silence political parties on their views on STV," he said. "At this point in time we're just getting to the finer details of what they might be allowed . . . It's a fine line we're trying to clarify with Elections B.C.."

Stewart said Elections B.C. is getting an independent legal opinion on the issue before responding to the Attorney General. It will then be up to the government to decide what to do. "They have the authority to amend the regulation."

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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