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STV supporter questions opponent's spending of public grant money

Supporters of a 'yes' vote in the referendum to change the voting system are asking whether the 'no' side misspent its public education money on a telephone poll. The 'no' side says it checked with Elections B.C. and its spending is within the rules.

Each side has $500,000 from the government to educate the public on the referendum that could see the province adopting the B.C. Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation.

“Both sides were given some guidelines when they received the money,” said Bruce Hallsor, president of Fair Voting B.C. and a lawyer working on the 'yes' campaign organized through British Columbians for BC-STV. “We're being very careful to stick to the letter of that. I think it's important to spend the money in the way it was intended.”

Public Eye reported yesterday No STV is using the polling firm Ipsos-Reid to ask questions about whether people would support STV more or less if they knew “only two small countries in the world used it”, women would be less likely to get elected, MLAs would be less accountable, small towns would be less represented, politicians would have less power and the results would be less proportional.

Those are all misrepresentations of what would happen with STV, said Hallsor.

It appears the no side is either preparing for an advertising campaign by testing negative messages to see what best resonates with the public or conducting a “push poll” that plants negative ideas, he said. Either way, he said, it's a misuse of public education money.

“It breaks the spirit of the law and I think taxpayers should be outraged by that,” he said. “That's contrary to the spirit of the law, if not to the letter of it. I haven't looked at that, but I probably will be soon.”

A spokesperson for No STV, former NDP MLA David Schreck, confirmed the campaign is conducting a poll and that it is being paid for with the group's public money. It's within the law, he said.

“We checked with Elections B.C. and they thought that is a legitimate use of the money,” said Schreck. “We wouldn't have done it otherwise.”

Polling, which would have cost around $18,000, is part of any advertising campaign, he said. “If you're going to design an advertising campaign, part of the cost in designing that campaign is polling and production costs for the ads.”

The campaign even checked the particular questions they planned to use with Elections B.C., he said. “It wasn't a casual thing. We were very specific.”

Group members are personally liable to repay any of the public grant money that is found to be inappropriately spent, he said. “It focuses the mind on doing things right.”

He defended the group's approach of attacking STV instead of defending the current first-past-the-post system. “Most people are familiar with the current system,” he said.

"We don't have any concerns about their polling," said Nola Western, the Elections B.C. director responsible for electoral finance.

"What they ask is up to them," she said. "The use of the public funds is essentially to get the message out . . . They have to use the public money to oppose STV." The polling is part of that, she said.

"I think it's offensive to suggest we're doing push polling," said Bill Tieleman, a spokesperson for the No STV campaign. "We're using a reputable national polling firm that would not allow itself to be used for push polling. It's a ridiculous and offensive charge on the part of Mr. Hallsor."

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

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