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Politicians Don't Like Recall? Well, Why Would They?

Recall and citizen initiatives hold MLAs accountable, and that's sorely needed.

By Bill Tieleman 18 Jan 2011 |

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at or visit his blog.

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Chance of getting the hook keeps politicians honest.

"As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law-givers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end." -- Adlai Stevenson, U.S. politician,1900-1965

Prominent British Columbia politicians of all persuasions really don't trust you, the voter.

It doesn't matter if they hold a BC Liberal or BC New Democrat membership card or were premier or cabinet ministers -- your democratic rights are a threat to their privileged existence.

That's the blunt lesson to be learned from the comments last week of a former B.C. premier, an ex-attorney general, a former finance minister and a former member of parliament and provincial cabinet minister, as well as current ministers.

What's got them absolutely steaming mad? Recall and citizens' initiatives.

Why? Because it takes a small measure of power away from politicians and puts it in the hands of voters.

How undemocratic, they shout!

And they want a future government to eliminate both recall and citizens initiatives, so campaigns like that against Premier Gordon Campbell's Harmonized Sales Tax or any other issue can never happen again.

Sound crazy? Insulting? Offensive?

You bet it is.

But both former NDP premier Dan Miller and former Social Credit attorney general Brian Smith said so loudly last week, in language that's shocking.

You decide. Here's what Smith said about the recall campaign against BC Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong over the HST.

"What could be a more inappropriate, in fact disgustingly inappropriate moment than to have a bunch of people in yellow jackets ringing doorbells to get rid of MLAS?" Smith told CKNW radio host Mike Smyth last Monday.

"Recall is not to be used at whim to target innocent MLAs. And the fact that they're using it, I hope there will be some changes to that recall legislation so this can never happen again," Smith blustered. "You can't have MLAs being recalled willy-nilly because people are mad at the government. The system is not going to work."

Exactly -- the system where voters elect a government that misleads them and then ignores their concerns and objections for four years can't work -- when citizens can propose their own legislation and recall MLAs who don't listen.

Political 'violation'?

Smith wasn't finished pontificating either.

"It [recall] was not brought in to try and target MLAs who might have slim majorities and might be vulnerable because they happen to be part of a party whose policies the recallers don't like," Smith said.

"MLAs were elected for the term of the legislature. That's four years -- they sign off. Ida can't go back to accounting for four years. Mr. McRae, who's the next recall target in Comox, he can't go back to teaching, he's signed off on a leave of absence."

"And now the rules are being changed by these people who don't like one particular policy so they're going to throw them out for one policy. That's not what recall was for."

"The other reason I think in this case that recall is not legitimate is that the tax reform people have already achieved what they said they wanted to do at the beginning. That is they want to get rid of the HST."

"And they have got a referendum which the retiring premier even changed the rules to make it easier for them to win the referendum when it just requires a simple majority who show up and vote instead of those on the voters list. So they've done that," Smith said.

Wow, how generous of those MLAs to give up their professions for us peasants and of Campbell to actually respond to voter concerns!

Host Mike Smyth challenged the former attorney general on a lot of that, noting that there are absolutely no rules that say what recall can or cannot be used for.

"Listen, you can legally do it -- of course you can. But if you look at all the debates and discussion of recall when it was introduced, it was introduced to get rid of bad apples," Brian Smith replied.

"This is a political violation of the raison d'etre behind recall," he said.

Smith is dead wrong. As noted here previously, the only legislative requirement for recall is a 200-word statement giving the proponent's reasons for wanting to remove the MLA. No reasons are inadmissible.

Miller: 'bad policy'

But Smith is hardly alone in being mistaken.

Former premier Miller called in on the open line to back up Smith -- his political adversary in the past.

"I agree 100 per cent with Brian Smith," Miller fumed. "Let's trace this back. Why did recall come about anyways? It's because the Socreds were desperate in the dying days 1991... and the NDP not wanting to be offside or potentially lose some votes, agreed with it.

"It came about as an act of desperation by a losing government and it's bad policy and quite frankly it ought to be revoked."

"But to try and remove an MLA on a matter of policy it seems to me is fundamentally wrong."

Miller didn't stop at opposing recall either -- he went on to criticize the successful Fight HST citizens initiative petition I helped organize with former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm and former Unity Party leader Chris Delaney.

"And quite frankly I'm offended by the triumvirate who are self-appointed, meaning Vander Zalm, Delaney and Bill Tieleman, who seem to think they speak for ordinary British Columbians -- they don't at all," Miller said.

Let's be clear -- 705,643 individual British Columbians signed the citizens initiative petition, and Elections BC verified that 557,383 signatures -- more than 10 per cent of voters in every one of B.C.'s 85 ridings -- were valid, making it the first successful initiative.

The entire campaign was run by volunteers -- no paid staff, shoestring budget, just ordinary citizens contributing their personal time and energy -- that's why it worked. And poll after poll showed overwhelming opposition to the HST.

Vander Zalm, Delaney and I were honoured to lead that campaign, but I think Miller is offended not by us but by the audacity of ordinary voters to presume to tell politicians they did the wrong thing, in a way that couldn't be ignored.

Killing the HST dead

The HST cost Campbell his job -- and may cost his party the next election if they don't scrap it.

The recall against Chong -- a future effort against Comox, B.C. Liberal MLA Don McRae -- is the second part of campaign to kill the HST by putting pressure on the government.

It is entirely legal and proper according to legislation that Dan Miller even voted for. In those ridings voters will democratically decide whether or not recalling government MLAs over the HST is needed or supported.

But Miller and Smith are outraged by the mere thought of recall being used to influence government policy, as are former NDP cabinet ministers Paul Ramsey and Ian Waddell.

"Instead of electing dedicated professionals, in the case of Ida and the guy in Comox, you're going to elect people of a different kind, people who are opportunists and so on, you are not going to get the same commitment or the same calibre of commitment," Smith said. "I mean, this is not a good system."

Heaven forbid that voters might end up with "opportunists" as MLAs! What would happen to our government without high calibre members like Chong?

Smith continued his rant: "We're a parliamentary democracy. We are not a plebiscitary democracy."

Oh, I see. Politicians who are better than voters, smarter than voters and more committed than voters will decide major questions for us -- including to impose the HST, a $2 billion a year tax shift so consumers pay instead of big business.

Thanks for clearing that up.

Smith should understand that people of every political persuasion -- BC Liberal, Green, New Democrat, BC Conservative, Refederation, BC First -- and those who have none -- all signed the citizens initiative petition to eliminate the HST.

British Columbians voted in favour of the initiative and recall legislation in a referendum concurrent with the 1991 provincial election.

And last year voters showed that when provoked they will use that legislation appropriately as they see fit.

Waddell: 'We have elections'

The same day on CKNW, Waddell, a former NDP provincial tourism minister and federal MP, told host Bill Good his views on recall.

"I'm speaking personally, I don't like it," said Waddell. "It came from I think originally, brought in by the NDP I believe, very hypocritically -- I think we were hypocrites in a way because it was the flavour of the day."

"Preston Manning had talked about it, the Reform Party, it comes from the Americans, from California. It's not in the British parliamentary tradition."

"We brought it in with a very, very high level, hoping that, well we sort of did it but they won't do it. I think it should be restricted to very serious, like fraud, criminal acts of an MLA," Waddell said.

And Waddell opposes the recall campaign against Chong.

"I was in the House with Ida Chong. I don't agree with her policies but she's perfectly a good MLA, doing her job. So why are we recalling her? We have elections, that's what we have," Waddell said.

That would be the election where the BC Liberal Party told both the restaurant association and the new home developers association that they were not planning to bring in an HST -- in response to direct questions. Then they did it after the election.

Privileged opponents

Ex-NDP finance minister Paul Ramsey has extra reasons to be agitated about recall. He was the target of a bitter recall campaign in his Prince George riding in 1998 that failed.

And despite political party differences he opposes the Chong recall.

"Frankly, I think she [Chong] is doing the right thing -- this isn't about the HST -- it's about government policy," Ramsey told CBC Radio's On The Island show Dec. 8, referring to Chong's anti-recall campaign approach.

Smith, Miller, Ramsey, Waddell and Chong are all totally entitled to their views against recall and the citizens initiative process.

But remember -- they are all members or former members of the same club -- Members of the Legislative Assembly of B.C. -- and it's a privileged group.

MLAs are paid extremely well -- because they voted themselves a big raise to about $100,000 a year -- more than double the wages of ordinary British Columbians.

And they get expenses too -- like the nearly $6,000 in meals Chong charged last year despite living minutes from the legislature.

They also receive handsome pensions most British Columbians don't get, courtesy of taxpayers. Many MLAs voted to retroactively restore their pensions at full value after the Glen Clark NDP government eliminated them in favour of a more modest annual RRSP contribution -- partly because of pressure from BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell.

And cabinet ministers, committee chairs and other legislature officers in both parties also recently got additional salaries for doing their jobs.

So when ordinary voters come along questioning their entitlements to not only generous pay, pensions and benefits but also their ability to keep them despite angering the public -- watch out!

Those politicians who fight all day in the legislature close ranks quickly to oppose any threat to their privileged existence.

Recalls 'most effective': Ramsey

Let me be clear. I opposed restoring pensions and giving MLAs and cabinet ministers big pay increases. But I do support MLAs having a fair salary and some form of retirement benefits. Just not a gold-plated plan that few citizens could possibly obtain in their own jobs.

And how dare any current or former MLAs attempt to get rid of citizens initiatives or recall!

The legislation is already seriously flawed to the point of making it nearly impossible to succeed.

That's why MLAs who don't fear their voters should do what Premier Gordon Campbell promised to do -- and broke his pledge -- make both initiatives and recall more workable and fair.

But don't count on it. Empowered voters are way too threatening to all politicians.

Perhaps it was Paul Ramsey who best made the case in favour of recall, despite his personal opposition.

Ramsey wrote in 2003: "There's much to be said against the current recall campaigns in British Columbia. They clearly abuse the intent of the recall legislation. They create bitter divisions in communities. They distract M.L.A.'s and ministers from their real duties of office.

"But the campaigns have proven to be more effective at getting the government's attention than other forms of political protest," he continued. "One thing is clear: the recall campaigns have forced the government to pay far more attention to the local effects of provincial policies.

"Recall petitioners may not gather enough signatures to throw MLAs out of office, but they will affect government policy," he concluded.

Exactly right. And that's the point.

Tell your MLA, tell any candidate for MLA, tell any leadership candidate from the BC Liberals or NDP or BC Conservatives that you will fight all the way against any effort to take citizens initiatives or recall legislation away from voters.

Don't let politicians take away your power.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Elections

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