Opinion

For Pot Campaigners, Lessons from Fight HST's Playbook

Vander Zalm's chronicle of BC's anti-tax initiative is a citizen changemaker's must-read.

By Bill Tieleman 30 Jul 2013 | TheTyee.ca

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 weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

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Bill Vander Zalm at a Vancouver rally against the harmonized sales tax. Photo: 'HST & The People For Democracy' website.

"Some government will have to improve the initiative process to make it more democratic." -- former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm

If organizers for the upcoming Sensible BC campaign to decriminalize simple marijuana possession want to succeed, they should turn to the man who wrote the book on winning a Citizen's Initiative -- literally.

Bill Vander Zalm has just published HST & The People for Democracy -- a 180-page book outlining how Fight HST launched the only successful Citizen's Initiative process since the legislation was passed in 1995, eventually killing the Harmonized Sales Tax in British Columbia.

And as Sensible BC canvassers hit the streets starting Sept. 9, the lessons learned from Fight HST offer some hope of victory.

The challenge is daunting, as I well know -- because I helped create Fight HST with Vander Zalm and others back in 2009 to oppose the tax brought in by ex-BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell.

How hard is it? You have to get the signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters in every one of B.C.'s 85 ridings in just 90 days, about 312,000 in total.

That means signing up 3,500 voters every single day -- and if you miss just one riding, you lose.

But Vander Zalm proved it could be done against all odds, and his book outlines the extraordinary difficulties an Initiative faces, and how they were met.

"The reason I wrote the book is because I feared that five years from now people might have forgotten the fight for democracy," Vander Zalm told me Saturday. "It's also a how-to book for other Citizen's Initiatives."

Campbell's mistake

The biggest problem facing Sensible BC or any future campaign is that even if you succeed, the legislation you propose does not go to a binding referendum. That only happened in the HST case because Campbell desperately hoped to cling to power by making the vote binding.

The actual Initiative rules state that if successful, the legislation proposed goes to a special committee of MLAs, which can send it to the B.C. Legislature to introduce it -- with no obligation to vote on it or even debate it -- or decide to send it to a province-wide non-binding referendum.

If that referendum passes, it still only means that the Initiative proposal goes to the B.C. Legislature with the same conditions -- no requirement to proceed.

But there is moral suasion and legitimacy behind a successful Initiative campaign, which Campbell and his successor Premier Christy Clark both recognized.

Vander Zalm's book argues compellingly that Campbell could have stayed in office had he simply acted on the massive opposition to the HST he suddenly introduced after the May 2009 provincial election -- something his party had promised not to do.

Campbell refused to acknowledge the public uproar caused by his extra seven per cent tax, which applied to hundreds of goods and services from basic cable and telephone to airline tickets to home renovations and more, until a record low approval rating of just nine per cent forced him to resign in Nov. 2010.

"He could have avoided his demise had he listened to the people," Vander Zalm writes in HST & The People for Democracy. "Instead he listened and catered to a few special interest groups, especially those that would fund the BC Liberals in the next election campaign."

Significant obstacles ahead

Sensible BC doesn't have a hated tax imposed by an arrogant premier to eliminate.

But it does have similar popular support, with a recent poll commissioned by the group showing 73 per cent in favour of the Initiative and only 17 per cent opposed.

And Sensible BC has over 55,000 backers on Facebook, as well as four former B.C. attorneys general telling the public that marijuana should be legalized.

Even Vander Zalm, surprisingly to some given his conservative politics, isn't against Sensible BC's campaign.

"I'm somewhat sympathetic towards this Initiative," he said. "Marijuana is now so commonplace that you might as well legalize it and collect taxes on it."

The former Social Credit premier's book describes the multiple problems organizers face in an Initiative, from bureaucratic hassles with Elections BC rules to finding enough canvassers in every riding -- Fight HST had 6,500 -- to media skepticism, logistical nightmares and high-priced opposition from big business, which benefitted from the $2-billion transfer of tax burden from its companies onto consumers.

Vander Zalm points out that his government proposed B.C. become the first province to allow both Initiatives and the recall of elected MLAs and put it to a referendum vote in the 1991 provincial election, which passed overwhelmingly.

The New Democrat government that followed implemented the legislation, but with such tough rules that it was "designed to fail", Vander Zalm writes.

And Campbell's BC Liberal government that followed in 2001 promised to make Initiatives and Recall "workable," but never honoured that pledge, one Clark hasn't repeated.

What politicians fear

Not surprisingly, politicians in government are afraid of direct democracy and giving voters the power to decide policy -- or MLA's futures -- outside of an election every four years.

Vander Zalm believes the Initiative legislation should be changed to make it easier for citizens to have a voice that is binding, not powerless, but thinks it should still require substantial support.

"We don't want to make it as easy as in California, where there are Initiatives on everything -- but not as hard as it is now in B.C.," he said.

Until a future B.C. government changes the Initiative rules, the Sensible BC campaign to decriminalize marijuana or any other effort to use direct democracy to change policies or laws will remain very tough indeed.  [Tyee]

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