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BC Politics

More Arguments for a BC Pipeline Referendum

Premier Clark, help us break four bad habits of political laziness.

Rafe Mair 14 Nov

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every second Monday. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

My previous column urged the people of British Columbia to demand that Premier Christy Clark call a referendum on whether to proceed with the Northern Gateway pipeline. I argued that it would be a necessary defence against the threats that bitumen laden pipeline poses to B.C.'s precious environment.

This column I'd like to argue for the same referendum from a different angle. It would be a tonic for the lazy habit we've adopted as citizens in a moribund democracy.

We all settle into bad habits, habits being something we do automatically, habitually you might say. They can also be things we don't do such as locking the front door. Very often habits become imbedded in our way of life.

Such is the way we govern ourselves.

Bad habit #1: Who's "responsible?" We learn in school about "responsible" government. And then it is further explained that "responsible" doesn't describe behaviour, but rather describes how the government -- meaning the prime minister and the cabinet -- are "responsible" to the Legislature or House of Commons.

That this is utter nonsense doesn't seem to bother education officials. This "responsible government" myth still remains in principle, but my research going back to Confederation discloses only once did a government with a majority get dinged and that was back in 1873 over the Pacific Scandal and before the iron system of party solidarity had arrived.

So here's our first bad habit. We have let premiers and cabinets to get away from having to fear "responsible government" for so long that no one would suggest that it could ever happen.

Bad habit #2: Pretending most representatives are allowed to demonstrate skill and character. We elect our MLAs on our perception of his/her fitness for a seat in the Legislature. It doesn't seem to matter that a fencepost with hair could handle an MLA's duties. One hears it all the time: "Bloggs would make a fine MLA!"

But we have long ago fallen into the habit of defining what we think the criteria are. All candidates tell us how they will not become ciphers for the government or the opposition and by God you can depend upon them. And yet, as the late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn once said, "To get along you must go along."

So bad habit #2 is letting bad habit #1 shape its existence. "Responsible government" is a myth sustained by pretending it matters whom we elect for the Legislature.

Bad habit #3: Enduring the charade of "debate." We assume debate in the Legislature will allow MLAs to change or get rid of what they deem to be bad policy or legislation even though it never ever happens. The most cursory glance at proceedings in the Legislature shows us that while there some pro forma hurdles for a government to get legislation passed, they amount to a few speeches by the opposition members, a vote they can't lose with their disciplined caucus, followed automatic approval by the Lieutenant-Government and "Bob's your uncle."

Our pitiful assumption is that "debate" happens in the Legislature, but it never does. In five years in the House I saw no evidence of debate whatsoever. There were speeches, of course, but they were only in order to get your views on the record for news items back home.

Bad habit #4: Assuming the opposition has much if any effect. The Opposition can always at least raise public awareness of issues in Question Period. The trouble is that the House scarcely ever goes into session these days so that only the media can raise issues and, as we all know, that hasn't happened since the former premier, catastrophe, Gordon Campbell, took office in 2001. That last point is much to do with, to put it kindly, a lousy official opposition.

Break those habits! Call a referendum!

We have in Canada, as well as in B.C., developed a tradition which, while seldom exercised, is vital. Namely, that on matters that go to the root of how we govern ourselves, we have a referendum.

Good examples were the conscription plebiscites of 1940 and 1944. The question as to whether or not men and women could be forced into the armed forces went to the very root of the social contract, namely the freedom to do whatever one wished if it was legal.

After getting his backside smacked over the Meech Lake Accord, in 1992 Prime Minister Mulroney held the Charlottetown Accord Referendum, which proposed deep and critical changes in the way we govern ourselves. He got his backside smacked again.

When the Campbell saw the recommendations of the Electoral Committee he put them to referendum in the election of 2005 and again in 2009. He should not receive too much praise, however, since he raised the bar (55 per cent) so high as to make it impossible to reach.

At a lower local level, a ward system for Vancouver was put to referendum on the basis that such a change would go to the very root of how Vancouverites conducted their affairs.

I offer this context in making my case that it's long overdue that Canada and B.C. look for a better way for the public to run its affairs.

It should and can start with the Christy Clark government holding a referendum on pipelines and tankers.

This issue indeed goes to the root of our method of governance. Simply put, are we prepared to sacrifice our environment for money? 

We aren't having that debate at all because the government hasn't the guts to allow it.

Let the public cut through the bafflegab

Clark promises "world class cleanup" measures for a spill of toxic, diluted bitumen flowing through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. At the same time she denies there will be any need for such measures. To Clark, the issue is whether or not we make as much money as possible. She has staked the government on two highly risky petro-propositions: Transporting Alberta Dilbut, a particularly dangerous oil compound, and exporting natural gas "mined" by a use of large quantities of scarce, chemically altered water.

Let's deal with this world-class cleanup process. That, one must assume, means the best available. Suppose you were asked to work on a project carrying with it the danger of cancer. Would you be comforted to know that if you got cancer you would be given "world class treatment" that, while the best, doesn't get the job done?

What is Premier Clark afraid of?

My main point here is the process. Our system is broken and, it would seem, unfixable.

Rather than try to break all those bad pseudo-democratic habits I listed above, why not demand as a condition of election, that the Referendum Act be made easier to work. Remember, the Soviet Constitution was, on paper, as good and democratic as any in the world. But it didn't work because those in power didn't want it to. The main difference between that system and ours is that we allow new people to come in from time to time and, so far, people don't get taken to jail in the middle of the night.

We could solve that by moving to a proportional representation system but we've been stymied by the Old Boys Club.

Surely the time has come to open the doors to the back room by giving the beleaguered public an opportunity to vote on these matters that go to the root of how we live with one another. These issues go to the very basis of how our society lives in the community of B.C. Therefore, they demand a referendum.

What are you afraid of, Madam Premier? Surely if your basic policy on using our resources is a good one, you would get public support.  [Tyee]

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