VICTORIA — British Columbia’s vote to repeal the harmonized sales tax in September 2011 is new to Canadian politics, but it’s old hat in California where voters have been practising direct democracy since 1911.
This fall, Californians will vote on legalizing pot, halting pollution regulations and having more say on raising taxes, just three of at least eight so-called proposition votes on their Nov. 2 ballot.
British Columbians recently used their unique 16-year-old recall and initiative law to propel former premier Bill Vander Zalm’s anti-HST petition to a province-wide repeal vote after venting over the tax for more than a year.
But most political experts are quick to reject suggestions that British Columbians could develop a taste for California-style initiative votes after forcing Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government to accept a citizens vote on the hated HST.
“This is an unusual situation,” said Doug McArthur, a public policy expert at Simon Fraser University and an architect of B.C.’s recall and initiative law during the New Democratic Party governments of the 1990s.
“Mr. Campbell cornered himself and the government into no other way out, no other end game,” he said. “This is alien to our parliamentary system where the legislature has paramount power, always will.”
A never-before-assembled all-party legislative committee deciding whether to send Vander Zalm’s HST repeal petition to the legislature for a political vote or to a province-wide initiative vote decided to let the people decide.
Campbell upped the political stakes minutes after the committee’s vote by announcing he will accept a simple majority vote decision to set the fate of the HST.
He said he will dump the complex and difficult-to-achieve political margins of victory contained in the recall and initiative law and accept the will of the majority on voting day.
McArthur said Campbell’s decision to put the referendum to a majority vote will likely buy him some favour with voters, but the initiative law was purposely written to keep the referenda options as a last resort.
“All of the discussion was to make it very hard to succeed with a referendum,” said McArthur. “The referendum was the last, last option.”
He said the lawmakers believed that if an issue made it to the petition stage – signatures of 10 per cent of registered voters in every riding – the thought was that the politicians would realize people were opposed and reverse the decision.
But that didn’t happen with the HST.
McArthur said he doesn’t support California’s initiative-style politics.
“I think it makes for bad policy,” he said.
“The problem with referenda, any referenda, is it’s a yes-or-no proposition and doesn’t take into account that these policy questions are often much more complicated than a simple yes or no.
“If our politicians use good judgment our system works a lot better.”
University of Victoria political scientist Dennis Pilon said British Columbia could add more grit to its initiative law, but ultimately California’s direct democracy laws are too open to outside influence.
“The problem in California is that rich voters, corporations, they can use the initiative referendum law to veto the public good,” he said.
“It’s a question of whose got the money. I don’t think that the California model is the one we want.”
In California, the oil industry is behind a November initiative vote to put the State’s aggressive plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions on hold until California’s jobless rate hits 5.5 per cent.
California’s unemployment rate is currently at 12.4 per cent.
John Yap, B.C.’s minister of state for climate action, said the province is aware of California’s anti-environment initiative vote, but that isn’t stopping British Columbia from pursuing its own aggressive agenda to combat greenhouse gas emissions.
British Columbia plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2020.
“We understand the debate that is going on there,” said Yap.
“But whatever happens with that initiative, we here in B.C. will continue to work to achieve our climate action plan.”
University of Victoria American history expert Jason Colby said initiative politics in California caught on in a huge way in the 1970s when voters decided they should have more control over the distribution of tax dollars.
Ultimately, citizen tax control and the collapsing economy contributed to the financial crises that continues to grip California, the ninth largest economy in the world, he said.
“You understand on one level the frustration people have (in British Columbia) because it’s an extraordinarily expensive place to live with really high taxes.
“But at the same time you don’t want to go through what Washington State, what California, what Oregon to a lesser extent, has gone through, which is having to gut your services, your parks, your teachers, your police because there’s a shortfall.”