CANADA

Power to the people

JENNIFER HUNTER February 2 1998
CANADA

Power to the people

JENNIFER HUNTER February 2 1998

Power to the people

CANADA

An experiment turns sour for the B.C. NDP

JENNIFER HUNTER

For the past three months, Prince George, B.C., has been a community furiously divided. Mean-spirited arguments have broken out between normally civil neighbors; the benign letters section of the local daily newspaper has been filled with invective. (“Don’t swallow the lies and deceptions,” said one milder missive.) A popular talk-show host is being sued by the irate local MLA Public meetings have been abuzz with rumors, and common good sense has been debased by rudeness. “I won’t say we’re Northern Ireland,” says one observer. “But this is weird.”

The reason for the assault on civility in the city of 80,000 people, 500 km north of Vancouver, is a piece of 1994 legislation, the Recall and Initiative Act. It allows citizens to recall—that is, unseat—their provincial politicians. AÍ that is needed is a petition carrying the names of 40 per cent of a riding’s registered voters. In Prince George North, the target is Paul Ramsey, member of the ruling NDP and Premier Glen Clark’s minister of education. A group of 150 has worked on the campaign since November, claiming in their petition that Ramsey “has not adequately represented the citizens of Prince George North.” The deadline to collect the necessary 8,900 signatures is Feb. 3. “Politics is a blood sport in B.C.,” says Ramsey. “I’m trying not to take it personally, but some of the comments have been very hurtful.” Ramsey’s wife, Hazel, has refused to read the newspaper or watch newscasts. And Ramsey is suing Prince George talk-show host Ben Meisner and Vancouver’s Province newspaper because he claims they erroneously attributed a critical quote to him. (Both the newspaper and Meisner have apologized.) The recall campaigners are smarting too. John Young, a professor of political science at the University of Northern British Columbia, has canvassed door-todoor for the recall group. “I’ve been called everything from animal names to profane names,” he says. A similar exercise, meanwhile, is going on in the town of Terrace, B.C., roughly 400 km to the west of Prince George, where NDP MLA for the Skeena riding, Helmut Giesbrecht, is fighting the recallers’ so-called Crash Helmut campaign. The recallers’ petition says Giesbrecht “re-

fused to listen to, or represent, the people of Skeena riding on numerous critical issues.” The recall legislation was passed by the NDP following a referendum in which 80 per cent of B.C. voters said they were in favor of such a law. It had been introduced by the Social Credit government of premier Rita Johnson—which went down to defeat at the hands of the New Democrats in 1991—and it followed years of questions about the ethics of Johnson’s predecessor, premier Bill Vander Zalm. Johnson borrowed the idea from the Reform party. But

its roots are more firmly planted in the United States, where recall was born at the turn of the century during the progressive movement and is now a feature of local government in states west of the Mississippi River. The idea did surface briefly in Canadian history: Aberta premier William Aberhart introduced recall in 1935, although he repealed it two years later when his own seat was threatened.

In the volatile world of B.C. politics, though, recall adds a new element of unpredictability. “This is part of the populist movement,” explains Paul Tennant, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. But, adds Tom Flanagan, a former Reform party adviser and now a political science professor at the University of Calgary, it has been “dropped into the highly polarized, class-warfare politics of British Columbia—where the temperature of politics is hotter than anywhere else in the country.” The government is clearly dismayed by the effect of the legislation. “Unfortunately, many of the public proponents of recall turn out to represent special interest groups and failed politicians who plan to use recall to refight the last campaign,” says a confidential government document from Clark’s office, obtained by Maclean’s. “If they are successful, they will throw our system into chaos.”

The NDP tried to make recall as difficult as possible. In the United States, usually the signatures of only 15 to 25 per cent of voters are needed, compared with British Columbia’s 40 per cent. The B.C. law also says recall proceedings cannot take place until 18 months after a provincial election—usually when there is less voter interest. But the law provides no defined parameters on why a politician could be recalled. That fact was highlighted when a second recall petition was launched against Giesbrecht with the words: “Because we can’t blame everything on El Niño, Helmut Giesbrecht should be called to account for the current state of affairs in Skeena.” The man who filed that recall, John How, eventually withdrew his petition, noting that “the legislation is a travesty of the democratic process.”

That may be—but it is still one the NDP must fight on the ground. “Go on the attack,” the document from the premier’s office advises the two MLAs who are targeted. “Identify the enemy, define their agenda and ask embarrassing questions. Where do they get their money from? Who do they represent? Why can’t they accept the verdict of the people and get on with their lives?” Some of the answers are obvious. Lome Sexton, who is spearheading the Giesbrecht recall, has worked for the federal Reform party. The neoconservative Canadian Taxpayers’ Association has also donated about $11,000 and provided advice to the two recall campaigns, which each have spending limits of about $27,000. Some of the recall workers are supporters of a Christian, pro-family activist named Kari Simpson, who is opposed to the discussion of sexuality in B.C. schools. Many, however, are ordinary citizens.

Organizers for both the Prince George North and Skeena recalls argue they are only dissatisfied with their local MLAs. But some observers note that underlying the campaigns is a smouldering anger with the NDP. “In the Prince George case, it’s not

Ramsey as MIA that they are after—they are after the whole government,” notes Tennant. The NDP has certainly fanned the flames. In fact, the notorious flip-flop over the province’s finances—before the 1996 election the government declared a surplus, but within two months of the vote, announced a deficit of $200 million—has led to

a case before the B.C. Supreme Court. David Stockeil, a printer in Kelowna, and his backers, Help Eliminate Lying Politicians, are claiming the NDP committed fraud by knowingly misleading voters about the budget. Another B.C. Supreme Court case last month found the government guilty of

breaching the Criminal Code by diverting money from charity casinos. Meanwhile, British Columbia’s economy is in trouble: forest companies are laying off thousands of workers, and investors are shying away.

But as B.C. historian and journalist David Mitchell concludes, there is more to recall than mere dissatisfaction with the NDP. “It’s not simply a focus against this government,” he says, “but it’s all kinds of pent-up anger with the political system that could be directed against any government.” Whatever the reasons, Ramsey and Giesbrecht will not know their fates until Elections B.C. verifies the signatures on the recall petitions, a process that will take six weeks. “Ultimately, I think people in my riding think I’ve done a good job,” says Ramsey. Giesbrecht, meanwhile, concludes: “I don’t think they have the numbers to win.” But the recall campaigners claim the opposite. “I think we’ve already won,” says Shelley Lawlor of Recall Ramsey. “All of a sudden, we have the power to hold politicians accountable.” Only one thing is certain: political life in Prince George and Terrace will never be the same—and that, too, can’t be blamed on El Niño.