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The unexpected impact of the citizen-sponsored initiative

Local anti-HST organizer Eddie Petrossian carries a sign as he walks to meet former British Columbia premier Bill Vander Zalm before boarding a ferry in Tsawwassen, B.C., on Wednesday June 30, 2010, to deliver anti-HST petitions which contain more than 700,000 signatures to Elections B.C. in Victoria.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Globe and Mail

No one ever thought it could happen - until it did.

The astonishing success of the citizen-sponsored initiative to end the HST in British Columbia earlier this year caught just about everyone by surprise. A process introduced years earlier for significantly different reasons proved nimble enough to throw the province's tax system into chaos and undermine the political career of Premier Gordon Campbell.

"I did not think in my lifetime there would be an issue, where you could galvanize a number of people in each and every riding to come out in such large numbers, to have that happen," said Ujjal Dosanjh. Currently a Liberal MP, Mr. Dosanjh was chairman of the B.C. legislature committee on parliamentary reform that recommended the initiative process in 1993.

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Political scientist Norman Ruff, who has written about the B.C. initiative process in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, says the initiative, which he rated as B.C.'s most significant political event of 2010, effectively made B.C. politicians more accountable to the people who elect them.

"You don't measure its success by the number of signatures on petitions. You measure its success by its impact on the political process, the consequences," Prof. Ruff said. He believes the initiative process will ensure that politicians from now on look over their shoulders whenever they consider controversial issues.

The citizen-sponsored initiative to end the HST officially began on April 6. Bill Vander Zalm, who spearheaded the anti-HST drive, initiated the process nearly 20 years ago that led to the tax revolt this year.

Mr. Vander Zalm, premier from 1986 to 1991, introduced legislation that enable the electorate to vote in a provincial referendum on a question set by the government. At that time, the hot issue was federal constitutional reform.

He resigned as premier shortly afterwards following conflict-of-interest allegations, but his successor Rita Johnston decided to use the referendum process to try to win re-election. Her Social Credit government decided to have a vote at election time on direct-democracy provisions of recall and citizen-sponsored initiatives.

Prof. Ruff says the referendum was really intended as a lifeline for the disgraced Social Credit party, not a tool for angry voters. "It was a ploy by the Socreds. They told the voters, 'If we mess up again, you will have the opportunity to recall us individually. So you can vote for us.' "

On election day, more than 80 per cent of voters were in favour of citizen-sponsored initiatives and recall. But the government was still defeated at the polls.

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The new government headed by Michael Harcourt reluctantly pushed ahead with the populist measures. A legislative committee in 1993 drew up proposals for citizen-sponsored initiatives that many believed would make it almost impossible to succeed. Registered volunteer organizers had to collect the signature of at least 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's 85 ridings within 90 days. The new law came into effect in 1995.

Mr. Dosanjh says the committee was concerned about the majority trampling the rights of the minority, especially in an area such as gay rights. The hurdles were intended to be high enough to protect the rights of minorities, he said. "We never in our wildest dreams ever felt that any initiative would pass, because we set the threshold so high," Mr. Dosanjh said.

David Mitchell, head of the Ottawa-based think tank Public Policy Forum, was also a member of the committee on parliamentary reform at that time. "The threshold for approval was set so high, it was … almost impossible to conceive that this legislation could ever have the effect of passing an initiative," he said. "Little did we ever imagine, a generation later, an action by a government would bring the results it did." .

Mr. Vander Zalm's team of 6,556 canvassers defied the odds and delivered 85 boxes to Elections BC on June 30, the day before businesses were required to start collecting the new 12-per-cent HST. The boxes contained 100,000 pages of petitions holding more than 700,000 signatures. Elections BC verified 557,383 signatures, which was enough to move to the next step.

The Liberal-dominated committee decided to have a provincewide vote on Sept. 24, 2011 on whether to repeal the HST and reinstate the PST. The Liberals had anticipated the tax revolt would dissipate long before that. It was a bad miscalculation. Three months later, Mr. Campbell resigned, unable to stem the anti-HST tide.

In a sense, the initiative worked too well. The consequences were entirely unintended by the architects of the citizen-sponsored initiatives. Mr. Mitchell says he thinks, in retrospect, the legislation was not a good idea and should be reviewed and possibly removed.

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It was a mistake to graft a process from the U.S. form of governance on to the parliamentary system, he says. "It raises the question of, 'Why do we have a legislature, and do we elect representatives to represent us,' " Mr. Mitchell said. "We should not allow a passing fad or a moment of weakness in our democracy to change our system of governance so radically."

Populist measures

What it is

A populist measure to hold B.C. politicians accountable by allowing registered voters to take part in the law-making process. Sufficient support for a petition for legislative change requires the government to introduce a draft bill based on the proposed changes or to hold a referendum that, if successful, would require the legislature to vote on it.

Why it works

The process focuses attention on instances where public opinion diverges from government policy. Experience this year has shown the process can effectively be used to change policy. Seven initiative applications have been started in the past 15 years, but the anti-HST tax is the only initiative to succeed.

Robert Matas

Update on the Vancouver Foundation

The Vancouver Foundation goes from strength to strength. An endowment fund that started nearly seven decades ago with a $1,000 donation from an estate is now worth $743-million. The fund was hit especially hard in the recent recession, dropping in net worth to $660-million in 2008, from $785-million in the previous year. The foundation donates money earned from interest on its endowment fund's investments without touching the principal. Around $755-million has been distributed to groups and individuals in the community since 1943, including $30-million this year.

Robert Matas

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