Canada’s first voter-initiated referendum

In a much earlier post, I wrote about the Canadian province of British Columbia’s Recall and Initiative Act. This act provides a mechanism to recall sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and to bring citizen initiatives before the Legislature or to province-wide referendum.

As discussed in that post, which focused primarily on the recall aspect of the act, since the Act’s adoption in 1995, there have been 20 attempts at recalling MLAs, and only came close to succeeding. The verification process was halted because the MLA targeted by the recall petition resigned.

The Recall and Initiative Act also allows for voter-initiated legislation and referendums. The requirements for a voter-initiated referendum are similar to those for a recall of an MLA.

Overview of how a referendum can be initiated in the province of British Columbia

To force a province-wide referendum, a registered voter must first apply to the Chief Electoral Officer for the issuance of a petition to have a legislative proposal introduced into the Legislative Assembly in accordance with the Act.  This application must include a draft Bill for introduction into the Legislative Assembly.

If the application is successful, the Chief Electoral Officer will inform the petitioner to that effect, publish notice of the approval in the Gazette and at least one newspaper and issue the petition 60 days after notice has been published in the Gazette.

The petitioner then has 90 days to gather the required number of signatures in support of the petition. Petitions may only be signed by registered voters in the electoral district for which the signature sheet was issued. Also, each petition requires 85 different petition forms for signatures, one for each electoral district. The petitioner must collect signatures from at least 10% of the registered voters in each of the provinces 85 electoral districts. If this target is not met in even only one district, the petition will be denied.

Petition canvassers – the persons who go around trying to collect the required signatures – must be registered “volunteer canvassers” as per requirements set out in the BC Elections Act.

If the petitioner succeeds in collecting the required number of signatures in each electoral district in the required 90-day time frame, he or she then submits the petition to Elections BC, which then has 42 days to review the petition to determine whether the petition meets all of the requirements.

If the Chief Electoral Officer determines that the petition has met all of the requirements, it and the draft bill are referred to the Legislature’s select standing committee on Legislative Initiatives. The select standing committee must, within 30 days of receiving a copy of the initiative petition and draft Bill, meet to consider the initiative petition and draft Bill. Then, within 90 days of the date of its first meeting, the committee must either table a report recommending that the draft Bill be introduced in the Legislature at the earliest applicable opportunity, or refer the initiative petition to the Chief Electoral Officer. If the select standing committee refers the initiative petition and draft Bill to the chief electoral officer, the chief electoral officer must hold an initiative vote under the Act.

If a referendum proceeds, it requires a super-majority to succeed. This means that the result must satisfy two criteria: 1) that more than 50% of the total number of registered voters in British Columbia vote in favour of the initiative, and 2)  that more than 50% of the total number of registered voters for each of at least 2/3 of the electoral districts in the province vote in favour of the initiative. In other words, the initiative must be supported by a majority of voters overall as well as a majority of voters in at least 64 of the province’s electoral districts. It if receives, for example province-wide support of 60%, but fails to achieve at least 50% support in 64 electoral districts, the initiative will not pass. If the vote is successful, however, the government would be required to introduce the draft bill contained in the petition.

It should be noted, however, that nothing in the Act requires that the government of the day pass the draft Bill after it is introduced. It could die on the floor of the House as do many private members’ bills.

BC’s first voter-initiated referendum

There have been six attempts to launch a voter-initiated referendum since the passage of the Act in 1995, but none succeeded until this year.

In 2009, just after having been elected with another majority in a provincial general election, the BC Liberal Government announced it would be harmonizing its provincial sales tax with the federal Goods and Services Tax, replacing the PST and GST with a new 12% Harmonized Sales Tax (HST). The Liberals has categorically rejected doing so during the election campaign, and their apparently sudden change of heart did not sit well with many in the province.

A former provincial premier, Bill Vander Zalm, launched a campaign against the HST, organizing a series of rallies across the province. In February 2010, his petition opposing the HST was approved, and he successfully collected the required number of signatures in all 85 of the province’s electoral districts. While that was going on, the Government moved ahead, introducing the HST legislation in March 2010, and the new tax came into effect on July 1, 2010.

Vander Zalm’s petition, meanwhile, became tied up in court. A group of BC businesses launched the court action in an effort to stop the anti-HST petition and draft legislation arguing that the proposed legislation is outside the jurisdiction of the province because the HST was enacted by a federal law. In August 2010, the judge disagreed, and the petition and draft bill were referred to the select Standing Committee so that it could decide whether to refer the draft Bill to the Legislature, or refer the petition and bill to Elections BC for a referendum. The committee opted for a referendum. Then-premier Gordon Campbell announced that the results would be binding on the Government.

Meanwhile in September 2010, documents obtained by the media under a Freedom of Information request showed that  B.C. government bureaucrats were engaged in discussions about the HST with their federal counterparts well before the May 2009 provincial election.

Prompted by growing backlash to the HST, Premier Campbell announced in November 2010 that he was stepping down as leader of the Liberal party and Premier, paving the way for leadership contest which was won by Christy Clark in February 2011.

The date for the HST referendum was set for June 2011 and was conducted by postal ballot. Results were announced on August 26 and the petition proved to have been the first successful one since the province adopted the Recall and Initiative Act in 1995. Elections B.C. announced that 54.73% of the 1.6 million British Columbians who cast a ballot in the mail-in referendum voted to get rid of the tax and 45.27% voted to keep it. Over 50% of voters in 71% of the province’s electoral districts rejected the HST, thus meeting the Act’s super-majority requirement.

British Columbia remains the only jurisdiction in Canada with voter-initiated recall and referendum legislation. The BC requirements for both are quite stringent, particularly when compared to similar legislation in some US states, for example. Some might say this hampers democracy, but others would point out that it safeguards against more ridiculous proposals being put forward and ensures that there is a significant degree of support for either recalling an MLA or pushing forward a cause, such as opposition to the HST. If governments thought that any piece of legislation they put forward could easily be overturned by means of a voter-initiated referendum or Bill, that might dissuade them from proceeding with needed, but difficult, legislation. The BC Act manages to ensure that the government won’t have its legislative program hijacked by a minority of disgruntled voters, while at the same time allowing a majority of voters to potentially overturn what they believe to be misguided policy.

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