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Russell Wangersky: Why recall legislation should make you recoil

Recall legislation sounds good in theory, writes Russell Wangersky, but "it could be a nightmare for good government."
Recall legislation sounds good in theory, writes Russell Wangersky, but "it could be a nightmare for good government."

It sounds like such a good idea. So much power in the hands of the people, so much raw democracy.

In reality, though, it could be a nightmare for good government.

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

 

It’s recall legislation, the ability to heave a politician out of office in mid-term if he or she displeases you.

It’s something that PC leadership candidate Ches Crosbie has supported as a way to make politicians more accountable, and to generally improve the nature of politics in the province. (He’s also suggested honesty legislation for politicians, which would carry personal repercussions for a politician who fails to follow through with their political promises.)

In British Columbia, the requirement is that 40 per cent of a district’s population has to petition for a recall, after which a byelection would be held.

The problem? Well, there are a couple.

First off, B.C. has 87 districts, which range in size from a high of 62,000 voters to a low of 20,000 in extremely rural areas. (Most fall in the area of 4,000 above or below 55,000.)

That means a significant number of petitioners: to truly anger 22,000 people, you have to really be offside.

It’s recall legislation, the ability to heave a politician out of office in mid-term if he or she displeases you.

For districts in this province, electoral boundaries were set on the basis of districts being as close as possible to 13,550 electors. A petition to oust an MHA on the same 40 per cent rule would need a mere 5,400 signatures. (And keep in mind that petitions submitted to government right now are often a comedy of made-up names, falsely signed names, and everything else. Elvis Presley has signed petitions submitted to our government. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bugs Bunny and Batman hadn’t also signed. That’s what happens when you simply leave a petition on a clipboard in a local convenience store.)

But there’s a more serious problem than that.

The truth is that government plays a huge role in the economy of this province, and is regularly expected to solve everything and anything, to a far larger degree than you see in most other Canadian provinces. The “honourable members” are, essentially, the court of last result; “Why isn’t the government doing something/helping us?” is the constant cry of open-line shows and activists alike.

Provinces where governments play a smaller role in their respective economies don’t have as much to fear.

Here, if governments have money, they walk around the province spending as much as they possibly can to get themselves re-elected.

If they don’t have money, they borrow it to walk around the province spending as much as they possibly can to get themselves re-elected. (Is there any other explanation for why, if your municipality receives new fire equipment, it can’t seem to be delivered without a cabinet minister, regardless of the party in power?)

Right now in this province, we’ve entered the part of the election cycle that could be called the two juicy years of voter mollification. What that means is that cost-cutting will be stifled (witness the no-layoff clause in the province’s latest contract with the public service union) and spending will commence, despite the fact that we’re billions in the hole.

Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler wrote about the five stages of grief that people go through after the death of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Well, there are five stages in the average cycle of a change in administration in provincial governments in in this province as well. They are: in year one, “We’re in a fiscal crisis,” year two, “Things are slowly getting better,” and then quickly it’s “We’ve righted the fiscal ship,” “It’s time to re-invest,” and “Here’s a new school/fire truck/hospital/senior’s home. Vote for us.”

That cycle exists because, given the short period of time that governments are in power, they really only use their first two years to make any sort of difficult decisions.

Imagine now, that, instead of having to bribe and cajole the general population for two years out every four, provincial politicians actually had to keep a majority of the population onside at all times. Imagine how many Dwight Ball Liberals would have been recall-terminated during the firestorm over the gasoline tax increase or the income tax levy.

And imagine how twitchy any future government would be over even the most minor tax increase or service cut.

Recall legislation would be a lovely exercise in immediate democracy.

And it would drive us even further and faster into the fiscal ground.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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