When former NDP Premier Mike Harcourt introduced the Recall and Initiative Act in 1995 it was welcomed by many as a refreshing change to the political process in British Columbia. For the first time in history Canada’s westernmost electorate would have the opportunity to organize and persuade the government to establish laws wanted “by the people” but not necessarily favoured by the elected law makers.
The new act also made it possible for voters disappointed with the performance of MLAs they had elected in a general election or by-election to be fired and replaced. It was politely named “recall” and there was general rejoicing in the land – until disenchanted voters tried to use the wonderful new weapon a seemingly kind government had given them to discipline the elected between elections.
The rejoicing proved premature.
Since the Recall and Initiative Act came into force in the closing years of the 20th Century 26 recall petitions have been launched and approved by the Chief Electoral Officer. But hold the cheering for democratic progress because of the 26 recall petition applications “approved” by the CEO only six moved on to the application verification stage where five were rejected because they didn’t have enough valid signatures – and one was halted during the verification process because the member under “review” resigned his seat.
The placating carrot dangled temptingly was proving hard to bite by the number of registered voter signatures required to achieve the ultimate goal of removing an allegedly defaulting MLA. How many signatures? Says Elections BC: “A voter can only petition to recall the Member for the electoral district in which they are registered to vote. The voter must collect signatures from more than 40 per cent of voters eligible to sign the petition.”
The more than 40 per cent bold face emphasis is the CEO’s not mine. He wanted the collectors to be sure they knew what they were getting into and the fact that in BC there have been 26 recall starts but no finishes would indicate they learned the hard way that recalling a democratically elected MLA was not impossible, but it is tough and could be an expensive objective to achieve.
As noted earlier of 26 recall attempts only six progressed to the verification stage where five died for lacking enough signatures. The sixth slithered into oblivion when the MLA facing recalled resigned his seat – thus losing both his seat and a place in the record books as being the first and only elected official in Canada to be “recalled.” BC remains alone in offering its citizens recall and the right to draft new law initiatives for registered voter approval by referendum.
The “initiative” half of the Recall and Initiative Act is even tougher to achieve and requires an army of volunteers to collect petition signatures and involves considerable expense. At first glance the support signatures required seem a relatively easy 10 per cent until we discover that the 10 per cent must come from “the registered voters in each of the province’s electoral districts for an initiative petition to succeed.” There are 85 electoral districts in BC with quite a few embracing vast areas of sparsely populated land.
Of the 10 initiative petitions launched since 1945 only one – the 2010 last hurrah campaign launched by then private citizen but former premier Bill Vander Zalm to end the Harmonized Sales Tax – has been successful. It was a triumphant time for the old spell binder at his best. He needed 299,611 signatures on his petition. When he presented it there were 713,883 of which only 557,383 were verified on audit but more than enough to force the referendum that got rid of the harmonized collection system but not – as most voters seemed convinced – the taxes it had collected. It didn’t. Federal and provincial sales taxes are still in force – but collected separately.
Among the other initiatives, two were withdrawn, two were never submitted and the others “failed – insufficient signatures.” The last to finish in that category was this year’s bid by Paramedics to be declared an essential service and included as such in the Fire and Police Services Collective Bargaining Act. Their volunteers collected 2l5,192 signatures but fell far short of the 10 per cent of the more than three million voters registered in 85 ridings.
It is ironic that in 2010 when Paramedics went on strike to improve their working conditions they were quickly legislated back to work as an essential service. Today the government argues it would cost too much to permanently affirm what they temporarily proclaimed seven years ago. It refuses to include Paramedics with firefighters and law and order officers. The move would cost Paramedics the right to strike but government says the settlement by binding arbitration of future collective agreements to improve high pressure working conditions, would be too costly for taxpayers.
The end result means Paramedics will continue as a minor health care component under the Health Authorities Act lumped in with “hospital support workers.” Although there are 4,000 Paramedics in the province they make up only 10 per cent of the total “support worker” group which includes janitors and general labourers.
The refusal of the government to acknowledge the skills of Paramedics and the pressures they undergo while applying those skills on never-ending basis is mystifying, so is the lack of recognition and support by the NDP and the Greens whose platform promises so far are many but ignore the claim of recognized but denied “essential service.”
There should not need to be difficulty achieving a citizen’s initiative to place Paramedics alongside our two other front line essential services. It’s where they belong.