The referendum campaign is underway – and so are the complaints - The Orca

The referendum campaign is underway – and so are the complaints

Maclean Kay

With any campaign comes mistakes. Here are three of them.

Whether it’s a general election, byelection, recall campaign (cough) or referendum campaign – they all have one thing in common: mistakes are made. They come in the form of missteps, overreaches, fumbles, and bad calls – but they come.

The first week of the Proportional Representation referendum saw three of them.

The first is very cut and dried. Former MLA Judy Tyabji posted on Facebook that she wanted to “acquire a stack” of referendum ballots – not samples, but the real thing – and…film them?

Tyabji says she only wanted to prove that it was possible, and there was no intention to discard them or vote on anyone’s behalf.

Even if that’s true, this is still unambiguously wrong – and Vote PR BC (the official “yes” side in the campaign) was right to complain.

That wasn’t the only complaint Vote PR BC made, as they also requested an official Elections BC investigation into the BC Liberal Caucus website.

As you might expect, the site has a section devoted to the referendum, including explanations of the three proposed systems of PR on the ballot, including the BC Liberals’ perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of each. (Mostly weaknesses.)

What’s the issue here?

Each MLA and officially recognized caucus in the legislature (you need three seats, recently changed from four to accommodate the Greens) receive a budget from the legislature itself. That includes caucus staff (legislative assistants, communications and research officers), and nuts-and-bolts items like phones, desks, and travel.

By the letter of the law, caucus resources are supposed to be non-partisan – a term that has proved more difficult to define than you might think.

Saying something like “the NDP is bad” would be manifestly partisan, but that’s not what happened here.

Vote PR BC’s point seems to be that a caucus presenting an opinion about Proportional Representation or the referendum process counts as partisan – but either didn’t notice or didn’t care to point out a similar section on the BC NDP Caucus page. (The BC Greens don’t have a caucus page.)

By excluding or ignoring the two caucus pages that agree with them, Vote PR BC is, in effect, asking Elections BC to rule that disagreeing on Proportional Representation and/or defending First Past the Post is “partisan,” but actively campaigning for it is not.

The last was a letter from BC Green Party deputy leader Jonina Campbell, asking party members and supporters to volunteer on the referendum campaign. In the letter, Campbell shared a heartbreaking personal story about losing her brother to addiction in 2016:

The letter implies that the services that might have saved her brother were not in place because of “political will,” which would be in place under Proportional Representation.

Yikes. Refusing to believe the Green Party was saying nobody would die under PR – and that anyone’s first thought after losing a sibling would be electoral reform – I contacted the Greens, who were happy to connect me with Campbell.

The short version: it comes from a speech, and probably didn’t work in an email.

“That message was best delivered in a speech, or a conversation like we’re having,” said Campbell. “I thought about the advantage sending (the email) in terms of connecting an issue to our voting system.”

“We have to remember that how we vote is how we govern – and that’s about the issues that are important to us. The risk I took…was that it could have come across in such a way that people would say they don’t understand how that connects to our voting system,” said Campbell.

“We talked a lot about whether it did translate into an email,” said Green party spokesperson Stefan Jonsson, “it may not have been the best medium to communicate her story.”

Internal concerns aside, Jonsson also said that they received a positive response, including new volunteers who signed up after receiving the email.

Asked if it’s fair to imply First Past the Post has resulted in anyone’s deaths, Jonsson said “we all only have our individual stories to tell. It is just one story though – one story cannot be used as evidence to make an academic point. It was about sharing the human side.”

In a campaign where both sides are accusing the other of making unreasonable claims, implying that our electoral system resulted in somebody’s death (or that it wouldn’t have happened under another system) is a step too far.

Let’s hope things only get better from here.

*Editor’s note – the original version of this story contained a reference to a BC Green caucus site – it was in fact the BC Green Party site. 

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca