BC is not California

Posted by Daniel on Jun 2, 2010 - 4 comments

In today's Globe and Mail, national columnist Jeffrey Simpson advises Premier Gordon Campbell to quit while he is ahead (here). "Three wins for any politician is remarkable," Simpson says, referring to our premier's electoral victories in 2001, 2005 and 2009. "Don't tempt fate."

Perhaps Campbell will take Simpson's advice. Perhaps he won't. At the moment I find more objectionable the Toronto pundit's comments about the current anti-HST petition campaign.

Simpson, who considers "populism" to be a four-letter word, is very much in favor of the HST, and he may be correct. But he is not correct when he compares BC's Recall and Initiative Act to similar "ruinous" legislation in California. "Plebiscitary democracy," sniffs Simpson, "usually represents the triumph of short-term gain leading to long-term pain."

If I understand the California system correctly, when a petition proposing a new law is signed by a certain percentage of the state's electorate the proposition, called an initiative, goes to the voters and if more than 50 percent of them approve it becomes law.

Simpson is right that the use of initiatives has wrecked havoc with tax policy in California. But the procedure in BC is designed explicitly to avoid the California experience, not to emulate it.

In BC, following a successful petition, the proposition (in this case, the repeal of the HST) goes to a legislative committee. The committee may refer it to the legislature for a vote, where the government could use its majority to defeat it. Or it may launch a province-wide vote on the initiative which, if it passed, would require the government to introduce legislation bringing it into effect, which again the government could defeat. At no point do the wishes of the electorate automatically become law.

This hardly seems like direct democracy run wild.