26488What if B.C. put oil tankers to a vote? Opinion: Citizen groups considering HST-style initiative
- Dec 19, 2013What if B.C. put oil tankers to a vote?
Opinion: Citizen groups considering HST-style initiative
By Kai Nagata, Special to The Vancouver Sun
December 18, 2013
The Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative hopes to follow in the footsteps of the Bill Vander Zalm (above with his daughter, Juanita Moffat) with the HST petition and give the province's voters the opportunity to simply say yes or no to new oil tanker projects.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
Imagine: no more pipeline ads, opinion polls, or rallies. What if our province's voters could simply say yes or no to new oil tanker projects - and move on? As Premier Christy Clark said back in October of 2012, "if British Columbia doesn't give its consent to (the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline), there is no way the federal government or anyone else in the country is going to be able to force it through."
What if B.C. citizens themselves delivered a clear and final decision?
Last month, the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative pitched supporters on a new strategy.
"We need to raise $125,000 by Dec. 31 so we can prepare for what will be our greatest, most audacious undertaking together," wrote Executive Director Will Horter in a mass email. "Starting immediately we're laying the groundwork to launch a provincial initiative like the HST if Ottawa and Victoria don't take concrete action to reject proposed oil tanker projects."
As you may recall from Fight HST, Sensible B.C. and other campaigns, ours is the only province in Canada armed with a so-called direct democracy law: the Recall and Initiative Act. This unusual tool allows any citizen to draft a bill covering an aspect of provincial jurisdiction. Once approved by Elections B.C., the proponent has 90 days to enlist helpers, then physically gather signatures from 10 per cent of eligible voters in each of the 85 ridings across the province.
Out of five serious attempts since 1995, only the HST petition has succeeded. Regardless, the process gives B.C. citizens a unique window to organize and put pressure on politicians - outside the party system or election cycle.
A citizens' initiative is not a referendum. On paper, the results of an initiative are not binding. Even if every hoop is jumped through and the draft law makes it to the floor of the legislature, in the end the government can treat it like any private member's bill: debate it, amend it, delay it, or simply vote it down. But a successful initiative carries the weight of hundreds of thousands of voters behind it, something Fight HST strategist Bill Tieleman calls "moral suasion."
"People were really, really angry," says Tieleman of then-Premier Gordon Campbell's flip-flop on the HST. Timing, government hubris and good luck all helped that initiative succeed. But Tieleman notes it was designed from the beginning to connect with a wide range of voters.
"Pipelines are a conceptual and ideological situation for most people, whereas the HST was a practical, concrete situation for everyone who spends money in this province."
Tieleman is skeptical that a no-tankers petition could attract broad enough support.
"You only have to miss one riding to fail."
Between February and November, a pair of online polls by Vancouver firm Insights West showed opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline dropping from 61 per cent to 47 per cent. Quibble with the numbers if you will, but it's hard to imagine Enbridge would be spending so much on ads if they had no power to shape public opinion. Even if 10 per cent of the electorate did push an initiative to a provincewide vote, it's not clear on which side the majority would form.
Meanwhile pipeline opponents are moving forward with other strategies. Last week the Yinka Dene Alliance was in Vancouver to launch a new online solidarity accord. The pledge calls on B.C. citizens to stand with 130 First Nations that have banned the Northern Gateway Pipeline under indigenous law.
"With your voice, in the streets, or on the land," reads the accord. "Whatever it takes, we will stop this project from ever being built, together."
The language leaves the door open to civil disobedience, should construction ever begin. Thousands of people have signed already, including representatives from environmental groups, municipal governments, and unions.
Nak'azdli First Nation Chief Fred Sam, a member of the Yinka Dene Alliance, believes the solidarity accord and proposed citizens' initiative need not be mutually exclusive.
"It's good if more people get on the wagon," he says. "It's not just a First Nations issue."
Working together, he stresses, is important - whether the targets of political pressure are provincial or federal decision makers.
For now, approval of major projects rests with the federal cabinet. Those members face an election in 2015. First Nations legal challenges, too, will play out at the federal level. A 2006 lawsuit by the Carrier Sekani Tribal Council delayed Northern Gateway survey crews for four years. Ultimately, these decisions could hinge on the legal resources available to First Nations. Christy Clark's opinion, like that of B.C. voters, is secondary to the federal government's constitutional duty to consult.
Either way, Dogwood's director says the provincial initiative is only one strategy being looked at.
"If Clark goes back on her promise to stand up for B.C., British Columbians have to be ready to stand up for ourselves," said Will Horter in a statement. "So we are talking to allies and preparing for the possibility of a citizen's initiative, among other options."
I believe if B.C. law offers non-First Nations pipeline opponents an extra step before sitting down in front of bulldozers, it should be seriously considered - even if the odds of success are daunting. It's a question of exhausting all viable options.
But the clock is ticking. Like elections, initiative votes in B.C. occur on a fixed schedule. The next opportunity is Sept. 27, 2014. To hit the deadline, Elections B.C. says a citizen would have to file their paperwork by today. Meanwhile, the Enbridge Joint Review Panel has until the end of December to release its recommendation. If today comes and goes, the next chance for an initiative vote would be in 2017, after the next provincial election.
The text of the Recall and Initiative Act is clear: the Clark government could accept a petition signed by half a million British Columbians, and simply stick it on a shelf. What then?
Kai Nagata is a Vancouver-based writer/videographer, and the co-owner of Deep Rogue Ram Media, a communications consultancy.
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