Media types and drive-by politicians will be quick to suggest the recent referendum on the HST was an “exercise in democracy”. The fact that most of those making this claim are thrilled with the result begs the question that had the vote gone against them, would democracy have been served just as well?
The HST issue brought together a motley coalition of old-school fiscal hawks like Bill Vander Zalm, wooly headed socialists like Adrian Dix, and self-serving public-sector union gangsters like the BCTF. Clearly the point of the Yes campaign, if its backers are any indication, had nothing to do with economic common sense, and everything to do with punishing the Campbell Liberals.
Ironically, the pink Tory Campbell has since been replaced by the red Liberal Clark, and Campbell’s true punishment for his service was his appointment as Canada’s High Commissioner to the U.K. The Yes side has closed the barn door and the horse has long since left. But they won the referendum. And we’ll still pay 12 per cent total sales tax.
Referenda as a remedy of last resort for voters to force their elected representatives to reverse course on substantive issues is a populist and flawed notion. In the hierarchy of substantive issues, extinguishing the HST would fall somewhere far south of a Constitutional amendment, for instance.
While the idea of direct democracy plays well in media and political spin zones, the exercise of individuals being a allowed to shape policy by voting on specific issues is fraught with danger.
The HST vote is a clear example. A misinformed and emotionally charged electorate, encouraged by special interest groups standing to profit either politically or financially, or both, force the duly elected government to pursue a change in course, regardless of the consequences. All fine when things go well as a result — which is rarely the case. When things go wrong, as things inevitably do, who then suffers the consequences? Vander Zalm, Dix and the BCTF are unlikely to step forward and claim ownership of the consequences of their actions.
The result of the HST referendum will cost the B.C. taxpayer nearly $3 billion over the next 24 months. That number is not in dispute, both sides of the fight acknowledge the sunk cost of voting yes. Ironically, this gives the Clark government the opportunity to significantly cut spending, significantly raise taxes or both. Clark can do either or all with impunity thanks to the result of a referendum. Clark can justifiably claim the vote was not about her policies, at the same time pointing to the exploding deficit as a result of killing the HST.
Fittingly, the Vander Zalm tax hawks will see increased taxes as a result of their successful referendum. Adrian Dix will have a hard time attacking the Clark Liberals when they cut public-service jobs to help make up budget shortfalls he and the NDP supported. The BCTF will have to stand aside while the province cuts jobs and programs in education as resources are shifted to meet budget requirements, thanks to the successful campaigning of the teachers in the referendum. One wonders if these groups ultimately have the courage of their convictions.
The people who voted Yes unwittingly handed Clark’s Liberals the opportunity to inflict maximum fiscal pain on the taxpayers, and the groups that supported the Yes side are immune from any of the electoral consequences of their actions. This is the result of direct democracy.
Referenda are an abdication of duty on the part of politicians, and a dangerous weapon in the hands of special interests with an angry electorate.
Winston Churchill said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” At least with general elections there are politicians to bear blame for bad policy and mismanagement. After a referendum, the voters are left with no one to blame but themselves.
Mark Walker is the publisher of the Penticton Western News.