Elections BC has approved two recall campaigns against MLAs — one a sitting BC Liberal who has won four elections, and the other a twice-elected BC Liberal who is sitting as an independent while awaiting a chance at a federal Conservative nomination.
The overlap of the two campaigns and the pledge that more are to come is a misuse of recall legislation — but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be scrapped or changed.
In both cases, the petitioners have 60 days to gather the signatures of 40 per cent of people who were on the voters’ list in each riding, at the time of the May, 2013 election. That is an enormous hurdle.
As has been proven in past recall campaigns, it is almost impossible to get to that point. While petitioners may be able to get the signatures of enough people to reach the 40 per cent threshold, they almost invariably find that a significant number of those who signed are ineligible. They may have lived in the riding at the time of the last election and not been on the voters list, or what is often more likely, they did not live in the riding at that time.
The recall legislation was brought in by the NDP government when Mike Harcourt was premier. It wasn’t its top priority, but the government was being pressured by intense citizen cynicism about politicians which had played a big role in the defeat of Social Credit and the NDP’s election in 1991, and in the rise of the Reform Party federally.
The 40 per cent threshold was meant to be high, because while the ability to recall an MLA is important, it also needs to be difficult, in order to rule out simple partisanship.
Reaching a 40 per cent threshold of voters who were on the list in the last election will likely only be achieved when an MLA has done something that is repugnant to a large number of constituents. BC Liberal MLA Paul Reitsma came close to being recalled for authoring phony letters to the editor, praising his ability as an MLA. He was in opposition at the time. Reitsma resigned before the campaign concluded.
Successful recall campaigns must go beyond what an MLA’s party is doing, either as government or opposition. They need to have a strong personal element as well.
In the case of Richard Lee of Burnaby North, he is being targeted for the policies and actions of the BC Liberal government. Marc Dalton of Maple Ridge-Mission is being targeted not only for BC Liberal actions, but also for staying in office as an independent while seeking a federal Conservative nomination. That’s personal, but it is not something which will repulse most voters.
These two recall campaigns and others targeting government MLAs are likely to fail, but the safety valve of being able to recall an MLA needs to remain. It is one of the few restraining devices available to voters between elections.