Thursday, June 24, 2010

Wouldn't It Be Nice to Recall Canada's Politicians?

It seems that our elected officials are able to come up with more and more legislation that Canadians don't like and that more and more of them behave in ways that are hardly seemly. I'd love the idea of being able to recall an incompetent politician between elections. I'd also really like to participate in an action that would see legislation that is unpopular overturned. Maybe I should be living in British Columbia.

British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in Canada (and I believe in the Commonwealth) that allows the electorate the right to petition for the removal of an MP or MLA between elections or to present voter-initiated referenda. It also allows citizens to propose both new laws and changes to existing laws. The Recall and Initiative Act came into effect in 1995 after being approved by voters in a province-wide referendum. This Act allows citizens to hold their MPs accountable to those who elect them during the term of their service rather than having to wait for the next election to turf them from office.

Voters in Canada are increasingly disengaged from the electoral process. In the 2008 federal election, only 58.8% of registered voters took the time to drive, bike, take transit or walk to their designated polling station, hold their nose, pick up a pencil and mark an "X" beside the name of the candidate that they deemed least likely to offend them. Voter turnout has been dropping over the past 3 decades, hitting a high of 75.3% in the 1984 and 1988 elections. If the electorate felt that they had more power to "unelect" their MP/MLA/MPP between elections, the elected official may feel that he/she has to be more responsive to the demands of the majority of their constitutuents. Likewise, their constituents may find themselves more interested in voting because they have an "out" should the politician turn out to be less than satisfactory. It also balances the power away from the politician; the balance of power between the electorate and the elected shifts toward the electorate. As the system is now, the electorate holds power only during the election resulting in the politician pandering to his electors only when absolutely necessary. I believe that, as a side-effect, such legislation would also make whipped voting more difficult for party leaders. Politicians would be more likely to vote with the will of their constituents when they are threatened with grassroots mid-term removal.

One of the most notable North American recall campaigns in recent history was the removal of California Governor Gray Davis in 2003. It is estimated that this recall campaign cost approximately $66 million and ended up with the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The costs involved with both recalls and the initiation and administration of recall petitions can be very expensive, especially in this time of limited government finances (although, the cost of a recall would only be a tiny fraction of what our federal government is spending on the G8/G20 summit security). As well, it can be difficult to "pin the legislative tail on the donkey" in most cases. Government policy is generally derived by only a small fraction of a caucus, often against the will of MPs from certain parts of Canada. For instance, changes to the Employment Insurance policy will affect parts of the Maritimes greatly. Should Atlantic Canada's MPs be recalled simply because their particular Party decided that changes to EI were necessary even though they personally may have been against it? The threat of recall may, however, prevent a Party from even thinking about introducing such legislation when they know that it will most likely be unpopular. It may put an end to the unfair practice of "whipped votes" as is anticipated when Bill C-391 returns to the House for its third reading.

The recall legislation is most useful when there is clearly incompetence or illegal behaviour involving a politician or there is a piece of legislation that the majority of the populace does not like such as the impending implementation of the much-loathed HST.

Right now, B.C. voters are signing a petition, the organization of which is led by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, that would see a referendum held to determine whether to rip up the agreement between the federal government and the province that brought about establishment of the HST. According to the Elections B.C. website, the expense limit for the petition is $921,448.30, not unreasonable given the scope of a province-wide petition. Organizers are using the threat of the recall legislation to warn individual MLAs that they could lose their seats if 40% of registered voters in any given riding sign a petition. Currently, 10% of registered voters in all provincial ridings have signed the petition but organizers are hoping to increase that to 15% so that their efforts are safeguarded from scrutiny by Elections B.C. This is the seventh attempt at using the Act to trigger a referendum; it appears that it will be the first to be successful. In case you're interested, here's the petitioner's website. I bet people in Ontario wish they had similar legislation right now!

Despite the limited potential for abuse, I am solidly behind the idea of recall legislation at all levels of government. In recent years it has become quite clear that, once elected, individuals very quickly show their true colours. It rapidly becomes apparent which MPs/MPPs/MLAs are in it for themselves and which ones truly are in office to improve the lives of their constituents. It would be nice to have an "out" between elections and to be able to replace incompetents with able politicians who are capable of thinking for themselves and act according to their consciences rather than following a Party line.

As honest Canadians, we promise that we won't abuse the privilege once we have it.


  1. Thanks for an interesting blog and commentary. I note that you have no allegiance to any particular political party. How about:

  2. Thanks for the website. The Americans are so far ahead of Canada when it comes to running at least some credible independent candidates.

  3. Not having recall is basically giving them a blank cheque. The polls close and we're screwed, that's the reality of todays system. All politicians at every level need to be subject to recall.

    Answer this question:
    Do you trust politicians?

    Take that answer and look at our system that requires giving them blind trust with no control by the people and you will see the reasons it doesn't work.

  4. a BC resident I can attest that the recall legislation (or even threat thereof) can/will work when it is needed. I followed a link in the comments section of the Globe and Mail article on Gordon Campbell's resignation to get to this article. Mr. Campbell's popularity was the lowest of any BC Premier in history just a couple weeks ago...mostly due to the HST. He made a speech last week in which he tried to further pitch the HST and offered a 15% personal income tax cut to all BC residents. It didn't work...his popularity fell even lower. The threat of the pending referendum on HST, the lowest popularity of any BC Premier ever and the forthcoming leadership review by the BC Liberals were enough to make him step down on his own rather than face the backlash (recall anyone?) that would result if he stayed in office.

    If only there were someone within the BC Liberal party (or any other BC party) worthy of running this province :(