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Recalling a politician is a valid exercise – but Wildrose proposal lowers the bar

In just over 20 years, B.C.'s chief electoral officer has approved 26 petitions to recall an elected member of the provincial legislature.

Of those, only six were considered substantive enough to have the lists examined for verification. Of those half dozen, five did not have enough valid signatures. The other was abandoned after the politician the recall petition was aimed at resigned.

This is all to say that collecting the signatures of 40 per cent of eligible voters in a particular riding within 60 days is an extremely onerous job – as it should be when you're talking about trying to remove someone from office who was previously duly and legally elected.

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B.C. is the only jurisdiction in the country with recall legislation. Alberta's Opposition Wildrose party would like to see recall come to its province and is backing a private member's bill that would make it possible. While Bill 201 – the Elections Recall Act – has zero chance of passing, it has at least stirred some fresh debate around the issue.

Recall is an entirely valid proposition. It gives voters an avenue to get rid of a politician who has, through his conduct, brought his riding into disrepute.

It may not be enough for the public to have its elected official simply disowned by his own political party as a result of something he has done. He can continue sitting as an independent MLA in the legislature and collect a handsome salary. Depending on how egregious his conduct, that may be too much for the electorate in his riding to accept.

In that case, recall is a perfectly reasonable option.

In 1998, Paul Reitsma, a Liberal MLA from Vancouver Island, was found out to be writing letters to local newspapers under assumed names. He was kicked out of the Liberal caucus but remained as a member of the legislative assembly – something that did not sit well with his constituents. A recall petition was started and quickly had enough names to trigger a by-election. However, it became moot when Mr. Reitsma resigned his seat rather than suffer the indignity of becoming the first Canadian politician to be successfully recalled by voters.

I believe B.C.'s recall law has struck the right balance between making it too hard to get rid of an elected official and making it too easy. It's a balance that Wildrose has failed to achieve in its proposed legislation, which is the primary reason it should never become law.

The Wildrose bill would enable voters to recall an MLA with a petition containing 66 per cent of the number who cast ballots in the previous election. That is noticeably different from the B.C. law that requires the signatures of 40 per cent of registered voters in a riding. The Wildrose bill is flawed.

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As Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann and others have pointed out, 66 per cent of voters in a riding where there was a low voter turnout in a particular election would not be difficult to achieve at all.

Let's create a scenario. Calgary East NDP MLA Robyn Luff has done something mildly controversial that has nevertheless infuriated political opponents in her riding. In the age of social media, it doesn't take much to build a campaign against someone. In the last provincial election, Calgary East had one of the lowest voter turnouts in the province: 40.9 per cent. In a riding that has historically voted conservative-minded candidates into office, it would appear many of the more than 32,000 registered voters decided to stay home in protest over their disgust with the Progressive Conservatives. The result was victory for a New Democrat.

Well, to get rid of that New Democrat, a group would only have to get the signatures of less than 9,300 people on a recall petition. That is barely 30 per cent of the total number of registered voters in the riding. And therein lies the central problem with the Wildrose's bill – it opens itself up to abuse by petty-minded people.

Recall legislation is a legitimate mechanism for voters to deal with reprehensible conduct by their elected politician, but it always must meet an incredibly high standard. The recall act that Wildrose is recommending fails that elementary test.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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