A pandemic recall? Attempt to oust politician over COVID rules highlights BC law

VANCOUVER—Genevieve Ring disagrees with the way her government has handled the pandemic.

The property manager in Vernon, BC has a long list of complaints, from business closures to mask mandates for schools to restrictions on religious services that were part of the official response to COVID-19 in several moments during the past. two years and a half.

“The government has collapsed and it needs to be fixed,” Ring told the Star. “The only way to fix it is to get people involved and get new people involved as MLAs.”

In most of Canada, Ring’s frustrations are the kind that could spill onto social media, joining the chorus of populist rejection that has been heard and seen across the country during the pandemic.

But in British Columbia, Ring is turning to a different expedient: a long shot to set the wheels in motion that could see its local MLA ousted from office.

It’s an option that has existed in BC politics for nearly three decades, called the Repeal and Initiative Act.

Under the auspices of the act, Ring is now trying to call its local representative: Vernon-Monashee NDP MLA Harwinder Sandhu.

BC Elections said the petition would be issued on Friday. The recipient then has 60 days to get more than 40 percent of eligible voters — more than 21,000 people — on the road to sign their support.

This is not the first time someone has tried to remove a politician over COVID complaints. A notable effort last year tried, and failed, to oust California Governor Gavin Newsom, in part because of his government’s pandemic focus.

Vernon-Monashee MLA Harwinder Sandhu.

Until recently, BC was the only province in Canada where such a recall could occur.

In April, Alberta’s own Recall Act went into effect.

The BC law has been in place since 1995, allowing residents the opportunity to propose laws, change laws, or remove political representation through petition.

To request a petition, a $50 processing fee and a maximum 200-word summary of why the proponent believes an MLA should be withdrawn is required.

The debate over impeachment laws often revolves around the benefits and dangers of direct democracy.

Such laws create a safety valve for disaffected voters and a process by which they can oust bad-acting politicians who in most places would be off limits to voters during their term.

“If there’s an MLA who’s really unfit for the job and their fellow MLAs, if they were sitting in the caucus, they weren’t willing to act, then it offers another option,” said political scientist Stewart Perst. “You can understand why people might be drawn to the idea.”

On the other hand, experts say, direct democracy, such as impeachment laws and referendums, may be ill-suited to complex challenges unfolding in real time, such as the pandemic, and may make leaders less likely to take action. bold decisions, even if based on the best evidence. . This may be especially true at a time when misinformation is spreading rapidly online.

Where people stand on the legislation depends on their own preference for how democracy should work, Perst said.

Vernon-Monashee’s petition is the 27th attempt to remove an MLA from office since BC law was enacted.

Most efforts have not resulted in a petition with returned signatures.

In 1998, a Liberal MLA from BC, Paul Reitsma, resigned before a petition that eventually had enough signatures to cause him to be impeached could go into effect and cause a by-election. The push to expel Reitsma came after he admitted to writing letters to a local newspaper under assumed names attacking his rivals and praising his performance, according to CBC reports at the time.

The only successful petition was under the initiative section of the law, when a 2010 effort to end the harmonized sales tax in the province succeeded. The success of the petition led to the holding of a referendum on the tax, in which 55% of voters subsequently rejected it.

The target MLA in this case, Sandhu, is a registered nurse.

Sandhu was elected in October 2020, a vote held seven months into the province’s pandemic response that saw the NDP go from a minority to a majority government.

“I will not be intimidated by a small group of extreme activists who do not represent the vast majority of people in Vernon-Monashee,” she said in a statement responding to the attempt to remove her.

“As a healthcare worker, I support the decisions we make as a government to help keep British Columbians and frontline workers healthy and safe during the pandemic.”

Perst, the political scientist, said BC’s impeachment legislation traditionally hasn’t been much of a political threat because of the number of signatures needed to move to impeach someone.

“There is the possibility of abuse, the potential harm is somewhat limited by the fact that the particular form of legislation here in BC has a fairly high threshold for launching a recall,” Perst said. “There is a pretty stringent requirement that has, so far, eliminated a number of these complaints.”


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