A year after the New Democrats vowed to change the electoral system and six months after they launched the enabling legislation to do so, the B.C. Liberals this week sought key details about the fall referendum.
They got no answers, only pushback from Attorney General David Eby, the NDP’s purported “neutral” arbiter on what is looking less and less like a fair and open process.
“To the attorney general,” challenged B.C. Liberal MLA Michael Lee Thursday, “when will he inform British Columbians of the referendum question they will be asked in just a few months’ time?”
Patience, returned Eby. The government was sorting through a “huge amount of public feedback” from “the largest public engagement in B.C.’s history.” The contents will be translated into a public report with recommendations on the “question or questions” and other details. When and where, he didn’t say.
“He has yet to announce the campaign rules. He has yet to even provide the exact date of the referendum,” returned Lee. “Can the attorney general explain why he hasn’t told voters something as basic as what the question will be, when we’re mere months away from this referendum?”
Fair concerns, given the need to get people up to speed on the issues before putting the matter to a fall ballot-by-mail. But not to Eby’s way of thinking.
“We are compiling that information for all members to be able to review,” returned Eby. “What better process than this to set the question and the rules?”
But the Liberals had their suspicions about the NDP process. In their hands, via a freedom-of-information request, was a memo from the public servant who oversaw the drafting of the questions with a hand-picked group of academics.
It disclosed that “our minister’s office has also had input,” which suggested a role for the political staff in Eby’s ministerial office in shaping the questions.
What about it?, asked Liberal MLA John Martin. Eby dodged the question about political staff, referring instead to the role of the academics.
Would Eby “table in this house all input his political staff had into the drafting of the questionnaire?” challenged the Liberal.
Not a chance. Besides, Eby assured the house, the Liberals already had obtained everything they needed via FOI requests.
Another dodge. The Liberals have made multiple requests. But some returned with blank pages, others with filings for extensions. None, not surprisingly, contained the slightest indication of how political staffers had inserted themselves into the process.
Eby wasn’t done. As he often does when pressed by the Opposition for details on the referendum, the NDP’s designated “neutral arbiter” slipped easily into attack mode.
“I will not be lectured by members from a government who put forward a referendum called by pollster Angus Reid as ‘one of the most amateurish, one-sided attempts to gauge the public will that I have seen in my professional career,’” Eby fired back.
“That referendum about whether or not First Nations people had rights — unacceptable.”
Granted, the Liberals’ 2002 referendum on the negotiating mandate for treaties was wrong-headed, as I and many other observers argued at the time.
But not clear why Eby thinks that would excuse him for stonewalling on the details of a referendum to change the system for electing governments in this province.
Undaunted by the attorney general’s non-answers, the Liberals challenged him over major changes in the NDP’s position on the referendum.
Premier John Horgan promised to “set up an all-party committee to hear from citizens and formulate a referendum question.” What happened to that?
All MLAs had a chance to speak during debate on the enabling legislation, replied Eby, and all political parties had made submissions in the engagement process. That would have to do.