Confessions of a Door-to-Door Campaigner

Barring a last-minute miracle, the bid to recall Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong has failed. Here’s one insider’s thoughts on what went wrong and why.

Or why the campaign to recall MLA Ida Chong failed By J. Stewart Kennedy

Barring a last-minute miracle, the bid to recall Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong has failed. Here’s one insider’s thoughts on what went wrong and why.

The failed bid to recall Oak Bay-Gordon head MLA Ida Chong will, no doubt, be the subject of much political punditry. As a door-to-door canvasser in that effort, I developed a perspective on both that campaign and on the recall issue in general.

While not spelled out in so many words, the recall campaign organizers’ argument was that Chong’s May 2009 election victory rested on a fraud; she had, they argued, lied to voters. Her campaign literature pledged that she would reduce taxes for families. The harmonized sales tax (HST) raised taxes for families. Chong acted contrary to her pledge.

Chong’s defence was, first, that the recall effort was a front for the NDP, which was using the unpopularity of the HST to refight the last election. Second, she argued, recall was not designed to deal with policy issues such as the HST. Rather, recall was intended to address an MLA’s illegal or other gross misconduct that left them no longer fit to represent their constituents.

Curiously, neither of the official arguments seemed to find much purchase with people on the doorstep. Most who signed the petition, and most who declined, gave no explanation. They said either, “Oh, I’m glad you’re here,” and signed, or “I’m not interested,” and closed the door.

Of those who explained their signature, most were motivated by animosity to either Chong or the Liberal government. This suggests that the first part of her anti-recall argument — NPD’ers wanting to refight the 2009 election — may have at least some basis in fact.

On the other side, I heard both that Chong had done a good job and that this effort was a misuse of recall. Curious about the second argument, I asked the person who offered it how they saw it as a misuse. He simply asserted that this was not what recall was intended for without explaining either what made this an improper use or what a proper use would be.

I wish I’d kept track, but my impression is that about six out of every 10 people I talked to signed the petition; only about two in 10 declined and the other two said they hadn’t made up their minds. If my sample was even close to representative, a clear majority of those who cared one way or the other supported recalling Chong.

That begs the question of why the recall effort failed.

■ First, my experience is consistent with the received wisdom that the bar for recall may be set too high. While approximately 60 per cent of the people I talked to said they wanted Chong recalled, the campaign secured the signatures of much less than that (the official tally will be announced on Feb. 4). Even for a campaign as well organized as this one, it was difficult, indeed, to find and collect the signatures of 40 per cent of those who lived in the riding 18 months ago in a 60-day period.

■ Second, it may have been a mistake to launch the recall campaign during the winter bad weather and, particularly, over the Christmas holiday season. While you are more likely to catch people at home during bad weather than good, most people have things other than politics on their minds at that busy time of year.

■ Third, it may have been an error to cast the HST as the central issue in the campaign. Only one or two signers opined, “We’ve got to get rid of that tax,” or its equivalent. Interestingly, I had just as many say something like, “Actually, I support the HST but the way they did it was wrong.” The lack of obvious anger over the HST may mean that the issue has lost much of its potency, at least in Oak Bay-Gordon Head. That could be because everyone knows that a referendum on the tax is coming. Or it may be that Premier Gordon Campbell’s resignation has left many feeling that the government has been adequately punished.

Those who expressed support for the HST while objecting to how it was brought in had an interesting argument. In their minds, representative democracy requires that significant policy options receive a thorough public airing. That, preferably, takes place during an election campaign, although if major issues arise that need decisions between elections, public consultations are an acceptable alternative. The introduction of the HST did not respect either part of that convention. These voters suggested that Chong should be recalled because her support for the HST reflects a lack of respect for the principles of representative democracy.

Almost as interestingly, two people who identified themselves as staunch New Democrats, one a “life-long CCF’er,” refused to sign the petition. Both volunteered that “recall has no place in our system of government.” If the sense is widely shared that recall and parliamentary institutions do not fit well together, that combined with the difficulty of signing-up 40 per cent of the electors on an 18-month-old voters list may well doom any future recall effort to failure. M

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