Thursday, August 19, 2010

Liberals set scene for Elections B.C. controversy

The controversy over interim Chief Electoral Officer Craig James’s decision on the anti-HST initiative is another self-inflicted wound for the Liberals.
It raises questions, again, about why the Campbell government seems to be fumbling so many issues.
James has been much abused for deciding not to send the legislation rescinding the HST to a legislative committee even though opponents of the tax gathered the required signatures on their petition. Unsupported accusations of partisanship and political interference have been flying around.
I’m not sure James made the correct decision, but see no evidence of a political agenda.
James has been clerk of committees at the legislature for more than two decades, working closely with NDP and Liberal governments and MLAs from all parties. He is also, in my experience, a nice guy and in 10 years in the Press Gallery I never saw a hint of partisanship or sneakiness or anything but quality public service. The New Democrats have stated they have “enormous respect” for James.
But the Liberals put him in this mess and created the perception of possible political interference. And it was unnecessary.
The critical qualities in a chief electoral officer are competence, non-partisanship and absolute independence. Otherwise, the risks of real and perceived election-rigging undermine democracy.
Not just in developing countries – think back to the recounts and hanging chads and protracted political wrangling that led to George W. Bush’s election as U.S. president in 2000. That kind of scenario is highly unlikely here.
The Election Act sets strict rules to ensure independence and guard against partisan appointments. The Chief Electoral Officer isn’t even allowed to vote – the only citizen, as far as I know, ordered to forego that right.
More significantly, candidates for electoral officer’s job must be the unanimous choice of a legislative committee of government and opposition MLAs and approved by a vote in the legislature before being appointed by the lieutenant governor.
And they serve fixed terms, to ensure the threat of firing does not affect their decisions.
But James is an acting chief electoral officer. He was appointed by the Liberal government. The New Democrats complained they weren’t adequately consulted.
The legislative guarantees of independence and non-partisanship have been subverted, no matter who is in the job.
There was no reason for the Liberals to create this problem. The Chief Electoral Officer, remember, serves a fixed term. He or she oversees two elections; one year after the second one, the appointment ends.
So the Liberals have known, literally since the day former electoral officer Harry Neufeld started work in 2002, that his term would end in June of this year and a replacement would be needed.
But they things slide. Maybe they were thinking about re-appointing Neufeld until he delivered an unfavourable decision barring a taxpayer-funded pro-HST ad campaign during the petition drive.
Or maybe the government has just lost its grip on things.
The government told Neufeld in April he wouldn’t be re-appointed.
But the all-party committee responsible for finding a new chief electoral officer wasn’t created by the government until May 6. It has met once, for less than an hour, and has no meetings scheduled.
The legislature, which has to vote on the eventual choice, is not scheduled to meet until next spring.
That means, potentially, almost a year with an interim chief electoral officer, appointed by the party in power.
A year in which highly controversial issues about recall campaigns and the anti-HST initiative will emerge.
A year of questions about the independence and political neutrality of Elections B.C., unfair or not.
The Liberals were elected in part because voters wanted competence.
But a competent government would have looked ahead and ensured a new chief electoral officer was ready to take over when the incumbent’s fixed term ended.
The Liberals didn’t do that. And they and, unfortunately, James are taking a beating as a result.
Footnote: The delay will continue to hurt the Liberals. It’s likely the legislature will have to be recalled to vote on the committee’s recommendation this fall. That will give New Democrats a chance to question cabinet ministers in a host of topics for at least a few days.
And it will let them point out all the issues the legislature could be dealing with if the government wasn’t determined to keep the sitting as brief as possible.

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