Greens eye referendum to thwart oil pipeline

Activists ready to use citizen initiative to force province-wide vote on Trans Mountain twinning

Pipeline protesters may tear a page from the playbook of Fight HST leader Bill Vander Zalm, whose initiative petition forced a successful referendum in 2011 to repeal the harmonized sales tax.

Opponents of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline twinning are planning to try to force a provincial referendum on the project – much like the one that unravelled B.C.’s harmonized sales tax – if federal regulators or the Trudeau government fail to stop it.

The National Energy Board recommendation on the project comes down Thursday and critics expect a conditional rubber stamp, which would leave it awaiting a federal government decision by December and then provincial permitting.

Canvassers would then gather a mass petition as part of a citizen initiative to force a referendum under B.C.’s Recall and Initiative Act.

“It’s a unique legislative tool that none of the other provinces have and my feeling is we should use it,” said Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director for the Dogwood Initiative.

RELATED: NEB to make recommendation on pipeline expansion Thursday

He says 250,000 supporters are identified and more than 1,000 potential canvassers – far more than the Fight HST campaign had at its start.

And anti-pipeline forces would have several more months to organize ahead of a 2017 initiative.

“We think with another summer under our belts we’d be in a much stronger position to mount a successful initiative than any group has in B.C. history,” Nagata said.

“The HST referendum and the transit referendum showed the government is fine putting these big sticky policy questions to the public, and ultimately I think that’s where the decision is best made.”

Premier Christy Clark could enable a referendum at the same time as next spring’s provincial election if she wants to ride the tide of direct democracy, he suggested, or else find her party fighting against it.

But a veteran of B.C. direct democracy campaigns predicts anti-Kinder Morgan forces would be in for an immense challenge, because of the requirement that they sign up 10 per cent of the voters in all 85 ridings across the province.

“That is a wicked, wicked test for any political organizer, because what people think in Peace River versus Vancouver-Point Grey is completely different,” said Bill Tieleman, the strategist behind Fight HST. “You have to get every riding, you have to clear the table. The entire thing falls on one riding.”

The sign-up threshold would be easy to reach in Vancouver and Victoria, he suggested, and likely suburban ridings, but much less so in the rural north where more people depend on blue collar jobs in energy, mining and forestry.

“A lot of people are going to say ‘Go away and go away in a hurry before I throw you off my property bodily.'”

If organizers do get the required 10 per cent of signatures everywhere, Tieleman said, they’d then be up against the reality that the initiative legislation is largely “toothless.”

It requires the government to either introduce draft legislation penned by the proponents or else hold a provincial referendum that, if successful, would merely require the government to introduce the bill, but not necessarily pass it.

A resistant government could kill it at either stage by introduce it, briefly debate it and then let it die at either stage.

It’s too early to say what the proponent bill would say.

But Nagata indicated it could legislate against provincial government approvals of the project, or its environmental assessment certification by B.C. now required by a court decision, or it could even outlaw shipments of diluted bitumen in B.C. generally.

The only reason the HST referendum in 2011 was binding is that then-premier Gordon Campbell agreed to make it so. No forces won with 55 per cent of the vote, forcing a return to the PST.

But Tieleman said a government that ignored a successful mass petition would do so at great political risk.

“It is a validation of public sentiment,” he said. “Any time you get a half million people saying they want you to do something its kinda stupid to not pay any attention to it.”

Tieleman said a more powerful strategy for anti-pipeline campaigners might be to launch a recall campaign to topple a senior government minister.

B.C.’s recall provisions require campaigners get 40 per cent of voters in a riding to sign a recall petition.

“You can concentrate all of your effort on one riding,” Tieleman said. “If you recall a cabinet minister that sends a hell of a message to government and says ‘We’ll do it again if you don’t do what we want.'”

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