One more time with feeling

Earlier, we reported the provincial government had promised to allocate $500,000 to the yes and no sides during British Columbia's upcoming referendum on electoral reform. But the lead organization on the yes side has reaffirmed its earlier recommendation that "it is crucial to have a single funded advocacy group on each." And, in a letter to the ministry of attorney general, Fair Vote BC president Bruce Hallsor says that's an opinion shared by his "counterparts on the anti-STV side" - in particular Bill Tieleman and David Schreck." And the group continue to oppose restrictions on how that money - and any donations the yes and no sides receive - can be spent. A similar letter was sent by the yes and no sides to the ministry last month.The following is a complete copy of the latest missive.

10 September 2008

Strategic Planning and Legislation Office
Ministry of Attorney General
PO Box 9283 Stn Prov Govt
Victoria BC V8W 9J7

Dear Sirs:

Re: Consultation on Regulating Funding for Electoral Reform referendum Proponents and Opponents


I am writing on behalf of Fair Voting British Columbia, the leading group advocating for the adoption of proportional representation in BC. Fair Voting BC has been a registered public advocacy group since 1997, and in the decade since then has led the way in promoting the adoption of proportional representation at the provincial and municipal levels, with a special focus on STV. We now represent a broad coalition of individuals who have led the fight for the adoption of STV in British Columbia.

Our position is that the $500,000 being allocated to support a Yes campaign should not be subdivided. We feel that this would lead to duplication of effort, loss of cohesion and mixed messaging, and in short would dilute the effectiveness of the pro-STV message.

In 2005, although groups tried to establish themselves as the leading voices for Yes and No respectively, the media did not recognize any group or individual as having a legitimate leadership role. Media coverage of the referendum was thus very different from media coverage of the parallel election, in which the party leaders were clear spokespeople for their parties. We believe that it is essential that the government recognize, through its funding formula, one clear leadership group on each side which can become a focus for media coverage.

Ever since the second referendum was announced by the Premier in 2005, we have been actively preparing to fight a strong, cohesive advocacy campaign, working on the assumption that we would be the principal group doing so. We believe that there is no other group fighting for STV in BC which can seriously rival our claim to be broad based, have reach across the province, and to have the support of the Citizens' Assembly Alumni Association as the main vehicle for the next referendum campaign.

We don't believe that we deserve to have the public funding because we believe that we are special, self-appointed individuals who are somehow particularly deserving of public support, but rather because we have made a concerted effort to reach out and include all the individuals and groups who have been serious advocates for BC-STV in the past.
Any pro-reformer who is not part of our group is standing apart from us only because they do not wish to participate in the development of a coherent group message based on the public interest. And this is precisely why it would be damaging and dangerous to give public money to any such freelance individuals.

In 2005, there were two organized groups, and a number of prominent individuals, who separately campaigned for a Yes vote. The groups were called The Yes Campaign, and the Citizens' Assembly Alumni Organization.

Some of the more active individual campaigners were Troy Lanigan of the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation and former Social Credit MLA Nick Loenen. All of these groups and individuals are now folded into Fair Voting BC.

While some other group of individuals might yet emerge and make a claim to be preparing a separate pro-STV campaign, such a group could not possibly approach our track record on the issue.

We have been working to promote STV since 1997, and holding regular monthly meetings specific to the referendum campaign since it was announced in 2005. We have a well-developed committee structure, have a website, and are preparing campaign materials. No other group is doing anything of the kind. We argue that the sudden emergence of another group this late in the proceedings would lead one to suspect that they formed more in response to the availability of public money than because of a clear commitment to public education and advocacy. We would see this as a major concern.

Having said this, we don't wish to close the door completely to other groups, if the right sort of group were to emerge. At this stage, it would be difficult to see what such a group would be, or why they simply would not join with us in making a united effort.
But it is not beyond imagination that there might be a group with serious intent, and with some solid reason for maintaining a separate identity. One example might be a group comprised of former members of the Citizens' Assembly. Such a group could certainly advance a claim for funding if the province did not accept our position that there should only be one group receiving funding on each side.

Another example might be a group comprised of current or former MLAs who wished to make public their support for STV. We would not object to a group of that nature being funded -- indeed, it would be our hope that any worthy group of this kind would join with us in making a joint submission as to how our two groups would share the funds.

We particularly wish to caution you against granting any money whatsoever to groups which propose to conduct regional, rather than province-wide, campaigns. It is very easy to imagine a group approaching you with a message like this: "We are the pro-STV campaign in three Kootenay-area ridings. We believe that $250,000 should be distributed to regional groups such as ours; since we represent about three percent of the province, you should give us $7500." In other words they would be claiming their fair share of a provincial amount, the amount they would receive were you indeed going to fund similar groups which blanketed the province.

In the absence of such similar groups elsewhere, we think it would be an enormous mistake to fund groups in some regions only. Effectively this would mean that some areas of the province would have a better funded and more vigorous public debate than others. On the contrary, we intend to use our funding to campaign throughout the province as a whole -- exactly as we did in 2005, when our members made dozens of visits to smaller regional centres throughout BC.

We therefore recommend to you as follows:

1. Provice all the funding on the pro-STV side to us as a single united entity. In the event that you have other applicants whom you deem worthy, encourage them to join in with us rather than receiving separate funding.

2. Alternatively, should you decide to consider funding more than one group, establish clear criteria in advance for what a group should do to prove themselves worthy of funding. These criteria should include, at a minimum: a proven track record of support for BC-STV, a proven ability to develop and disseminate effective messaging which explains the issue to the voters, and the intent and ability to mount a province-wide campaign.

We have discussed this matter with some of our counterparts on the anti-STV side, in particular with Bill Tieleman and David Schreck.

They share our belief that it is crucial to have a single funded advocacy group on each side.

Moreover, we are also agreed on the following points:

(1) We both believe that while the province may restrict how the funds are spent, they should not restrict recipients from raising money separately for other purposes, such as polling, travel expenses, paying salaries, or any other purpose. It is obvious that $500,000 is not adequate for conducting a province-wide campaign. It represents less than 20 cents per eligible voter, not even enough to reach each voter once by bulk mail.
Political parties raise and spend far more than this in order to communicate with the voters. Similarly, the pro-STV campaign and the anti-STV campaign will each need to raise additional money in order to campaign effectively.

In the interest of public debate, they should be encouraged to do so, not have their hands tied behind their backs.

(2) We both believe that recipients should be entitled to pay for the administrative expense of administering the funds out of the funds, including paying the official agent.

(3) We both believe that recognised proponents and opponents should have access to the voters list, with the same rights and restrictions as political parties have. LIke most of our other recommendations, this will be easier to arrange and to monitor if the number of proponent and opponent groups is limited to one of each.

We strongly urge the government to begin thinking in terms of creating a clear public debate by recognizing a single group on each side. This is an important public issue, and we know from experience, both in British Columbia and in other provinces, that it quickly becomes confused if the media begin to pick and choose from a multiplicity of voices on each side.

This debate is important. It would be tragic indeed if we emerged from this process on May 13th with no clear outcome and nobody able to agree on who had voted for what, or on the significance of the result. There is still time to ensure that this does not happen.

If you have further questions for us, please contact the writer directly.

Yours truly

FAIRVOTING BC

Per:
Bruce Hallsor
President

2 Comments

What an exceptionally well-written letter. I agree with the position too. The last thing either side needs is a fracturing of their message.

Nothing like getting ones oar in the water as soon as possible. wonder how many people in this group were on the committee who actually came up with the STv plan last time around. Bill Tieleman and David Shreck are quite skilled as communicators but there are lots of other folks with the same opinion. I'll just sit back and watch the sides go at it. But the debate should start rather soon, even though we have a federal and municipal elections on the stove around the same time. We all might get electioned out and simply stop listening which may or may not be a bad idea.

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