British Columbia

Referendum for West Kelowna city hall textbook B.C. populism, says prof

A UBC Okanagan political scientist says that unlike in other provinces, governments in B.C. have a tradition of going to the people to settle contentious issues.

Vote over new city hall is 1 of 4 referendums being held in B.C. before the end of the year

West Kelowna is holding a referendum on Sept. 17 asking voters to approve borrowing up to $7.7 million to build a new city hall and civic centre. (CBC)

West Kelowna's upcoming referendum over whether to build a new city hall and civic centre is an example of B.C.'s long tradition of direct democracy, according to a UBC Okanagan political scientist.

"In political science, we always talk about B.C. citizens having a long tradition of populism," said Carey Doberstein, assistant professor of political science at UBCO.

"It's really a way of thinking about politics that everyday citizens views should have a greater role in decision making."

In the West Kelowna referendum on Sept. 17, voters are being asked to approve the borrowing of up to $7.7 million to build a new city hall and civic centre.

It's one of four referendums being held by local governments in B.C. between now and the end of the year, according to Elections B.C.

Referendums asking voters to approve long term borrowing are the most common because B.C. law requires municipal governments and regional districts to get electoral approval before taking on that kind of long term liability.

An artist's rendition of West Kelowna's proposed city hall and civic centre project. (City of West Kelowna)

But the provincial government also has a habit of using referendums to settle contentious issues.

Doberstein pointed to the two electoral reform referendums in 2005 and 2009, last year's Metro Vancouver transit tax referendum and the 2011 referendum to scrap the harmonized sales tax.

"There's a long tradition of citizens taking charge of decisions in B.C. … when you contrast it with other provinces," he said.

B.C. different than other provinces

Other provinces rarely use referendums, according to Doberstein, who traces the fondness for direct democracy in B.C. to its founding in the late 19th Century.

"B.C.-ers were so far away from Central Canadian elites, they had very different interests from them in the early days," he said.

The big drawback to referendums is low voter turnout, he said, especially for referendums that are held on their own and not as part of a general election.

Last November, the City of Kamloops held a referendum to borrow up to $49 million to build an arts centre and parkade.

The city held a number of public forums and while the issue got plenty of local media coverage, voter turnout was only 32 per cent, and went down to defeat with 53.7 per cent opposed.

"When we see very few people in the grand scheme of things participate in these referendums it does undermine the argument that referendums are good," said Doberstein.

West Kelowna concerned about turnout

Voter turnout is also top of mind for officials in West Kelowna in the days leading up to the Sept. 17 referendum.

The city has bought radio, web and newspaper ads encouraging residents to learn about the issues and then vote.

"And of course we're really, really promoting our website information where you can get a lot more robust information and all over social media trying to get the word out," said West Kelowna's communication supervisor, Kirsten Jones.

"From the city's point of view, we obviously work to support our council, but our goal is always to get a healthy vote out, and we would be so happy if we saw 40 per cent of our taxpayers out to vote."

With files from Radio West