Sask. Liberal leader wants plebiscite on COVID response

Saskatchewan Liberal Party Leader Jeff Walters is asking for signatures, hoping to trigger a plebiscite vote on if there should be an independent inquiry into the provincial government's COVID-19 response.

Liberal party launches online petition with goal of 126,000 signatures

Jeff Walters, leader of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party, is hoping an online petition in hopes of spurring a plebiscite on whether the province needs an independent inquiry into its handling of COVID-19. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Saskatchewan Liberal Party Leader Jeff Walters is asking for signatures, hoping to trigger a plebiscite vote on if there should be an independent inquiry into the provincial government's COVID-19 response.

"A plebiscite can allow us to create an independent inquiry into the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether they want to or not," Walters said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Regina.

"Such an inquiry would serve to make transparent what has been under wraps, to make accountable those who have not been to find the answers we need to defeat COVID-19."

Walters has launched an online petition hoping to garner enough signatures to be able to take it to the Lieutenant Governor and trigger a plebiscite vote.

CBC News asked Elections Saskatchewan if an online petition reaching 126,000 signatures would meet the requirements of a plebiscite, but no one from the organization was available to provide comment on Thursday.

The petition question on the party's website reads, "Do you think the current Government led by Scott Moe should be made to establish an independent Inquiry to inquire into and report on the Government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Saskatchewan?"

"If we get 15 per cent of the electorate to sign a petition, they have no choice in the matter," Walters said.

Fifteen per cent of eligible voters in Saskatchewan equals roughly 126,000 signatures.

Walters was appointed Liberal leader in October 2021. He ran for the party in the 2020 provincial election, finishing fifth in Regina Northeast.

Walters said he has been contacted by people who feel left "in the dark" by the lack of COVID-19 information released by the government.

"They're frustrated at the powerlessness of being able to have their voices heard by the government."

The Opposition has asked on several occasions for a public inquiry on the government's COVID-19 response, but both Health Minister Paul Merriman and Premier Scott Moe have declined.

Last month, Moe said Saskatchewan was not through COVID but "Saskatchewan people are ready to move forward to live with this virus in our communities."

"Throughout this pandemic, we have made the best decisions that we can with the information at that point in time," Moe said.

Elections Sask. head has called referendum, plebiscite legislation 'antiquated'

The CEO of Elections Saskatchewan Michael Boda released a discussion paper on the province's referendum and plebiscite act in 2016.

"I am concerned that the province's current legislative and regulatory framework would not allow Elections Saskatchewan to administer a referendum/plebiscite in an efficient and economical manner or at service levels that citizens would expect," Boda wrote.

Elections Saskatchewan estimated the cost of a mail-in-ballot referendum outside of an election to be $4 million.

In November 2018, Calgary held a plebiscite on whether the city should host the Olympics. More than 300,000 votes were cast. The plebiscite cost $2 million, which was covered by the province.

In September 2019, Boda released a report on modernizing Saskatchewan's referendum laws, which have not been amended since 1991.

"The prospect of holding a standalone ballot question vote, using the general methods prescribed in the current legislation and regulations, is prohibitively expensive in comparison to available alternatives that have been successfully used in other Canadian provinces," Boda wrote.

P.E.I. was the first province to use online and telephone voting in a provincial plebiscite in 2016. Eighty per cent of those who voted chose to do so online, and overall voter turnout was 36.5 per cent.

There have only been seven referendum or plebiscite votes since Saskatchewan became a province in 1905.

Saskatchewan's last plebiscites were held concurrently with the 1991 election, and included one where voters opposed publicly-funded abortions. In 1956, a plebiscite was held to try to determine which time zone Saskatchewan would use.

with files from Ashleigh Mattern


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