Referendum questions: Isn’t it really a non-binding plebiscite?

As with the HST referendum, politics not the law would compel government to abide by outcome of a Yes vote

Technically, yes, the vote is a plebiscite under provincial law.

But practically there’s little difference, except that it operates under different legislation.

“On the surface, to voters there is not really any discernible difference,” Elections BC spokesman Don Main said.

The plebiscite is not legally binding but the provincial government has promised to proceed with the proposed 0.5 per cent sales tax increase to fund improvements if a majority of residents across Metro Vancouver vote in favour.

Elections BC defines a plebiscite as a cabinet-ordered vote on a matter of public concern conducted under the Election Act that “may be binding on government” while a referendum is held under the Referendum Act and the results are “usually binding.”

The 2011 HST referendum was not technically binding either in the sense that government was not legally forced to repeal the harmonized sales tax after losing the vote.

It happened only because Premier Gordon Campbell promised government would abide by the outcome when he okayed the referendum.

His decision followed a successful initiative petition by anti-HST forces. Under B.C.’s law governing initiatives, the province had the option of sending the Fight HST campaign’s proposed repeal legislation to the Legislature for debate or holding a referendum on it.

Campbell chose the latter.

Had he accepted the legislation for debate instead, the BC Liberal majority could have simply refused to pass it – at its political peril.

Legally, Fight HST’s eventual referendum win still only required government to forward the draft repeal bill to the house for debate, not to actually pass it.

But blocking it then would have been politically suicidal for a government already deeply wounded by the HST debacle.

Representatives of the Yes and No campaigns in the Congestion Improvement Tax both say it would be similarly unthinkable for the province to ignore the outcome of the transit and transportation vote.

“Politically, that would just be unbelievable,” Port Coquitlam Mayor Greg Moore said.

No campaign head Jordan Bateman said he believes the tax is a go if the vote is Yes, but doesn’t believe the spending commitments are necessarily binding.

Referendum Questions is a Black Press series exploring issues related to the Metro Vancouver transit and transportation referendum. Voters must mail in ballots by May 29 on whether they support  the addition of a 0.5 per cent sales tax in the region, called the Congestion Improvement Tax, to fund billions of dollars worth of upgrades. Follow the links below to read more in this series.