The glue that holds together B.C.’s fragile coalition government could ultimately bring about its collapse, Liberal leadership candidate Todd Stone said Friday on a tour stopover in Port Alberni.
Like his opposition colleagues, the Kamloops South MLA is vehemently opposed to a referendum on proportional representation that the NDP minority government plans for next fall, a process he maintains is rigged to deliver a pre-determined outcome.
“I actually think what the Greens and the NDP have cooked up is the greatest single attack on our democracy in the history of this province,” said Stone before meeting with local Liberal supporters at Westwind Pub.
“I think they’re proposing a system that would change forever the direct relationship MLAs have with the people who elect them. We’ll be having perpetual coalition governments like we have right now, where you have the tail wagging the dog, three Green MLAs calling the shots.”
The third Liberal leadership contender to visit the valley, Stone, 45, wants to see a more diversified party with greater representation by younger people, women and ethnic minorities.
If he should emerge as winner February 2018 vote — he considers himself an underdog yet still among the top two or three candidates — the former cabinet minister and tech CEO said he would hit the ground running to build opposition to proportional representation. He predicts a grass-roots groundswell of resistance similar to that which killed the Harmonized Sales Tax in B.C.
Stone doesn’t see proportional representation as a remedy for low voter participation in provincial elections. To the contrary, he sees it as a recipe for disaster.
“I think it will just serve to drive a bigger wedge between different regions of the province. It will break that intimate, personal relationship people have with their MLA and it will paralyze decision making in the province, which is bad for the economy.”
As though that weren’t reason enough to oppose electoral reform as currently conceived, the government is attempting to shove it down voters’ throats, he said. A proposed amendment to the Referendum Act, expected to become law within a couple of weeks, lowers the bar on passing initiatives.
“That’s a high bar and it should be because the most important aspect of our democracy is how we elect our MLAs,” Stone said. “They want to replace that dual threshold with a simple 50 percent plus one.”
The current government has the legal but not the political mandate to bring in such sweeping changes, Stone said, noting that the promise of the referendum is all that is keeping together the coalition. If the referendum fails, then B.C. voters will probably be heading to the polls in spring 2019 to elect a new government, he predicted.
Having served a term as the province’s transportation and infrastructure minister in the Christy Clark government, Stone acknowledged mistakes were made in misjudging the electorate. He feels the message of strong economy and job creation didn’t resonate with enough voters.
“A $2.7 billion surplus, for a lot of British Columbians, seemed to appear at the 11th hour from out of nowhere. Meanwhile, we’ve been saying no for years to a lot of people on a lot of fronts — child care, health care, education. Everyone has to feel like they’re benefiting from a strong economy. They need to see it and feel it in their own lives, and I think that’s where we missed the mark a bit in the last election.”
Stone is counting on a rural advantage to garner enough support in the leadership race. Representing an urban centre within a rural region, he is the only candidate of the six to reside outside of the Lower Mainland. His platform includes a rural economic development strategy with the resource sector as a central plank. While the forest sector is confronted with challenges, there remain 140 B.C. communities such as Port Alberni that rely on it.
“There are a number of initiatives that we think would help strengthen the forest industry,” he said. “Part of it is supporting forest companies in embracing new technology, opening up new markets overseas. We have an exciting opportunity with Korea, a free trade agreement signed with Canada not long ago that affords an opportunity to sell into that market without tariffs.”
He sees advancing technology as not only an instrument for industrial growth but also as a means of drawing together in common interests the rural, resource-based B.C. communities with the more tech-centred urban communities.
Stone is the only leadership contender wanting nothing to do with the proposed subsidy to replace corporate and union donations to political parties. He said that is a principled stand based on the hard line taken by his party in opposition. To then accept the subsidy once its legislated would not be right, he argued.
“We have to begin to shift away from union and corporate donations to individual donations, which means we need to build a much broader base of financial contributors, who are going to contribute smaller amounts.”