Saanich and Victoria councillors may soon rue their historic meeting Tuesday.
They made two mistakes as they discussed and approved the wording of a referendum question designed to test public support for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly. First, they presented the public with a question still subject to revisions. Second, they needlessly injected bias.
Let us consider the first charge. As of this writing, Saanich and Victoria approved the following temporary wording for the referendum question that will appear on the 2018 municipal election ballot in both communities.
“Are you in favour of spending [an amount to be determined] for establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to explore the costs, benefits and disadvantages of the amalgamation between the District of Saanich and the City of Victoria?”
Note the phrase ‘an amount to be determined.’ While referendum questions rarely sparkle with clarity, such imprecise language should never see the light of day. To be blunt — both councils merely replaced one draft with another draft, which officially remains open to additional revisions. If so, what was the point of Tuesday’s joint meeting?
If both councils wanted to include information about the cost of a future citizens’ assembly, they should have postponed the meeting until staff could have filled in this glaring gap.
Yes, staff will eventually fill the gap. But that brings us to the second charge. Any cost figure that appears in the question itself implicitly tilts the question in favour of amalgamation opponents unless balanced out by information about the future benefits of amalgamation. Critics of amalgamation can immediately frame the citizens’ assembly as a cost that voters can avoid by voting no.
To be clear — residents should not be in dark about the costs of the assembly, nor about any other aspect of amalgamation, be it positive or negative. But the question as it reads now suffers from the worst possible combination of defects. Its framing biases the no-side. At the same time, it currently lacks the very detail it intends to supply, creating room for speculation and misinformation.
Representatives of both councils described their meeting as historic. Indeed it was, for it might well have doomed any official dialogue about the pros and cons of amalgamation if the referendum fails, as we know it will be unlikely to happen again soon.