SATURDAY MORNING EDITORIAL — An exercise in democracy is taking place in Kitimat today that might provide some lessons for Kamloops.
Voters in Kitimat will cast ballots in a plebiscite on the highly controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. The result will have no official bearing on a decision by the federal government as to whether it should allow Enbridge to build a pipeline between Alberta and Kitimat.
It will, however, have at least some moral suasion and, at the least, provides an opportunity for the people of Kitimat to express themselves on such an important issue.
A Joint Panel Review has recommended approval of the pipeline subject to conditions. A decision is expected in June.
The plebiscite is an attempt by the City council, which is officially neutral on the proposal, to consult with the public in a concrete way. However, the lack of spending limits by proponents and opponents is being criticized because it supposedly gives the well-healed Enbridge an advantage.
The company’s budget for the plebiscite campaign isn’t known, but the budget of the Douglas Channel Watch leading the opposition is reported as being $2,000.
Here in the Tournament Capital, it has been suggested that the best way to accurately judge the wishes of the people on Ajax is to hold a plebiscite. While City council hasn’t taken an official stance on the idea, council members haven’t embraced it, either.
The Kitimat exercise illustrates that holding a plebiscite on an issue based largely on environmental concerns is practical. It also suggests that such a plebiscite might best include some clear guidelines that ensure a level playing field and, just as importantly, a perception of a level playing field — specifically, limits on spending.
There’s no guarantee a plebiscite on Ajax would result in either a “No” vote or a “Yes” vote. It’s a risk for both sides of the issue.
It’s also true that such a plebiscite would be non-binding but when it comes to governments having to make decisions, politicians sometimes pay attention to public opinion.
There’s also the question of whether such a vote should be limited to only the residents of Kamloops. In fairness, it should also include the residents of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District electoral area in which most of the mine site is located.
When the Kitimat council decided back in January to hold a plebiscite, there was a lot of debate. In the end, the council concluded that the community needed a way of expressing whether it was in favour of the pipeline.
There are similarities between the pipeline project and the Ajax mine proposal, in that residents have similar concerns surrounding the environment vs. jobs. While the Kitimat council is officially neutral, the Kamloops council simply hasn’t taken a position.
The difference is that Kitimat councillors have tackled the issue head-on and made a decision to directly consult, whereas Kamloops lawmakers are in a lengthy wait-and-see mode.
Whether that’s a good thing, and whether a plebiscite is a good thing, are very much matters of opinion but, at least, Kitimat is being pro-active on the matter of consultation.