Wednesday, April 20, 2022

On mere opinions

There's been plenty of attention - and indeed enthusiasm - in response to the Saskatchewan Liberals' petition seeking a plebiscite on a COVID inquiry. So let's take a look at what might be accomplished through that process - as well as where it's likely to fall short of how it's being billed.

To start with, there have been some questions raised as to whether it's even possible to collect valid plebiscite signatures through a website rather than a physical petition. 

On that front, the authority to determine the validity of signatures lies not with an independent agency such as Elections Saskatchewan, but with the minister responsible. And in the absence of any substantial plebiscite drives in the province's recent past, there's no clear guidance as to what will or won't be accepted. While some familiar with Elections Saskatchewan's rules have pointed out their requirement for physical signatures, there is also legislation which generally provides that electronic signatures are valid for most purposes.  

The more fundamental limitation, though, is that a plebiscite under the Referendum and Plebiscite Act is limited to an expression of opinion. And that fact seems to have been missed both in how the petition has been presented, and in much of the associated media coverage. 

Even if the signature requirement for a plebiscite is met - and even if a vote is ultimately held - the best-case scenario would be purely symbolic. The greatest possible success in the plebiscite drive would be a majority of votes providing a "yes" answer to the question raised in the petition as to whether an inquiry should be called. 

But nothing about the plebiscite process actually binds the government to call an inquiry. (This is in contrast to the referendum procedure under the same legislation; that can produce binding outcomes, but may only be initiated by the government.)

And unfortunately, the Libs' message seems designed to evade acknowledging that glaring gap in their plan. It's thoroughly misleading to offer references to show that plebiscites and public inquiries are legal (yes, that's part of their message), while eliding the reality that one can't legally require the other. 

Which isn't to say there isn't still some merit in organizing around the need for far more transparency - both on an ongoing basis in the midst of a pandemic which continues despite the Moe government's efforts to deny it, and on a retrospective basis as the human toll of the Saskatchewan Party's poor choices continues to escalate. But it's worth avoiding any promises which don't match what's actually on offer - lest the result be to foment even more of a sense of futility among opposition organizers which only serves Moe's purposes in the long run. 

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