Town halls: Twitter for normal people

George Abbott discovered the power of telephone town halls during his leadership run. Now the technology is being used to explain the harmonized sales tax.

VICTORIA – These days the media never shut up about Facebook and Twitter and “viral videos.” In this year’s political madhouse, no candidate can be caught without a social media presence.

So it surprises me that the breakout technology for public engagement turns out to be huge conference calls on the old landline telephone.

“Tele-town halls” were first deployed here by B.C. Liberal leadership candidate George Abbott. He got such big participation that Kevin Falcon’s deep-pocketed campaign quickly followed suit. Premier Christy Clark is doing one Wednesday evening for her Vancouver byelection run.

Falcon, the reluctant finance minister, is using the same method to ask for options on the harmonized sales tax. In between hockey games over the next week, folks having dinner will be getting calls with a recorded message inviting them to tell him what he should do with the HST.

Falcon admitted to some trepidation before extending such an offer to the general public. What he got at his first one in Surrey was 27,000 people who stayed on the line for an average of 16 minutes, hundreds who queued up to ask questions, and 90 minutes of surprisingly civil discussion with real people.

A revised schedule has been released by the finance ministry, with Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Minister Pat Bell added to the lineup.

I listened in to the first one hosted by Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom, where 5,900 residents of the Peace River region stuck around for an average 21 minutes to hear why he quit the B.C. Liberals over the HST, and then went back. That region and East Kootenay will be the toughest sell for the B.C. government’s mail-in referendum in June.

There were annoyed people. One man called it the “ripoff tax” that applies to groceries. Lekstrom politely noted that basic groceries are exempt from GST and HST. A farmer said it’s on top of the carbon tax, which falls harder on people who put up with cold weather and long driving distances. Another said cross-border shopping to Alberta has become even more popular.

It was refreshing to hear real people describe their situations and concerns. Most had apparently spent little time poring over media accounts of the HST, but unlike the stale and spin-heavy debate that resumed in the B.C. legislature last week, they were direct, polite and willing to listen.

Falcon reported a similar experience after 90 minutes of questions in Surrey. Suggestions included dropping the HST by a point (estimated cost $850 million) and offering more exemptions, on things like gym memberships or bike helmets.

Hundreds of people didn’t get to ask their questions, partly because the politicians took up too much time with introductions and smooth talk like “that’s a great question!” The patient callers were asked to leave messages for follow-up.

I live-blogged the event on Twitter, including a brief debate with former NDP MLA David Schreck about the fairness of these town halls. Schreck said there should be equal time for a critic of the HST, otherwise it’s just government propaganda.

Judging by the NDP’s latest line of questioning, town hall participants aren’t missing much. Their big point in the legislature was that if the HST is rejected, low-income people would still get the GST credit. Yes, and the sun will continue to rise, but poor people will still lose a significant redistribution of income.

You’ll hear a lot about the HST in the next few weeks, with government and business advertising the merits of keeping it, and Bill Vander Zalm’s FightHST organization spending $250,000 of public money to continue its campaign of fear and ignorance.

You could do worse than participating in one of these telephone town halls.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

Follow me on Twitter

Just Posted

Aquaman star spotted around Campbell River as production ramps up on See

Jason Momoa, best known for his role in Game of Thrones, in town to film mini-series

Man injured in Vancouver Island racetrack accident meets, holds son for first time

Kayden was born the day after Jonathan was crushed by car at speedway

Campbell River school enrolment up over projections

End of September count finds 65 more students in the system

Campbell River candidates take on increased density causing traffic congestion on Dogwood Street

How do the candidates feel about growth causing increased traffic on our four-lane arterial road

Campbell River Storm defeats Islanders, loses to Cougars

Local Junior B hockey team holds narrow lead in North Division

Mellow opening to B.C.’s only legal pot shop

About five people lined up early for the opening of the BC Cannabis Store in Kamloops.

Test case challenges a politician’s right to block people from Twitter account

3 people say Watson infringed their constitutional right to freedom of expression by blocking them

‘A little odd’ B.C.’s biggest city celebrates cannabis without a legal store

On the streets of downtown Vancouver, notably the Wild West of illegal marijuana, not a single legal store opened Wednesday, making for a rather anticlimatic kick-off

BC Ferries begins taking debit in two-month pilot project

Company is giving customers option to use Interac on two-month trial on select vessels

Puff, puff, pass: Cannabis is officially legal across Canada

B.C. has only one bricks-and-mortar marijuana store

After 50 years, ‘Sesame Street’ Big Bird puppeteer retiring

The puppeteer who has played Big Bird on “Sesame Street” is retiring after nearly 50 years on the show.

Britain, EU decide to take some time in getting Brexit right

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said “we need much time, much more time and we continue to work in the next weeks.”

Parole denied for convicted killer-rapist Paul Bernardo after 25 years in prison

Paul Bernardo plead for release on Wednesday by arguing he has done what he could to improve himself during his 25 years in prison.

Smooth start to legal cannabis in B.C., Mike Farnworth says

Online and government store makes 4,000 sales by noon

Most Read