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

O’Reilly trial scheduled to start January 15 for Anahim Lake murders

O’Reilly is charged with first-degree murder

School District 49 to re-open Nusatsum Elementary in September 2018

SD49 says increasing enrollment is driving its decision to re-open the school

Red Cross funding available to local residents of Bella Coola and Hagensborg

The Red Cross is administering up to $900 in initial funding to help assist Bella Coola Valley residents

B.C. boy denied $19,000-per-month drug to ease ‘crippling pain’ for 3rd time

Sooke mom Jillian Lanthier says son Landen Alexa has been forgotten about by Premier John Horgan

Senior randomly stabbed in B.C. mall food court

Woman arrested after victim, 71, suffers serious injuries

B.C. Liberal hopefuls begin final leadership push

Five MLAs, one outsider pitch policies to party members

Vancouver Island marijuana producer bought by Aphria in $230M deal

Aphria’s annual production forecast increases to 230,000 kgs

UPDATED: ‘Young, innocent’ teen hit during Vancouver shootout dies

15-year-old Coquitlam boy was in a car driving by the scene

Ontario man charged with selling Canadian’s usernames and passwords

Ontario man ran site that peddled billions of pieces of personal data: RCMP

Video: B.C. documentary features Okanagan ice climbing

First documentary for Penticton filmmaker captures elusive Okanagan ice climbing

David Emerson quits lumber talks as legal action begins

Former federal minister served as B.C. softwood trade point man

Singer of the Cranberries dead at 46

Her publicist says Dolores O’Riordan died suddenly Monday in London. The cause of death wasn’t immediately available.

Most Read