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.

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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A rockfall closes Finlayson Arm Road and West Shore Parkway on Friday (March 5) afternoon. (Twitter/BC Transportation)
Malahat closed due to rockfall

Section of Trans-Canada Highway was scheduled for intermittent closures today for rock scaling work

The Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
Tsartlip First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA revealed COVID-19 outbreak

Chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA Adam Olsen apologizes

E:Ne Raw Food and Sake Bar is closing its doors until further notice after sexual assault allegations against an employee surfaced on social media. (Google Streetview)
Sexual assault allegations temporarily closing a second Victoria restaurant

Social media posts accuse an E:Ne Raw Food and Sake Bar employee of sexual assault

Valerie St. John and Heather Forbes hold up paintings by Sheryl Fisher that were auctioned off at the Bridges for Women Society’s 10th Annual International Women’s Day luncheon. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria event raising funds to support women facing violence, trauma

Bridges for Women Society will host its 11th annual International Women’s Day event online this year

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Free Reformed Church is seen as people attend service, in Chilliwack, B.C., on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021. Lawyers for the British Columbia government and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms are back in B.C. Supreme Court today, squaring off over the legality of COVID-19 rules that prohibit in-person religious services. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. top doctor has power to restrict access to a place during health hazard: lawyer

Under B.C.’s Public Health Act, Jacqueline Hughes says, Henry can restrict or prevent entry to a place

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
B.C. dentists and bus drivers want newly-approved Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine

BC Dental Association says dentists and their teams cannot treat patients remotely

Surrey Pretrial in Newton. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)
B.C. transgender inmate to get human rights hearing after being held in mostly male jail

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Amber Prince on March 3 dismissed the pretrial’s application to have Makayla Sandve’s complaint dismissed

President of the BC Teacher’s Federation (BCTF) Teri Mooring is calling for teachers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by summer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Why it’s ‘urgent’ B.C. teachers get vaccinated from COVID-19 before summer

President Teri Mooring says not enough is being done to prevent virus transmission in schools

FILE - In this Jan. 18, 2014, file photo, endangered orcas from the J pod swim in Puget Sound west of Seattle, as seen from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whales. A new study from federal researchers provides the most detailed look yet at what the Pacific Northwest's endangered orcas eat. Scientists with the NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center spent years collecting fecal samples from the whales as well as scales from the fish they devoured. They say their data reaffirm the central importance of Chinook salmon to the whales. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Study reinforces importance of Chinook to Pacific Northwest orcas

Data confirms how central the big salmon are to the orca’s diet year-round

Most Read