Transit Vote: What's the difference between a plebiscite and referendum?

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Image: SkyTrain Canada Line via Shutterstock

As heated debates over Metro Vancouver’s transit future in local media reports and social media continue, the terms ‘plebiscite’ and ‘referendum’ have consistently been used interchangeably.

This spring’s vote is officially dubbed the “2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite,” and there is a real legal difference in the meaning of the two terms and how governments are required to respond to the corresponding vote results.

According to B.C.’s provincial laws, a referendum is a legally binding public vote on a matter of public interest. This means the government that initiated the referendum must take necessary action that changes or implements new legislation and programs in response to the result of a vote.

In contrast, a plebiscite gauges public opinion on a matter of public interest but the results of the referendum are not binding on the government to act upon.

SkyTrain Public Transit Canada Line / Shutterstock

SEE ALSO: How to vote in the Metro Vancouver Transit Plebiscite, beginning March 16

This means Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government could theoretically move forward with introducing a 0.5 per cent transit sales tax (PST hike) on the Metro Vancouver region even if the public votes ‘No’ in the plebiscite. But it would be a severely politically damaging move – an unlikely avenue for a government that has been exceptionally cautious and calculating.

“The use of a plebiscite will give the government maximum opportunity to blur the outcome and craft a political solution that will avoid a backlash from the voters,” Anthony Perl, Professor of Urban Studies and Political Science at Simon Fraser University, told Vancity Buzz.

“If the ‘No’ side wins, other taxes and fees could be introduced to raise the needed funds and the government could say that it has listened to the people who did not want a PST increase. Conversely, a close ‘Yes’ vote (say 52% to 48%) could mean that the government would not be forced to introduce the PST hike right away.  There could be public hearings, further consultations, or a delay until after the next election.”

The confusion on terminology largely stems from Clark’s 2013 election campaign promise of running a referendum on any new transit expansion in the region. This is compounded by the Mayors’ Council’s ballot question request last year for the provincial government to hold a referendum.

However, in December 2014, Transportation Minister Todd Stone changed the vote into a plebiscite framework when he announced the final approved ballot question.


Recent referendums and plebiscites

There have been a number of referendums in B.C. in recent history, including the two unsuccessful referendums on the single transferable vote (STV) in 2005 and 2009 and the referendum that rejected the B.C. Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in 2011.

Elsewhere in Canada, both of Quebec’s sovereignty votes in 1980 and 1995 as well as the national vote on the Charlottetown Accord’s proposed constitutional changes in 1992 were also referendums that failed to achieve a ‘Yes’ consensus.

One of the most significant and divisive plebiscites in local history is the City of Vancouver’s 2003 plebiscite on hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. As then-Premier Gordon Campbell refused to host a province-wide referendum on the Olympic bid, newly elected Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell moved forward with his election promise on hosting a non-binding city-wide plebiscite on the Games.

The Olympic plebiscite was one of Vancouver’s highest electoral turnouts and received a ‘Yes’ result of 64 per cent. Although it was a non-binding vote, for the bid to proceed this level of approval from the public was necessary.

Image: TransLink

SEE ALSO: The $14 billion transit plan the B.C. Liberals conveniently forgot

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Kenneth Chan Deputy Editor & Social Media Manager at Vancity Buzz. He covers stories pertaining to local architecture, urban issues, politics, business, retail, economic development, transportation, infrastructure, and anything else that makes a difference in the lives of Vancouverites. Kenneth is also a Co-Founder of New Year's Eve Vancouver. Connect with him at kenneth[at]vancitybuzz.com
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