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

The Comox Valley Sports Centre re-opened in the summer. Photo supplied
Comox Valley Sports Centre Commission chair commends staff efforts in challenging year

Comox Valley Sports Centre Commission chair Daniel Arbour delivered a year-end report… Continue reading

The Lamplighters wants to end its lease with the village. Photo by Mike Chouinard
Briefs: Cumberland agrees to end hall lease with Lamplighters

Council aims to add more daytime meetings in 2021 for seniors

A rendering of the proposed window covering and sign for the business planned for downtown Cumberland. Image, Village of Cumberland report
Cumberland approves location change for cannabis permit

Site next door to the one planned seen as more financially feasible

The DPAC is holding an online forum on Nov. 30 for candidates for the upcoming school district byelection. Screenshot DPAC poster
Online forum for Comox Valley school board byelection is Nov. 30

Six candidates have filed papers to fill the trustee position in Area C

The Food Share program volunteers pack supplies for food-insecure families. Screenshot, CCSS website
Cumberland council OK’s money for food program

Community school group asks to use unused money to help families

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Long-awaited federal rent subsidy program for businesses hurt by COVID-19 opens today

The new program will cover up to 65 per cent of rent or commercial mortgage interest

An Oceana Canada audit of Canadian fish stocks reveals a growing number with critical populations, calling on Fisheries and Oceans Canada to enact existing commitments. (File photo)
B.C.’s declining fisheries the result of poor DFO management: audit

Oceana Canada calls for follow through on government commitments

Randy Bell. (File photo)
Former northern B.C. mayoral candidate arrested after allegedly refusing to wear mask

Randy Bell handcuffed and given a warning at Bulkley Valley Credit Union in Smithers

Most Read