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

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