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Fair referendum campaign more about sowing doubt than promoting fairness: expert

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Both sides intensify as BC approaches fall referendum about proportional representation

Expert weighs in as ads are blanketed before official campaigning begins ahead of BC's fall referendum

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The official campaign for BC’s electoral reform referendum officially begins Jul. 1, but one group has already been working hard to convince you the upcoming referendum isn’t fair.

Fair Referendum is fronted by former Canfor CEO Jim Shepard, who was also behind Concerned Citizens for British Columbia, an effort to re-elect then-Premier Christy Clark.

In an email to NEWS 1130, Shepard explains his new campaign started with a discussion he had with a scholarship student, which prompted him to reassess the electoral reform ballot.

“It looked to me that the voters have a choice between a Coke or a box marked PR which contained a Root Beer, Ginger Ale or Orange Crush. If you chose the PR box you still won’t know what you getting,” he argues. “My point is why don’t we just have one question with four choices so that we are sure to vote for what we want?”

The referendum ballot features two questions, one asking voters to indicate if they want to keep the current first-past-the-post system, and another asking those who favour proportional representation to rank three possible options.

Max Cameron with the UBC Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions says this structure ensures that those who support proportional representation don’t have to converge on one specific type of system to get it.

“I think everything is being done to ensure, as much as possible, that this referendum actually allows us to get an accurate read on what it is the public wants,” he says.

He also suspects the Fair Referendum campaign has other motives as they blanket local media with ads.

“I think they’re trying to plant the seed of doubt in the minds of voters that there’s something somehow, unfair, tendentious, biased about the ballot question itself. It’s an attempt to really make people skeptical that somehow, the government is pulling to wool over our eyes.”

Such doubt, he adds, serves to strengthen the “status-quo bias” which already exists in any referendum.

Critics of the Fair Referendum campaign have called it a veiled attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the referendum in favour of the status quo. Shepard insists they are not partial to any one of the outcomes.

“We are partial to a referendum system that is seen to be fair for all concerned,” he says.

The mail-in ballot referendum will take place from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30.