By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: Aug 9, 2014
Is Coun. Patricia Heintzman a populist politician who wants to appease potential voters? Or is she sincerely trying to gauge public opinion on a deeply contentious issue?
The answer depends on what you believe about Woodfibre LNG, a project that has polarized the community, and may well become the swing issue in the November municipal election.
For Heintzman, ‘populism’ isn’t the pejorative term it has become these days. Populism for her is looking out for the citizens’ interests.
“It’s easy to make these accusations, but my motivation or analyses of LNG has nothing to do with me getting elected or not,” she told the Reporter.
Squamish council will vote on whether there should be a referendum on Aug. 19, but it won’t be the first time the community will have a question on the ballot.
Referendum has been called before in Squamish, on swimming pool and Walmart and borrowing for recreational infrastructure. It can be held on any issue if the council desires, although the financial ones are binding.
“It’s the most divisise issue that I have seen in the council and that is why I brought it up as a possible referendum question.” Coun. Heintzman
Woodfibre LNG is a fundamental issue which will decide where the community wants to go in the next two decades, says Heintzman.
“What I am hearing from the community is that they are feeling alienated from decision making,” she says.
A referendum will make the public discourse a lot more open and a lot more grounded in truth and reality, she adds.
There can be more than one question on the ballot she says and it doesn’t have to be as simplistic as “Do you want the LNG plant or not”?
Heintzman hasn’t given much thought to what the question could be, she said, but it doesn’t have to be simplistic. It can be a pointed question, such as.
“If the LNG facility doesn’t comply with international sighting standards, should the provincial government continue.”
Another question could be: “If the air quality is diminished, is an LNG project worthwhile.”
Heintzman is also sceptical of the information provided by the proponent.
“The information provided is vague and ambiguous and there is no certainty,” she says.
Since Squamish deindustrialised, it has had an increase in growth rate, she noted. She agrees that the taxes will help Squamish, but warns that Woodfibre LNG may create a negative reaction with people leaving town.
“With a heavy or polluting industry, there is often an action-reaction, so you might employ 20 people, but you may have 200 people leave town.”
It’s the most divisise issue that I have seen in the council. And that is why I brought it up as a possible referendum question.
‘Simply Playing Politics’
Heintzman may have her reasoning for referendum, but it’s not acceptable to all her fellow councillors.
The referendum is a red herring for politicians, said Coun. Ron Sander.
“When you are playing to a roomful of people, it’s easy to ask for things that may not be beneficial to the entire community.” Susan Chapelle
Sander said the public elects councilors to make decisions on their behalf and Squamish has little to approve on the LNG project.
For Sander, the call for referendum is ‘simply playing politics’ during an election year.
His views were also echoed by Coun. Susan Chapelle, who said referendum is too simplistic for an as issue as complicated as energy policy.
“I think referendum is a political tool to gain public opinion, when you are playing to a roomful of people, it’s easy to ask for things that may not be beneficial to the entire community.”
Chapelle said she agrees with Heintzman that there needs to be a vigorous public discourse on LNG, but isn’t sure what a referendum will achieve.
She is also concerned a referendum will make it a one-issue election and deflect attention from other important issues: water, roads, infrastructure, and economic development.
Woodfibre taxes will help the district manage tax rates for working families, and the project will provide local jobs.
We can’t focus on economic development and then reject industry that wants to invest in our town, she added.