Devon Rowcliffe: Uncertain consequence of voting “no” muddles transit referendum

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      Can a referendum truly be deemed “fair” if voters are thoroughly confused as to the consequences of one of its two options?

      Two weeks from now, Metro Vancouver voters will begin receiving their transit referendum ballots in the mail. They will be asked whether they approve a regional sales tax of 0.5 percent, which will be used to generate $7.5 billion to fund transit and transportation improvements across the region.

      It seems straightforward enough—until you consider that retaining the status quo is nowhere to be found on the ballot.

      The result of a Yes vote is obvious. But what of a potential No victory? This is where things become confusing—which could bestow a massive advantage upon the No side.

      There is a troubling lack of clarity as to the consequence of a No result in the referendum. Possibilities are numerous, ranging from the rejection of new transit and a massive expansion of highways and automobile use (against the wishes of the municipalities), through to merely collecting the $7.5 billion for new transit through a different type of regional tax, as well as everything imaginable in between.

      Whether due to intentional obfuscation or a lack of leadership, the B.C. Liberal government has not stated how they would respond to a No victory—despite that they were the ones who orchestrated this referendum.

      Because it is unclear what the provincial government’s response would be to a No result, voters are wildly speculating as to what would happen. People who hold even the smallest of qualms about the proposal for improving transit are wondering if their preferred vision of a transportation utopia could instead be realized if they were to vote No. More and more of these voters seem to be assuming that their personal preference just so happens to be the government’s Plan B.

      This is, of course, absurd. People with completely different goals seem to be flirting with voting No—but how could they all possibly get what they want when they are diametrically opposed? For example, anti-taxers assume that voting No will mean that the $7.5 billion for new transit will not be collected. Meanwhile, some social justice advocates speculate that the $7.5 billion would still be collected, instead through a tax that they feel is more socially fair.

      Undoubtedly, a victory for an ambiguous and over-crowded No camp would mean that one of its sub‑groups would ended up winning, while the others would eventually be dealt a result much worse than if they had voted Yes. Is there any point to being strange referendum bedfellows if most of the temporary allies will inadvertently end up getting—ahem—screwed?

      And then there’s the testy matter of TransLink. For voters to assume that a Yes result would see TransLink remain untouched while a No vote would launch a thorough restructuring of the transit authority—despite no such pledge from the provincial government—is naïve. If such dubious speculation is indeed incorrect, the B.C. Liberals have the responsibility to stamp it out before it taints the result of the referendum.

      Would people still vote against the proposal for new transit if they knew that the B.C. Liberals have no plans to reorganize TransLink, regardless of the referendum result? Or, conversely, what if the B.C. Liberals were to pledge to fix TransLink despite the vote’s outcome? Perhaps then we could focus upon the actual subject of the referendum: whether to collect a tax to improve our transportation system.

      All of the speculation, rumour-mongering and disingenuous spin as to the consequences of a No vote are completely unnecessary, and are entirely the fault of an information vacuum allowed to fester by the silent B.C. Liberals. The uncertainty could be swiftly obliterated with a single announcement and simple messaging campaign.

      Within the next two weeks—before referendum ballots arrive in the mail—the B.C. Liberals must clarify how they and the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation would respond to a No victory. This must include whether the $7.5 billion for new transit would not be collected, if it instead would come from another regional source (such as increased property taxes), or if it would be paid out of general provincial spending (as was the case with the Port Mann Bridge replacement).

      Additionally, the provincial government must explain what it intends to do (or not do) to solve TransLink’s structural woes in the event of a Yes or No result—because if this isn’t an issue that will be influenced by the referendum result, it becomes an irrelevancy that no longer need dominate the debate.

      Realistically, the provincial government is unlikely to put an end to the rampant speculation. For them to clarify the outcome of a No vote would require political leadership. Thus far, the B.C. Liberals have mostly been spectators of this dubious affair, despite being responsible for creating this referendum. And while the B.C. Liberals may officially support the Yes side, their meek endorsement has been nearly invisible.

      If the provincial government fails to provide us with this much-needed clarity, how should voters assume that the B.C. Liberals will react to a No result?

      In early February, Premier Christy Clark made an off-the-cuff response to a news conference question that a No vote could force Metro Vancouver’s municipalities to procure funding for new transit through an alternate method, such as by increasing property taxes.

      While this may have merely been a speculative remark, it does suggest that the province wouldn’t veto the plan to collect additional regional revenue for improved transit in the event of a No victory—it would simply mean that a different type of regional/municipal taxation would be collected instead. This alone should be enough to convince many people to vote Yes—particularly those within the “anti‑tax” camp who would prefer a sales tax to increased property tax. (Perhaps ironic, then, that it’s an anti-tax group that is orchestrating the No campaign.)

      The provincial government has two weeks left to give Metro Vancouver voters the clarity they require to make an informed decision on the transit referendum. If the government fails to do so, their referendum may become a failed attempt at direct democracy that collapses under the weight of bogus rumours and innuendo—and with it, so too our regional transportation system.

      Devon Rowcliffe is a Vancouver-based political commentator who writes about Vancouver, British Columbian, Canadian, and East Asian politics. He can be reached online at devonrowcliffe@gmail.com or @DevonRowcliffe.

      Comments

      19 Comments

      James Blatchford

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:10pm

      Let's face it, this is as classic a provincial government bungle as ever hatched in this province. Where is the provincial leadership? Duck and weave is all we get from Christy Clark. This plebiscite is solely her baby and hiding out in Victoria does nothing to absolve her from this whole sorry mess. Does anyone still wonder why Christy had practically no caucus support for leader?

      Still voting NO, thanks..

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:20pm

      If they're so worried about the future and so called "environment" why wasn't this done years ago? And I don't trust Translink if my life depended on it. If we vote yes, I'm sure they'll be another stupid reason in a few years as we need to raise taxes yet again. "No" Thanks.. see what I did there? ;)

      No

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:30pm

      Im not voting to give money to translink because they havent proven they are able to be fiscally responsible. Bottom line.

      REQUIEM

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:30pm

      Voters know exactly what they voting for when they vote NO. There is no Plan B. There will be no increase in property tax. Accountability to voters and removal of any form of government that doesn't tax by representation.
      We are the citizens of Metro Vancouver and we decide whether any Municipality retains power because they represent us. Try raising property tax and you will be defeated in the next election.

      ursa minor

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:35pm

      It's not a 'bungle' - the plebiscite was designed to fail in order to appease the trucking companies and auto dealers who support the BC Liberals, as well as their base of supporters in Metro Vancouver exburbs and rural areas of BC. It's also retaliation for the Liberals weak showing in the City of Vancouver, particularly Vancouver Point-Grey where Christy Clark lost to David Eby, and whose constituents would reap most of the benefit from mass transit to UBC.

      The plebiscite allows Clark to appear fair-minded while at the same time 'holding the line' on taxes by forcing this Sophie's Choice on the region. Everything about this government since they first came to power in 2001 is about spin, photo-ops, rewarding its friends and making enemies out of the most vulnerable.

      J.M.T.

      Mar 6, 2015 at 3:54pm

      "Uncertain consequence of voting "No"... Scary headline. Let's scare people into voting "Yes".

      J.M.T.

      Mar 6, 2015 at 4:10pm

      Jim Pattison getting involved before the vote takes place? Sounds like the vote has already been decided.

      Just sayin'

      Mar 6, 2015 at 4:13pm

      First off, enough of this failure of leadership by the Premier BS. There’s referendum on Transit because most of the self righteous, hypocritical “yes’ people blew a hissy fit over the HST and demanded a tax referendum. She is only doing what the ‘yes’ people demanded. You can’t just wash your hands of that predicable legacy.

      Two, there is only one taxpayer. The Mayor’s plan relies solely the taxpayer and doesn’t involve any innovative funding solutions. Since the tax only covers 25% of the needed capital they will have to raise other taxes (road pricing, property taxes etc) to get this done. Their plan is the worst case scenario.

      Richard Johns

      Mar 6, 2015 at 4:37pm

      This article is spot on. The consequences of a 'no' vote are very unclear, and I have seen a variety of incompatible views about it. This renders the plebiscite fairly meaningless, and so the Province has an obligation to present a clear choice.

      I'm afraid however that ursa minor may be right about the ambiguity being deliberate. The Liberals seem to regard Vancouver and other urban areas as occupied territories.

      Steve y

      Mar 7, 2015 at 10:16am

      this just convinced me to vote no... If they are just going to raise taxes some other way a regional sales tax is probably the single worst tax they could think of.