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.