One would think that the Christy Clark government might be a tad chagrined by Metro Vancouver’s resounding rejection of the proposed transit tax. Think again.
The fact that the vote failed to resolve the core problem it was ostensibly designed to resolve is besides the point that always mattered most to Christy Clark. From the B.C. Liberals’ perspective, regardless of the outcome, the transit tax plebiscite worked like a charm.
Let us count the reasons why.
1. The plebiscite was a popular election ploy that was always hard for her political opponents to assail.
Indeed, I expect that the nearly 62 percent of voters who opposed the mayors’ proposed sales tax increase are elated that they were given that direct right of refusal.
The critics may wail that putting any such tax hike to a non-binding plebiscite was “irresponsible,” a “dumb idea,” or “bone-headed.” Still, most voters who really cared about either the proposed new tax or the mayors’ transportation priorities are likely not cursing Christy Clark for giving them a vote to decide the issue.
2. The plebiscite gave Clark’s re-elected government a mandate to pressure the mayors into abandoning their demands for both more provincial funding and for meaningful reform in TransLink’s governance.
The plebiscite was always quietly aimed at forcing local governments to produce a long overdue regional transportation plan that they alone would fund, own, and bear the political brunt for advancing and implementing.
It helped the cash-strapped B.C. Liberals to defer many years’ worth of provincial budgetary pressure for any additional TransLink funding by simply promising to give taxpayers a say on whatever proposal for new taxes the mayors might propose. It was a politically unassailable “solution” to a funding stalemate that it was actually designed to prolong and perpetuate. And it has done just that.
The Clark government won the mayors’ compliance and “partnership” with the old “carrot and stick” approach. It threatened them with a plebiscite that could cost them their jobs if imposed as originally articulated, in tandem with the municipal elections. Then it cajoled them into embracing and executing its election promise, without a whimper.
First, it gave them a little more time to develop their “winning” vision and funding plan. The mayors felt they scored a minor victory by not having to fight for their proposed tax hike in last year’s municipal elections. Mostly it made the B.C. Liberals look more reasonable.
Then the province granted the mayors access to a potential new funding source—the provincial sales tax.
The mayors wrongly assumed that tapping into that revenue stream would diffuse their political pain and would oblige the Clark government to help lead and defend that tax hike in the plebiscite. They hoped to preserve their cherished property tax room for themselves and to leave the Clark government holding the bag for imposing a regional hike on the provincial sales tax.
Lastly, the province threw the mayors a bone. Its minor changes to TransLink changed nothing and utterly ignored the key findings from the mayors’ own 2013 TransLink Governance Review.
3. The Clark government never really had a vested interest in the vote, except to ensure that it was long gone before the next provincial election.
If it did, it obviously would have granted much more time for the mayors’ plan to be properly positioned, explained, and presented—not least, by its best potential sales person, Christy Clark.
Make no mistake. The B.C. Liberals’ end game has always been to force local governments to raise property taxes as their primary source for new TransLink funding. The bottom line for premiers Campbell and Clark is the same: the affected communities should be obliged to use their so-called “special” property tax room.
When the NDP government established TransLink, it relieved Metro’s municipal governments of their obligation to contribute their share of funding for hospital districts through property taxes. Only Metro taxpayers get that property tax break.
The deal was, those municipalities were supposed to use that vacated property tax room to finance TransLink’s needs. The premier reiterated during the campaign that the local governments would be forced to accept that default position if the No side prevails.
The mayors have always balked at that suggestion, preferring to preserve any and all property tax “room” for their own governments’ funding priorities. And they have certainly not been shy about raising property taxes, which have typically risen well beyond the rate of inflation, income growth, and economic growth.
Instead of sticking to their guns and insisting upon a share of the provincial carbon tax or a regional carbon tax as a more appropriate funding source for TransLink, the mayors got coerced into targeting a regional sales tax as its saving grace. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Instead of ramping up their pressure to reclaim TransLink under a new governance model that would restore real accountability to elected decision-makers, the mayors got railroaded into endorsing the government’s minor legislative changes.
TransLink’s appointed board may be more reviled than ever, but it is still answerable to no one, least of all to the mayors and councilors. The only difference is, many voters now think that the mayors are responsible for running that broken enterprise, which the province so radically altered, assaulted, and still tacitly holds under its controlling thumb.
In their ongoing desire to play on the dangerous political turf they don’t control, the mayors have compounded the tangled mess that the province created in TransLink. The plebiscite has allowed the Clark government to lay that mess squarely on the mayors’ doorstep, a problem that TransLink and the mayors continue to amplify.
It was the mayors, not the B.C. Liberals, who took the most flak for TransLink’s decision to turf its CEO and then keep him on the payroll for another year-and-a-half. It was the mayors, not even TransLink, who mostly wore that provincially appointed board’s decision to hire a new CEO at $35,000 a month during the search for his successor.
That would not have happened without the plebiscite. The public confidence it was intended to inspire in TransLink had the opposite effect. And it mostly backfired on the mayors, not on the B.C. Liberals.
It was the mayors who took the heat for wasting over $6 million of their taxpayers’ money on a failed effort to convince taxpayers to vote Yes—a move that did nothing to enhance voters’ confidence in either TransLink or their local elected representatives.
It was the mayors, not the province, who came up with the plan that offered so little to motorists in the 20 of 23 municipalities that voted No.
4. The campaign served to vilify TransLink as an unaccountable, profligate, and badly managed abomination of local government, for which the provincial government bears little or no responsibility.
Remarkable. The provincial government’s most notorious mistake became the mayors’ destitute and damaged problem child. And what a tortured life it has led.
Glen Clark’s government gave birth to TransLink, only to give it away, but not before it had its way with it and made it swallow the Millennium Line. After the NDP’s baby would not behave as commanded in gratefully embracing the Canada Line, the Campbell government grabbed it back. The mayors’ incessant whining, parochialism, and petty bickering had become unbearable.
Kevin Falcon and his successors tried to whip TransLink “into shape” and failed miserably. They spent years beating their heads against the wall, trying to control the defiant rascal that could not be tamed with calculated liberty, expensive “professional” babysitters, self-administered lollypops, and backroom arm-twisting.
With the plebiscite, the B.C. Liberals all but disavowed and abandoned TransLink. Except to the extent that they still can’t quite keep their hands off it. The mayors, meanwhile, have become its de facto foster parents, ever willing to answer for its actions, to own its mistakes, and to help it gain a new lease on life.
Because when all is said and done, they are the ones who have to live with its decisions and with all it does. It is their communities that have the most at stake in TransLink’s failures, fortunes, and potential. And they blew it.
5. The plebiscite succeeded in co-opting most of the Clark government’s critics in support of a hopelessly flawed entity and a self-authored funding “solution” that was wrong from the get-go.
The plebiscite made the government's critics advocates for a proposed regional sales tax that let senior governments off the hook for accepting its appropriate share of transportation funding.
Remarkably, it pitted taxpayers against the B.C. Liberals’ traditional opponents, in lockstep with most of the right-wing groups they fought against in the HST debacle. It aligned the NDP, the Greens, organized labour, many social activists, and Vision Vancouver together with its ideological opposites in selling a sales tax hike that was clearly regressive; one that in other circumstances, those same entities would have labeled “socially irresponsible” for its disproportionate impact on low-income families.
The plebiscite left the mayors and opposition parties owning and promoting TransLink’s woes as their problem, as if the province had nothing to do with it. Friend and former foe alike all sang from the same songbook, in praise of a regional sales tax that was somehow divorced from the government that steered its delivery.
6. A Yes vote would have led other communities to also demand access to a higher sales tax to fund their transportation priorities. The No vote erased that threat.
The last thing the Clark government really wanted to do was to unleash a torrent of local government demands for a similar increased sales tax, with or without local plebiscites. The No vote has preserved the sales tax for the province’s exclusive domain and has avoided all of the regional pressures that would flow from a Yes vote that would have severely impacted many businesses.
7. The No vote will intensify pressure on local governments to cut and minimize spending before raising any taxes, which also drives the B.C. Liberals’ core political narrative.
Whether the outcome was Yes or No, the residual anger felt by Metro taxpayers, who already feel overtaxed, would only escalate. The No vote will compound that challenge.
Local governments had hoped that the new transit sales tax would help them minimize their own budget cuts by preserving their “room” for future property tax hikes. The provincial pressure on them to raise property taxes for transit will now rise.
Yet there will also be much more political pressure on municipalities to hold the line on spending, to reduce and minimize public sector wage costs, and to cut taxes.
The angrier taxpayers are about paying higher taxes and TransLink’s wasteful spending, the more it plays to the B.C. Liberals’ perceived managerial strengths versus the so-called “tax and spend” NDP. Christy Clark could not be happier that voters said “No” to higher taxes, as they have also put new focus on municipal spending and TransLink’s spending.
The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation now also has new “credibility” to drive the Liberals’ anti-tax, anti-government themes as a more legitimate “voice of the people,” notwithstanding its tiny and secretive membership.
8. The No vote will send everyone back to the drawing board. That could easily extend beyond the next provincial election, leaving the mayors on the frontlines to answer for TransLink’s mounting service and congestion challenges in the interim.
For now, the public will be sick of the whole debate and quite content to have it fade away. The media will not have much appetite for it either, if all it amounts to is a return to the fruitless TransLink funding stalemate that is centered on unwelcome property tax increases.
9. In the short run, the No vote alleviates the province’s capital pressures.
The province has limited budget room for its capital spending plans. The No vote alleviates the immediate pressure to commit to cost sharing on several capital projects for the provincial and federal governments alike. Surrey will likely gets its requested funding, but Vancouver will surely not see any provincial or federal commitments anytime soon. The conservative-leaning suburbs will likely win the most in the short run. Sorry, those of you stuck on Broadway.
10. Regardless of the outcome, the entire campaign has been a welcome distraction for the governing party.
It has been hard for the NDP to focus much public attention on the Clark government’s many other vulnerabilities as long as the plebiscite ruled the airwaves and headlines. The vote did not even conclude until after the House rose. For the B.C. Liberals, the debate about the plebiscite served to take public attention away from other potential political targets last spring.
Surely that did not escape the government’s attention when it shifted the plebiscite’s timeline to coincide with the spring legislative session. Moving the vote from last fall to this past spring simply extended the distracting political benefit it was always intended to provide Team Clark.
As planned, the plebiscite dominated the news in Vancouver. It drew attention away from other political targets, like the health ministry firings, the ALR changes, the government’s massive losses from Crown land fire sales and bungled software investments, and abuses of freedom of information laws.
Try as the NDP will to hammer the government on the “failed” No vote in the upcoming summer legislative session, most voters will not be paying attention. If they do, so much the better, as far as the government is concerned. It would only distract attention away from the government’s long-term tax giveaway to Petronas, which might be a very dangerous and costly precedent.
More importantly, the NDP was coerced into supporting the plebiscite. Some of its MLAs campaigned for the Yes side. The government MLAs mostly sat on the sidelines. It will be easy enough for the government to deflect the issue this summer and likely at least until the next provincial election.
In summary, by giving up nothing, the B.C. Liberals won most of what they hoped to achieve by the plebiscite, irrespective of the actual vote. Mostly, they succeeded in co-opting and positioning their most vocal critics as apologists for TransLink and advocates for higher taxes.
The whole exercise was a grand railroad job that was further aggravated by the mayors during the campaign and by the actual voting process. The mayors also tried to railroad voters into voting Yes, aided and abetted by a stacked process that was anything but fair, balanced, or democratic.
Their transportation plan was reduced to a single question that was coercively foisted on voters as its own answer. The plebiscite was also abused by the province and by the Mayors’ Council to deliberately prevent proper deliberation, transparency, and equal opportunity for proponents and opponents alike to make their case.
The whole process was tilted to advance a one-sided argument for a dubious proposition that was always suspect, if not specious. In form and content, the plebiscite was constructed to negate a negative verdict. To say No was to reject the plan itself, rather than to reject the flawed means that was proposed to pay for it or the unreferenced entity that would stand to deliver it.
The mayors tried to pretend that plebiscite was not also a vote of confidence in TransLink, a company so tarnished by its reputation that it was left off the ballot. That backfired badly, like almost every other “strategic” decision made by the Yes side’s backroom political “masterminds.”
The information pamphlet distributed by Elections B.C. to all residential addresses in Metro Vancouver included an overview of the Mayors’ Council Transportation and Transit Plan—a sales pitch that was written and provided by the Mayors’ Council.
As information packages go, it was not at all neutral or unbiased. Like the ballot itself, it highlighted only the ostensible benefits of voting Yes, with a nice coloured map that featured all of the major “region-wide improvements” that the mayors’ plan purported to offer. It also described the proposed funding mechanism, but did not even mention the $7.5 billion price tag that was nevertheless, not lost on most voters.
The pamphlet directed voters to the Mayors’ Council website, email address, and phone number to find more information on the mayors’ plan. That was akin to sending out an “information package” in a general election that only offers one party the chance to include its platform propaganda and candidate contact info. Voters should have been outraged.
It got worse.
The actual ballot also included a preamble that listed several specific project benefits and that referred voters to the mayorscouncil.ca for more information. The No campaign was left off the ballot and not given one penny of taxpayers’ money to make its case.
That blatant one-sided “public information” effort only added new fuel for public criticism and anger at a Yes campaign that apparently learned nothing from the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. That vote was no less a rejection of the Establishment elites who similarly did everything in their power to drown out the voices in opposition. And that dynamic created its own new ground for public criticism and contempt.
The Yes side added injury to its insults by resorting to implied threats. It tried to create a so-called “ballot question” that was intended to leave voters no real choice. The only “choice” offered was between approving its proposed regional sales tax, or instead consigning all who live, work, and visit Metro to a legacy of gridlock and mayhem that the Yes side estimated might cost our economy $1 billion a year.
Not many believed the proponents’ economic arguments. It smacked of the same dubious “evidentiary” economic tactics used to promote the Olympics. They were equally unconvincing—and as it turns out, woefully inaccurate.
Let us not forget that the Intervistas consulting group study, commissioned by TransLink, estimated a Yes vote would add $450 million per year to our economy for 10 years, ramping up to $1.6 per year over the next three decades. That analysis suggested that the direct and indirect benefits of the mayors’ transportation improvement plan would generate 7,000 new jobs in Metro by 2030 and over 12,000 new jobs by 2045.
Yes, that is the same economic brain trust that predicted the 2010 Olympics would yield a total incremental economic impact of up to $10.7 billion, including an additional 244,000 person years of employment and $2.7 billion in tax revenues. Pure pie-in-the-sky.
Price Waterhouse Coopers subsequently determined that the actual economic benefits were a fraction of those fantasy figures. The imagined tourism benefits were even more wildly off the mark.
Economic modeling is always a mug’s game, to put it charitably. It is usually embraced and financed by project proponents who hope to persuade the great unwashed that there is some hard proof behind their glossy claims.
That is equally the case when applied in reverse.
Way back in 1996, Transport Canada estimated that congestion was costing Metro Vancouver $1.2 billion per year, including $700 million for the movement of people and $500 million for the movement of goods. Obviously, that study was not enough to convince either the NDP governments of the day or the subsequent B.C. Liberal governments to eradicate those “losses” and properly invest in Metro’s transportation and transit needs.
We should not be surprised that HDR’s recent study for the Mayor’s Council concluded that its transportation plan would save Metro some $365 million in annual congestion costs—by 2045. Oh, yes, and the mayors’ plan would have supposedly saved about $718 million in annual “business inefficiency costs” and avoided a reduction of 1,982 lost jobs also by that year.
Call me skeptical. I have read far more of these sorts of statistical sales jobs over my long career in politics and government. They are rarely worth the paper they are printed on, let alone the considerable cost that organizations like TransLink and the Mayor’s Council spend on generating them for their own public relations purposes.
Such economic “evidence” is all part of the railroad job that organizations commission and use to earn internal support and public approval. It did not work, because most voters saw those studies for what they really were: desperate measures that were too “rational” for their intended purpose and also proof positive that the mayors were out to lunch.
The Mayors’ Council produced a good plan for regional transit and transportation investments, given the short time it had to cobble it together following the 2013 election. The shopping list was a shopper’s delight; the means to pay for it and the organization that would deliver it, not so much.
A regional sales tax was never the best way to pay for the mayors’ laudable investment plan, least of all by TransLink, under its present unaccountable governance structure. Now the mayors have to accept their role in the debacle that has left their transportation plan in limbo.
They could have altogether avoided a plebiscite if they had funded their plan as the province wished. They could have increased property taxes for TransLink and also cut spending on other municipal priorities, so as to avoid any perceived double tax “whammy.”
But that would have forced each council to defend unwelcome service cuts that no one wanted to impose, especially just before the municipal elections. And it would have obliged each mayor to defend a small property tax hike to fund transit enhancements that offered little concrete improvements for the motorists who constitute a majority of their constituents.
The mayors surmised that it would be politically easier them to endure the plebiscite as a collective enterprise. Much as they criticized the vote, they saw it as a less risky political proposition that provided them safety in numbers.
It seemed to offer them all a potential new source of transportation funding that could be approved or rejected by “their” constituents and laid on the doorstep of Christy Clark, come what may. Truth be known, the plebiscite also politically “worked” for them, in the short term.
It helped all of the incumbents get through their local elections without taking individual responsibility for their communities’ transportation woes, or for imposing unwanted property tax hikes and tough service cuts. It allowed them to point to the vote that they did not impose as a potential light at the end of the tunnel for transit users and as a means for angry taxpayers to say “No” to the proposed new tax hike.
For the mayors, they may now be forced to go back to the drawing board to meet their regional transportation funding and planning obligations; but they survived another more important vote—the municipal elections—and have lived to fight another day.
None of which troubles Christy Clark. Her railroad job was aimed at the mayors and at the opposition parties and critics who all grudgingly tied themselves to her political tracks and who the majority of voters predictably ran over with their No vote.
The people had their say and she, as ever, is smiling. Her government’s critics have helped her make the broken bed that they and so many voters have now assured that all of Metro Vancouver will now be forced to lie in for many years to come. Sad, but true.