Medieval Renaissance
Transit plebiscite: Heads we lose; tails we lose
(March 25, 2015)

In 1790, “lobby” became a metonym for influence peddling. The change came about because people gathered in the large halls outside legislative chambers in London to “lobby” politicians to support this or that cause. I get a sense of this when I traverse the “lobby” of SkyTrain stations at certain times of the day.

The first group of “lobbyists” is the pleasant but mechanical newshawkers for 24Hrs and Metro. Most commuters walk right around them without making eye contact, but some grab a copy without breaking stride, as if taking part in some kind of relay race. Further in, we find Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have somehow come to be a regular fixture. Two of them stand next to a rack displaying copies of the usual dogma holding one or two copies in each hand. This passive kind of lobbying works on the same principle as the Venus flytrap. The JWs smile at passersby hoping for some unsuspecting person to venture within proselytizing range, but the vast majority keep a safe distance.

To these two types of lobbyists, we can now add “The Yes Brigade”. On the front lines are groups of two or three young people who hover around SkyTrain escalators or street entrances to lobby commuters to vote “yes” in the upcoming transit-funding plebiscite. Even after commuters get past them their eyes are assaulted by multiple poster-sized propaganda posters on the train level, not to mention billboards and other forms of intrusive lobbying throughout the region.

Unlike the newshawkers or JWs, both of whom promote a familiar message, The Yes Brigade pushes covert propaganda, and this makes it pernicious as opposed to merely irritating.

Hobson’s Choice

To begin with, the plebiscite is conceptually unsound. It is a non-binding device to gauge public opinion on transit funding, but TransLink does not need or want the public’s opinion; it only wants its acquiescence to a pre-determined plan of action. If the Mayors’ council really respected the public’s opinion, the question would be put in the form of a binding referendum, but since a plebiscite is non-binding the whole exercise is a farce.

The question as written by the Mayors’ Council reads as follows:

“Do you support a one half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting?”

This seemingly rational question on how to help fund a 10-year, $7.7 billion project presents the public with a false dilemma because the council claims that there is no Plan B if the plebiscite fails. The Mayors’ Council has essentially put a gun to the public’s head and said, “Support this tax increase or the Lower Mainland will never get a decent transit system!” This is Hobson’s Choice, which is no choice at all. Some might call it extortion.

Some might even call it ridiculous because the idea that a major project like this depends on a plebiscite is laughable. There was no plebiscite to see if the public wanted Faregates, a new bridge over the Fraser River or the 2010 Winter Olympics. The money was found or borrowed.

When construction of the athletes’ Olympic Village ran into serious financial problems. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson appealed to the provincial government for help, and on Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009, at a special sitting, the legislature passed Bill 47, which gave the city a blank cheque to finish construction. Today, Robertson is one of the “Yes" side’s biggest lobbyists who’s holding the proverbial gun to our head. Good thing he forgot to load it.

The B.C. government has announced a budget surplus of $879 million for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and has forecast surpluses for the next few years, so it can easily come up with $250 million or so and not have to shake down he public.

A taxing problem

The idea that TransLink has a right to tax revenue of any kind or amount is problematic in the extreme. As I showed in Part I of my series on its governing structure, TransLink is an unaccountable, undemocratic self-governing fiefdom that has no constitutional right to exist. It is not accountable to the legislature or the auditor general even though the provincial government is TransLink’s only shareholder.

In Part II, I showed that the government misrepresented the financial and safety conditions that were used to justify a Faregate system that originally cost more than $170 million. There was no plebiscite or referendum on this issue. The public’s input was not wanted, likely because the justification for it ran counter to public opinion. Why should commuters pay even 0.5% more in sales tax after Translink has picked their pockets for hundreds of millions of dollars?

The sham of public input was highlighted in Part III, when it was revealed that that the Faregates will not be able to read paper bus transfers, which means that commuters who pay cash on buses will have to pay twice if they want to take SkyTrain. Fixing this problem would have cost TransLink $25 million it didn’t want to spend.

It put the question to a focus group of riders who said they did not want to see another $25 million spent to fix the problem and would rather change their riding habits. Even assuming this finding to be true, the idea of putting the question to the public was cynical and self-serving. Why put a measly $25 million up for a vote but not ask the public to vote on the whole $171 million project? What of doing a job right in the first place?

Does no mean “no” to transit?

Even though the Yes side is waving a bunch of enticing carrots in the public’s face—increased bus frequency, more articulated express (B-line) buses, light rail and less pollution—the plebiscite could fail for reasons unrelated to such putative benefits. To a large extent this is a plebiscite not on transit but on TransLink. Even if most voters support the question, they might fear that a "yes" vote might be misinterpreted as a vote of confidence in TransLink. If people vote no for this reason, then the millions of dollars wasted in intrusive lobbying will just be added to the ledger of TransLink’s profligacy.

The lobbying efforts for the “yes” side don’t mention that the public will be also be paying non-transit expenses. More than 1/4 of TransLink’s annual expenditures go towards administration and debt servicing. Much of this could be eliminated if this fiefdom were extinguished and transit were brought back under governmental control and treated like a public utility with full accountability.

The “No” forces have a leader of sorts in the B.C. Taxpayer’s Federation, an anti-tax whinge group preoccupied with wagging its judgmental finger at CEO salaries and politicians’ travel expense claims. Inasmuch as some criticism may be deserved, the federation is little more than a church of unenlightened self-interest. It condemns taxes and public spending on econo-theological grounds, which makes its claims dogmatically predictable and easily discountable.

Despite the unpopularity of taxes, they are necessary for the efficient running of government in the public interest, which is what should happen in a democracy. The decline in our civil liberties and standard of living can be directly traced to the systematic cutting of corporate taxes and the shifting of the tax burden onto households over the past 40 years. I cannot recall the federation agitating for higher corporate taxes.

As expected, the federation’s response to the plebiscite, as shown at, is more histrionic than helpful. Among other things, it claims that the annual household bill for the sales-tax increase will be $258 but makes no distinction among wealthy and poor households.

The federation is wrong to condemn the plebiscite is just a tax grab; it isn’t. It’s an exercise in blackmail and posturing. The federation is right that TransLink does not deserve one thin dime of sales-tax revenue, but it does so for the wrong reason. The political implications of the plebiscite are the ones that should animate the naysayers.