The Metro Vancouver transit referendum begins this month. Despite a long campaign supported by the vast majority of mayors and political parties in the region, the ‘No’ side is leading in the polls.
Why can’t the ‘Yes’ side seem to galvanize public opinion for a mere 0.5 per cent increase in the provincial sales tax to fund transit infrastructure?
First, there’s residual effects of a generation of anti-tax rhetoric. Right-wing parties have managed to frame all efforts to fund a robust public sector as “tax and spend,” as if this were something nefarious rather than the basic function of government. Second, in recent decades, corporate tax rates have been slashed and the share paid by the rich drastically reduced. Just last month, the B.C. Liberals introduced a new budget eliminating another higher income tax bracket.
All of this has been justified as “tax relief,” even though it’s only been a relief for those who need it least: the rich and super-rich. Everyone else has been saddled with new burdens in the form of user fees like rising MSP premiums. Meanwhile basic public services and infrastructure which poor and middle-income people depend on more, like public transit, have suffered.
This ideological offensive proceeds year after year despite the mounting evidence that these policies lead to more inequality. But, much like the anti-vaxxers who ignore evidence of the public good and necessity of vaccinations, anti-taxxers are not interested in evidence or in the collective well-being of society. Funded by the well-heeled and well connected, anti-taxxers like the right-wing Fraser Institute have been so successful that even many traditional political forces of the left have adapted or caved in. For instance, when the B.C. Liberals brought in a very modest carbon tax, the B.C. NDP responded with the short-sighted and cynical decision to campaign in the 2009 election on a promise to ‘Axe the Gas Tax.’
In the current transit referendum, the anti-taxxers of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation are at the forefront of the ‘No’ campaign. The organization is not representative or democratic at all, and barely has any members. The CTF’s interest in the transit campaign is ideological, opposing taxation for opposing taxation’s sake.
Another reason the ‘Yes’ campaign has struggled is Translink’s richly deserved bad reputation. This points us to a fundamental flaw in this whole debate. To really understand Vancouver’s transit referendum you have to look to Victoria. It was the B.C. Liberal government, after all, that altered Translink’s governance structure back in 2007–2008, bringing in a board who were more amenable to corporate interests and who promptly gave themselves a huge raise. They also refused to hold public meetings. Translink’s dismal reputation is hurting the ‘Yes’ campaign, allowing anti-taxxers to imply that the new transit monies raised will be mismanaged by the corrupt, overpaid suits.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has stayed conspicuously out of the fray of the transit referendum.
But the referendum is, in reality, the result of the provincial government’s abrogation ofits basic responsibilities. Why is the question of funding transit even going to a referendum? And why is the only proposal to raise the PST? There is no reason the provincial government couldn’t have helped municipalities fund necessary transit expenditures out of general revenue (they just finished boasting about a nearly billion dollar surplus), or through rollbacks of previous tax cuts for corporations and the richest British Columbians.
By devolving responsibility to the mayors of Metro Vancouver, Clark and the B.C. Liberals have managed to create a transit referendum where it’s heads they win, tails we lose. They’ve kept the whole thing absurdly vague. In fact, no one really knows what a ‘No’ vote actually means. It’s really a plebiscite, since it’s non-binding. If the ‘No’ side wins, the Liberals’ preferred right-wing, anti-taxation frame is reinforced and Clark can wash her hands of complaints about congestion and inadequate transit. If the ‘Yes’ side wins, Clark can interpret that as an endorsement of any and all infrastructure projects she’s planning anyway, many of which are about making room for more cars, not improving public transit, like her plan to replace the Massey Tunnel connecting Richmond and Delta with a huge new bridge.
Yes, Metro Vancouver needs better transit. But we also need a much better and thoroughgoing debate.
Transit needs to be accessible to all. If we are at all serious about addressing the emergency of climate change, we should be moving toward free public transit and a massive expansion of buses, light rail and bike lanes. This transit referendum is badly flawed, and it should not be the last word on these matters.