In early January, some of the principals behind the Yes side in Metro Vancouver's transit plebiscite invited an influential U.S. political consultant to Vancouver to advise them on strategy.
Richard Schlackman of RMS Associates Inc. is the Democratic Party's sage on referendums. Based in San Francisco in a state where ballot measures are common, Mr. Schlackman had valuable insights to share on what it took to bring ventures such as B.C.'s transit vote to a successful conclusion.
One of the first observations he made was that you always need enough blood in your system to get across the finish line. In other words, the Yes side required sufficient support at the outset of the campaign to withstand the inevitable erosion of its numbers that would occur after the battle was joined. And if that is indeed an accepted maxim in the world of referendum politics, then the Yes side in the recent Metro Vancouver transit vote never had a fighting chance.
Internal polling done by the mayors' council in early January – shortly after the poll question was unveiled and the revenue source was identified – showed that the public was adamantly against the proposition by an almost two-to-one margin. The final vote would be nearly identical. The two biggest issues identified through polling and focus group testing: an intensely negative perception of TransLink and the idea of a sales tax increase.
More than $6-million was spent – no, wasted – by TransLink and a coalition of the willing to underwrite a campaign the public had no interest in supporting. Plebiscite strategists such as Mr. Schlackman could only roll their eyes at the pitiful amount of time the provincial government gave the mayors to try to sell their $7.5-billion vision. In the U.S., transit proponents often have campaign runways that stretch up to two years. The mayors had a few months.
This especially became a factor when it came to support for the plan in the suburbs. When most people thought about the mayors' proposal, they pictured a new subway for Vancouver and light rapid transit lines for Surrey. Most people in Richmond, for instance, had no idea it also included new Canada Line trains and an expansion of existing platforms. With additional time (as in a year or more), the Yes side could have educated far more people on the merits the transportation scheme had for their community.
The Yes side was fighting a war with one hand tied behind its back and the other in a sling.
There was no precedent anywhere in the world for a voting period that stretched 10 weeks. How was the Yes side supposed to sustain its campaign over that length of time? And where were the funds supposed to come from?
Then again, no amount of money was going to turn around the negative view the public holds of TransLink in time to change the outcome of this vote. The decision by the TransLink board – not the mayors' council – to make Ian Jarvis a sacrificial lamb in the midst of the campaign was an unmitigated disaster and only confirmed the prevailing sentiment that the organization was a dysfunctional mess.
The mayors' council decision effectively to agree with the public view regarding the beleaguered transit authority, promising to bring in changes to restore confidence, upset the new CEO Doug Allen.
Mr. Allen didn't think the criticism was fair, pointing to data that show TransLink stacks up well against other transit authorities in North America. (And it does.) He was concerned about the impact the constant attacks on the public entity were having on staff morale. This led to mid-campaign tensions between TransLink and the mayors.
The public hated the idea of a sales tax increase, which was never the mayors' idea to begin with. According to polling, there was more support for funding the plan through either a share of the existing carbon tax or a new regional carbon tax. This was the mayors' first choice. The province wouldn't hear of it. It was almost like the governing Liberals wanted to see the referendum fail.
The provincial government did virtually nothing to help the Yes side. But then again, neither did the New Democratic Party, a fact that annoyed many progressives in the Yes camp. Of course, when it failed, NDP Leader John Horgan was quick to lay all the blame at the feet of the government. Where was he when his voice on the issue could have mattered?
It was appalling to see Transportation Minister Todd Stone react almost gleefully to the outcome of the vote; that it was somehow a wonderful demonstration of democracy in action. He also absurdly suggested the process had brought regional mayors closer together than ever. It did nothing of the sort.
All this plebiscite did was demonstrate what happens when a province's political leadership abdicates its responsibility to govern.