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Gary Mason
Gary Mason

GARY MASON

How not to hold a referendum Add to ...

In the end it wasn’t even close.

Metro Vancouver’s transit plebiscite went down to defeat on Thursday, with 61.68 per cent of eligible voters saying No to a proposed 0.5 per cent regional sales-tax increase to fund a multibillion-dollar transit expansion plan and 38.32 per cent saying yes.

The referendum was an unmitigated disaster from the start. It was shoved down the throats of regional mayors by a provincial government that thought it would be a populist measure appreciated by the public. It was also designed to provide political cover; if there was going to be any kind of tax increase to fund transit improvements, the governing Liberals wanted to distance themselves from it.

Let the mayors come up with the funding mechanism to underwrite their $7.5-billion plan, then let the people decide. That way the government isn’t tainted in any way by the outcome. Except it is, in every way.

In theory, referendums to determine the public’s appetite for a tax measure aren’t an entirely bad idea. Except in this case the province gave the mayors too little time to educate the public on the plan’s merits. In the United States, where these types of plebiscites are common, proponents of a particular tax measure will have a year, usually much longer, to wage an information campaign. In this case, the mayors had a few short months.

Premier Christy Clark and Transportation Minister Todd Stone ignored multiple pleas to allow more time for the plebiscite to be held. Their reasons were never explained.

This gave the Yes camp little time to craft a cogent strategy. By all accounts, organizational meetings were chaotic. There were far too many people on the Yes committee, representing a vast array of stakeholders, all of whom had their own opinions about what needed to be done to win the ballot measure. Consequently, horrible mistakes and costly miscalculations were made.

The No camp, led by a solitary figure in the name of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, Jordan Bateman, focused on TransLink, the oft-maligned transit authority that had been enmeshed in controversies related to excessive executive compensation and the reliability of its service.Why would anyone want to give this organization billions more to waste and mismanage, Mr. Bateman argued.

So what did the Yes side, and the mayors, do in response? Fire the head of TransLink – in the middle of the referendum campaign. It looked like a desperate move, one that only seemed to confirm everything Mr. Bateman had been saying. Making matters worse, the mayors brought in a replacement while continuing to pay the fired CEO’s salary for a year or more. For Mr. Bateman, TransLink was the gift that kept on giving.

After the results of the vote became public, he was deservedly gleeful, pointing out that his No campaign cost just over $39,000, while the Yes forces had spent nearly $7-million.

So what happens now to the light-rail transit system that Surrey was supposed to get and the subway line in the plan for Vancouver? They’ll likely both go ahead anyway. Surrey mayor Linda Hepner, in one of the most bone-headed moves of the transit campaign, blurted out that her city was going to get light rail regardless of the vote. It was a genius move that all but ensured few people in her city would vote for the tax increase.

Vancouver has known for weeks the vote was going down to defeat and has been working government back channels to come up with its own plan to build a subway down a busy city corridor. It will take contributions from both Victoria and Ottawa, but the city will almost certainly get them.

The B.C. government which called this vote against the advice of nearly everyone tried to put its own positive spin on the outcome; the people have spoken; this is what democracies are all about; the mayors will need to go back to the drawing board. But that is so wrong.

This was a bungled project from the start, one so poorly conceived and rolled out by the province that it was effectively stillborn. Its only value now will be to serve as a textbook example of how not to hold a transit referendum. What a glorious waste of time.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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