Barbara Yaffe: A fair fight?

May 06, 2015

From the Vancouver Sun - May 6, 2015 by Barbara Yaffe

VANCOUVER — Don’t bother trying to learn how the budget for the transit plebiscite Yes side is being sourced, or spent, because no one is talking.

And, of course, the reason for that is obvious. The Mayors’ Council, spearheading the Yes side, knows that shelling out $6 million to push a sales tax hike for transit resources is not likely to be appreciated.

Such spending — for the purpose of pitching a proposal that polls show most citizens do not favour — is likely to be construed by taxpayers as a waste of their hard-earned money, akin to the self-serving political advertising that governments generally undertake to promote their partisan agenda.

I have asked for specific details of the spending and revenue sources from the Mayors’ Council, TransLink and the City of Vancouver.

They say that the Mayors’ Council has agreed to spend up to $6 million on “the education component to promote the benefits of Mayors’ Plan for regional transportation.”

Mayors’ Council Secretariat representative Justinne Ramirez adds: “All other questions regarding the budget for the campaign will be considered once the campaign period is complete” at the end of May.

She might have added: “To do otherwise could anger voters and translate into less support for the Yes side.”

Certainly, the mayors’ well-funded campaign is nothing if not comprehensive. Advertising has been plastered all over bus stops and transit stations. Campaign buttons have been distributed and press conferences held every other day.

But taxpayers, at this point, have been kept in the dark about where the tax dollars for these efforts are coming from, or which municipalities have contributed.

A spokesman for the City of Vancouver reports that $125,000 has been reallocated from existing budgets for outreach and promotional material, and four staffers have been seconded to the Mayors’ Council secretariat. But the city won’t reveal its total spend until the campaign ends.

The mayors certainly did not need to spend millions to refute any sort of blockbuster campaign by the No forces.

Jordan Bateman, from the B.C. office of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says the No forces to date have raised just $30,000 for their fight against the sales tax hike, $14,750 of it coming from the federation’s own coffers. They also crowdfunded $1,417.50 to hire a plane last Sunday to fly a No message above the Vancouver Marathon, with a replay scheduled for next Saturday.

Last month, Bateman released a list of 10 donors who contributed more than $200 to the No campaign. The average donation size: $25.

“We disclosed our donors voluntarily,” says Bateman. “The mayors and Yes side refuse to do the same.”

Spending by either side is not limited or monitored by Elections B.C., according to Don Main, the organization’s communications manager. “The plebiscite regulation is silent on advertising rules.”

Bateman believes the mayors are outspending the No forces by a factor of 200 to 1, “paying dozens of high-priced consultants, doing relentless robocalling, intrusive phone banking and sending glossy mailouts to identify and encourage only Yes supporters to vote.

“We can’t compete with those millions, so we are trusting voters to mark their ballots No and return them.”

The No forces are spread so thin that several non-profit groups organizing public meetings to explain both Yes and No positions report they have been unable to find representatives to elaborate on justifications for a No vote.

From the start, one of the problems with this campaign has been a perception of unfairness. Instead of having No and Yes sides with two clear options and equal funding, the sales tax hike was presented as the one and only conceivable option. And the Yes side has enjoyed the considerable advantage of having public monies at its disposal.

Which suggests that, with such an advantage, if the mayors still fail to get the answer they are after once all the votes are counted, it will be more than a little embarrassing.