To ensure a fair plebiscite vote on a new congestion improvement tax, the Yes and No campaigns should battle on a level playing field. Unfortunately, that is not what will occur.
In contrast to what transpired in the 2011 HST referendum campaign in B.C., Yes forces in the coming mail-in vote on a tax to finance $7.5 billion worth of transportation projects will have an advantage in being uniquely able to access taxpayers’ resources.
No forces, meanwhile, led by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, are generating their cash through donations, hoping to raise $40,000, in contrast to the $4 million the municipal government-led Yes forces anticipate spending.
In the 2011 referendum campaign, the province appointed an arm’s length referendum financing decision maker, Stephen Owen, given the task of equitably determining which groups and organizations would receive $500,000 in public funds to advocate for the two responses to the referendum question. The province also funded a $500,000 Public Dialogues Fund to finance public education events and produced a $700,000 voter’s guide sent to every household.
The system was fair since neither side had a particular financial advantage. The outcome of the HST vote generated disappointment for some but the process was regarded as being without bias.
That is important. If all British Columbians must live with the result of the transportation plebiscite, they should perceive activities before the vote as fair, with no advantage given to either side.
That is why it is disconcerting to hear the leader of the Yes forces, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, defend a decision to use “some city resources” in the Yes campaign. He said staff soon would be reporting back on the specific resources to be allocated.
It is worth noting the province, while supportive of the Yes side and financing the $5-million plebiscite vote itself, has said this time it will not contribute funding to either the Yes or No campaigns.
Robertson is defending special financial treatment from the city for the Yes side by citing little more than desperation. ”We have to see a Yes vote on this,” he said last week. “The consequences of not supporting the transit plan and investing in transit for the next decade would be devastating for the region.”
But this is the very issue voters have been assigned to decide; that is why the plebiscite is being held. Using public resources to advance the Mayors’ Council plan before voters endorse it is putting the cart before the horse, and more than a little presumptuous.
Besides, many No voters agree with Vancouver’s mayor that the transportation investments are warranted; they just differ on where the cash for those investments should come from and they do not want city resources deployed to help the mayor’s cause.
Moreover, it is difficult not to concur with a view from Jordan Bateman, of the taxpayers federation: “We pay taxes to provide services, not to try to buy votes.”
If Robertson has as strong a case as he contends, the mayor — like the taxpayers federation — should be able to raise money for his cause from supporters in the community. Then, if the Yes side wins, Robertson will be able to claim to have won fair and square.
Published in the Vancouver Sun - January 28, 2015