November 28, 2013

Referendum: The Monster They’re Making

A few weeks ago, The Sun ran a remarkable column by Andrew Coyne: Rob Ford Enablers: The Strategists.  Given that Coyne comes generally from the centre right, it stuck with me, notably for the last few paragraphs:

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 …there Ford sits, immovably: disgraced, largely powerless, but still the  mayor. …

Of all his enablers, the most culpable are the strategists, the ones who  fashioned his image as the defender of the little guy, the suburban strivers,  against the downtown elites, with their degrees and their symphonies – the ones  who turned a bundle of inchoate resentments into Ford Nation.

Sound familiar? It is the same condescending populism, the same aggressively dumb, harshly divisive message that has become the playbook for the right generally in this country, in  all its contempt for learning, its disdain for facts, its disrespect of  convention and debasing of standards. They can try to run away from him now, but they made this monster, and they will own him for years to come.

Get help? He’s had plenty.

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The relevance?  I’ve been trying to figure out the political strategy behind the transit referendum imposed on this region by the Premier.  Given that the requirement for  a referendum is being applied only to transit and not to similarly expensive highway projects, notably the Massey Crossing (which have a far greater propensity to be overbuilt and under-utilized), there is likely some rationale beyond  taxpayer accountability.

Many observers assume it was a quickly devised response during the heat of the election to avoid taking a position on what or how transit would be funded in the Lower Mainland.  Both NDP and Liberal governments have in the past avoided ‘contamination’ from the regional requests for new or increased taxes to fund TransLink’s ambitions, even if the only requirement is for them to approve the consensus achieved by the mayors for, say, a vehicle levy, already sanctioned in legislation.

But perhaps there’s something more.

By creating a mechanism to exacerbate the division between the centre city and the suburbs, as was done with the amalgamation of Toronto, aggrieved voters in the conservative base have a chance to vent their anger and resentment.  Given the suburban majority, City Hall can be snatched from the Left and neutered as a source of annoyance.

While amalgamation is a remote possibility for the Metro Vancouver area, the transit referendum could unleash the same force. A resentful suburban base, by voting no the referendum, will be able to send the same anti-government message (No more taxes for TransLink) without the Province having to take responsibility.

Result: An urban transit agency no longer competes for tax room or, more importantly, demand for capital to fund infrastructure, leaving more flexibility for the provincial government to fund highways and bridges – something more popular in the fast-growing suburbs where their political gifts will be rewarded.

The hope is that the nasty deed can be done without leaving any fingerprints on the weapon.  The provincial representatives, while declaring their sincere support for more transit, will deeply regret being unable to approve any significant new funding given the results of the vote.  And the blame for its failure will be apportioned to the local leadership – the mayors, in particular – who were unable to mount a united campaign to convince their voters.

What, from a provincial view, could possibly go wrong? Once the monster of division is unleashed, it should only do damage to local government, and the plans of its federation, Metro Vancouver.

Counter-argument: there is really no distinct separation of interests in Metro Vancouver; there is no stark line between urban centre and suburban interests.  Surrey has as much stake in transit as Vancouver.  But that’s the problem with this monster: it potentially polarizes debate, tramples over collective self-interest, obscures the longer view, and leaves the damage for someone else to clean up.

Perhaps even the strategist who came up with the referendum idea.

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Comments

  1. Gord- we see the same dynamic here in Calgary. As a more or less single large municipality, we’re not subject to the same discussions on mergers/fusions, and have not, thankfully, seen talk yet of a referendum. That said, yesterday’s Council budget hearings were a major turning point, with Council deciding to dedicate $52m per year over the next ten years to a new BRT line, rather than ‘giving it back’ to property owners (the $52m is money that used to be taken by the province for education, but which had been freed up by provincial cuts, causing a huge debate on whether this was a tax cut, or a re-allocation for other purposes).

    The right wing (led by the Calgary Sun) is now crying foul, but this long-hoped-for transit line might just end up being a more politically savvy move than a tax cut. That the Sun’s homebuilder advertisers may find their product moving more quickly with this transit line is just another twist of irony!

    Our paper of record: http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Calgary+Councillors+choose+520M+transitway+over/9219709/story.html

    The Sun: http://www.calgarysun.com/2013/11/28/calgary-city-council-votes-to-give-you-a-break-and-then-take-it-back

    Interesting times across the country these days!

    1. I was just going to make this same comment.

      In Calgary, the division is only starting to manifest itself. During the election campaign, the suburban house builders were unambiguously against policies that could in any way be construed to possibly slow down unfettered sprawl. Now one of them is actually suing Nenshi for comparing him to a movie character.

  2. This is a very apposite analysis, Gord.

    ‘It is the same condescending populism, the same aggressively dumb, harshly divisive message that has become the playbook for the right generally in this country, in all its contempt for learning, its disdain for facts, its disrespect of convention and debasing of standards.’

    It also seems to me to apply to the behaviours and protestations I read/hear from the various bellicose neighbourhood groups against whatever. It’s exactly what keeps me from attending my local resident’s association meetings anymore, for sure.

  3. And for me, it also necessitates a huge time committment when I attend neighbourhood presentations. Though not usually easily intimidated, I’m lothe to speak up against the belligerent ranting for fear of reprisals on the street later, but I’m so appalled at the behaviours and language I hear directed at planning/engineering/VPL staff that I feel I have to write appology letters to them all when I get home…..

  4. I know that’s i’m a minority opinion, but IMO the lack of a strategy is a strategy.

    If you argue that there should be more mayoral control of TL as the mayors are arguing for, what’s not preventing the same parochialism there as in the referendum, or amalgamation-light?

    Remember that TL almost rejected the canada line when the mayors had more power and factions and regionalism raised its head.

    “Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan has said that he thinks a sufficient number of TransLink directors will vote on Friday to kill a proposed $1.5-billion to $1.7-billion rapid-transit project.”
    (google the lede to get to the georgia straight article).


    also remember that the massive reorg and expansion of the bus system in the south of fraser happened by translink willing it to action. they had to pare it back since with rationalization, but if you live or work in SoF it has made a massive improvement. I am not sure if this would have been possible if TL had different organization.

    http://www.deltachamber.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Transit-Improvements-South-of-Fraser-Region-_Feb-2-2011.pdf

    however, it is increasingly untenable for TL to make massive service changes like this as local and regional poiticians move away from supporting TL and move to make TL a whipping post. a move to reorg TL again with or without the referrendum seems to be inevitable.

    if you don’t like the referrendum, what would you propose?

  5. People get a bitter taste in their mouths when they imagine “walkability” and bicycles. It’s part of a culture that they feel excludes them, or that they don’t want. They resent the notion that their lifestyle is harmful to the environment, or anything else. They think urbanists are elitists full of dumb, new-fangled ideas.

    For many people, where you live is intricately tied with who you are. They imagine (perhaps correctly) that urbanists don’t just dislike the suburbs, but also the people living in the suburbs and the values those people have. The car is a symbol of a wider culture many fear will be displaced.

    “First they come for our cars, then for our Tim Hortons, and before you know it, they’ve replaced our entire lifestyle and values with urban ideals. Before you know it, we are watching plays at The Cultch instead of Iron Man 3 at Silvercity. We all have to start composting and riding our bicycles places. We’ll have to trade in our Coors Light for craft beer! We’ll have to visit the art gallery and eat tofu, and all that nonsense! I’m gunna fight against these social engineers trying to impose their values on me!”

    I think when people see tall buildings pop up in their suburban neighborhoods, they fear that urban values will come with them. The see the urban world *literally* crowding out the suburbs. When they look at bike lanes, they see bicycles *literally* crowding out their cars.

    This is why I don’t think it’s a conspiracy. I think it’s just about protecting a culture from urban intrusion. Transit is resisted for the same reason community groups come out and scream about development; people fear that their way of life is under attack by hostile, condescending urbanites.

  6. Or maybe many of the people who live in the suburbs are just ordinary, middle-of-the-road not-so-dumb people who resent the holier-than-thou attitude projected here by the elites. They live in the suburbs because it’s too expensive to live in the city (and city policies of encouraging the building of only tiny condos have helped in that); they work in the suburbs because city policies have driven light industry and commercial jobs out, and they next to no benefit from funds spent on Transit, because there’s very little of that to speak of in the burbs.

    Maybe if the transit supporters focused on bringing better transit to the suburbs, then people there would be more supportive. Certainly anyone in Surrey, Delta, Richmond can see how a better Massey crossing would help them (whether it’s in the long term interests of the region or not). Certainly most people in the suburbs will see that any new money for Transit means better transit for those downtown and on the west side of Vancouver. Not so much for people who live in Burnaby, Coquitlam, New West, Surrey and work in Burnaby, Coquitlam, New West, Surrey, Richmond etc.

    Perhaps if you stopped condescending to and insulting people south of the Fraser, better outcomes for all could be had.

    1. See? The suburbs feel condescended to. Urbanites… what with their urban farming and cigarette recycling bins… If the urbanites only treated us with the respect we deserve, maybe everyone would get along!

      Just salt of the earth, workin’ joes tryin’ to make a buck in this town! When will those fat cats in their slick city government jobs realize that? Stop trying to make our lives worse, Gregor Robertson!

      1. So being even more condescending is the winning approach? Seems good. That way you can blame the Rob Fordites of the burbs for everything that’s wrong with the world. No need to look closer to home.

    2. “Maybe if the transit supporters focused on bringing better transit to the suburbs, then people there would be more supportive. Certainly anyone in Surrey, Delta, Richmond can see how a better Massey crossing would help them (whether it’s in the long term interests of the region or not). Certainly most people in the suburbs will see that any new money for Transit means better transit for those downtown and on the west side of Vancouver. Not so much for people who live in Burnaby, Coquitlam, New West, Surrey and work in Burnaby, Coquitlam, New West, Surrey, Richmond etc.”

      I spoke to someone at Translink who said Vancouver is the ONLY city in Metro Vancouver that generates revenue for Translink. All other municipalities are subsidized. Why? Because those big homes are spread out and it’s expensive to justify sending a bunch of buses out regularly to every Joe and Jane with a big back yard and a picket fence. If you want transit in your community and you don’t want it subsidized more by taxpayers, you have to turn those burbs into more a dense, walkable areas with lots of people to meet the demand. Common sense, right?