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:
…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.
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.