March 12, 2015

Twinning Tweets: Sun columnists make each other’s points.

Not a good day for the Yes side in the Vancouver Sun:

Pete McMartin begins on the front page:

… what a disaster the Yes campaign has been. It has seen its lead in the polls erode. It was late off the mark — one of the disadvantages of working with sluggish government bureaucracy — and has allowed the No side to seize the momentum. …

And this week, the most recent public relations blunder:

Right in the middle of the plebiscite campaign, with the numbers for the Yes campaign going south, news emerges that in December of 2014 TransLink spent $13.9 million to buy back a former BC Transit building which BC Transit had previously sold at a loss.

Irony alert: BC Transit is a provincial agency.  TransLink actually had a good case to make for purchasing the building.

And TransLink has been trying to make that case, without much luck. Global TV for one used the word “boondoggle” in its coverage. The No side has been going to town over the sale.

“We could cure cancer,” said Colleen Brennan, TransLink’s vice-president of communications, “but no matter what TransLink does, we’re going to be a villain.”

Well, no. Villains are villains because they’re malevolent, not because they’re clueless.

Then a few pages over:


Oh, so many points to make, but we can stop at the first sentence:

A consensus exists that we are sufficiently taxed.

And there it is: the beginning and end of the debate – and either the main or tangential purpose of the referendum: to limit local government’s capacity to tax, best done directly by those who might most benefit from the services.

So … if it were true that we are indeed sufficiently taxed, then why this?


$230 million


About the same amount that could be raised by the sales tax increase to provide what business, in particular, argues is necessary infrastructure for the economic vitality of Metro.  That same amount will disappear from the provincial budget so that richest 2 percent will retain another $2-3,000.  (Sounds angry, doesn’t it, and rather impolitic to raise in polite company.  Which is why, I suppose, it isn’t.)

Another Sun columnist, Daphne Braham, has so far provided the best insight into all this in her piece on March 9:

Politicians and business leaders have talked way more about cutting taxes for poor beleaguered taxpayers for the past 30 years than they have about the valuable services tax money provides.

Through good times and bad, the political debates have focused on debt reduction, deficit-fighting, deregulation, privatization, selling off public assets to balance the books and shaming those who rely on public programs to pay the rent or feed their children. …

Why would it be any different? Along with the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation has been at this a long time with clever campaigns and awards ceremonies where an adult dressed up as a pig helps hand out pig-topped trophies to wasteful public officials.

With the No side support, they’re reaping what they’ve sown.


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  1. The rich got a tax break? No wonder Jimmy Pattison is lobbying for a regressive sales tax instead of a progressive income tax! 🙂

    Seriously, though, campaigning that people are insufficently taxed seems like a losing strategy to me.

  2. Not one of the 10 Reasons to Vote No on a TRANSIT plebiscite addressed transit. Nor did they address value for money spent on public services. It was all anti-tax, like an extra nickel on a $10 CD will kill the middle class and cause a recession.

    It is truly amazing how much influence the anti-tax propaganda is having on this vote in the absence of any recognition of the benefits public services render or just how essential our cities are to the economy. Would Barbara Yaffe treat the Coastal Regional Health board or the Port Mann bridge project management team with the same snarling disdain? Both require billions in tax revenue. When a columnist says devoting taxes toward funding transit is a bad thing in the absence of even a cursory analysis of the benefits, s/he is also implying that transit is bad and cities are irrelevant.

    Several of her points fall to pieces when rebutted. For example, the plebiscite “puts the cart before the horse” by imposing a local vote before funding from senior governments is in place. Duh! What funding? This vote is imposed because we live in a vacuum of stable provincial and federal funding that makes planning for the future impossible. And who says a Yes vote will not encourage senior governments to step up and participate more? Or for that matter, that a No vote will not encourage the premier to lay back and not lift a finger for transit in the province’s most important metropolis for years and years?

    This begs the question about where the federal parties stand on cities, and where our local MPs stand on this vote. We already know where the province stands, and it’s on the lowest step possible.

  3. I have questioned Yaffe’s journalistic prowess since you (Gordon) had her on a City Conversation panel in the Fall. If I recall correctly, a number of points were raised regarding the affordability of Vancouver, yet she was hellbent on blaming realtor rates and transfer taxes. After the audience pointed out that this accounted for very little on affordability, Yaffe still made it the centrepiece of her article in the Sun the next day. So in short, since that City Conversation, I have not been able to take much of what she says seriously. But then again, I suppose today’s piece is opinion…

  4. It stands to reason that those of us who believe that transit and better cities are vital to society need to think ahead, to go beyond this transit vote should it be swayed by the mythmaking, kindergarten logic and the empowerment of the swarming anti-everything masses of the No side.

    Those of us who believe that public transit is one of the most important instruments for helping our society meet the challenges this century has been presenting to us need to proceed steadily on to define what the next steps should be. With a No vote, there may be an added step: to deal with the damage a decade of greater instability in transit funding and manipulation of management will bring. But these, as disappointing as they may be, are not insurmountable.

    There are still things like a National Transit Plan and a federal Ministry of Urban Affairs to promote and give hope. There are local and regional sustainable land use plans and more resilient economies to develop. And of course, opposition parties to support and who happen to believe in such things.

    Hope will not evaporate with a No vote.

    1. Cities are indeed vital. Our current taxation policies need MAJOR re-thinking as we tax far too much at the federal level, and far too little money arrives where most people live: in cities. Transit just highlights this, but it is also evident in healthcare, social services, policing and education.

      So, one has to ask: what is the ideal tax mix an average citizen pays. How much of that for military ? How much for police ? How much to homelessness ? How much to education .. and to what age is it free, then how much using which criteria ? How much of it to transit ? Are foreign investors taxed enough ? Should we decrease income taxes but dramatically increase property or consumption taxes ? Why do we import crap from China and tax only 5% GST and 7% PST on it ? Why not a 50% environmental destruction and recycling tax ? etc ..

      This far broader debate is missing.

      Personally I believe federal taxes are far too high, income taxes are far too high, but road, consumption and property taxes are far too low, with the result that we use cars too much, under tax wealthy immigrants that use our education and healthcare services, and we under tax imported goods built by child labour and with questionable environmental practices trucked in by diesel spewing trucks/boats from afar at too low a cost and too little local benefits.

      So I enjoy the debate here, but it has to be far broader, and certainly beyond transit.

      Taxes overall in Canada are as high as they ought to go, they ought not to be higher like Europe which is collapsing under its 20%+ GST, 60%+ labour income taxes and 100%+ gasoline taxes. US is better, but also undertaxes its rich people (one can also deduct not just one, but 2 mortgages from one’s income – grotesque) and does not tax gasoline nor consumption as it doesn’t even have a federal GST. Of course, we need to also debate cost of delivery, and in that case government run enterprises are far too high as they pay far too high salaries + benefits, so that debate is very much related to taxation.

    2. Thomas, you are right that we need a national discussion about the future, and taxes are an important part of that debate. However, if expanding the conversation to also address the health of cities, the economy, the environment and society, one needs to also address things like finite fossil energy and the laws of physics. You cannot adequately tune up a tax system when the energy that drove the world economy to enormous gains over the last century (and tremendous urban inefficiency) is in decline, and the consequences to economies that rely too heavily on one commodity.

      The issue of transit vs cars and their funding reaches into the core of how we exist in our cities. It’s so overly myopic for the No side to portray this as only a tax and public administration issue when the ramifications extend outwards to urban design, energy, economic performance, health and climate change.

      There are also social justice issues that require resolution where tax-supported government programs and non-profits are needed irrespective of the condition of the economy. To let homelessness and addiction continue to slide will guarantee higher public health care costs.

      You tend to lose me with your anti-union meme about how a large portion of the workforce is “overpaid”, and by implication should receive a disfiguring buzzcut. Public administration is necessary and forms a very significant part of Canada’s GDP, and union members form a large part of this workforce. Yes, there are inefficiencies, but these are remarkably hard to nail down to anything more than the dust on a bear’s back when public organizations are actually audited (e.g., TransLink by the province in 2012, the City of Toronto in Rob Ford’s first year, etc.).

      You need to link to independent, peer-reviewed published research (not just opinion pieces) to insinuate our union-scale taxpayers need to have their wages reduced by 30% therein reducing economic activity and lowering standards across the board. You are also ignoring the honourable democratic principle of collective bargaining and negotiated contracts, and the inevitable legal and financial ramifications on the taxpayer when a government rips them up. Strikes are a part of the negotiating process, but there are legislated limits already in place.

      The public and private Boomer workforce will be reduced by natural attrition and there are fewer workers to replace them. Do you propose lowering the public sector wages by 30% when there is a labour shortage?

      1. There are a few inaccuracies in your argument:

        a) there is NO finite energy. There is huge amount of oil, gas, coal, uranium etc. available just the cost to extract it will go up and up and up as some locations are more difficult to access than others. In time, when gasoline is $10 a liter, other options will evolve. Government need not meddle with it as they do today. Solar energy is also unlimited basically, and eventually most things will be solar, except long distance travel by airplane or large trains. Gasoline/kerosene/diesel carry 10-50 times more energy per kg of weight than an electric battery. it is sheer physics.

        More here, for example:

        b) there is “bargaining” .. I call it extortion. The right to strike should be removed from monopoly employers, especially those that cannot go bankrupt like governments. When monopoly employees (transit workers, the police, firefighters, teachers, passport officers, city cleaners etc) strike and cannot even legally be replaced than we have an uneven hand. THAT is the situation today, widely abused and exploited by CUPE and the like.

        There is a labour shortage ? There is never a shortage of labour, just of money as you can always find someone to work for $200,000/year or $200/h, it might just drive the business out of business.

        I agree that prevention for homelessness or mental issues needs to be addressed, usually by cities. But as stated, the federal government and CUPE controlled civil servants’ labour contracts take so much money out of the average citizen’s wallet that these issues fall off the table. Overpaid civil servants essentially steal the meals from the homeless. It is that simple.

        Why not educe federal income taxes by 10% / 14% to 15% from 29/25% and then cities will have more money. Nations matter less and less, and cities matter even more, kind’s like the Renaissance.

      2. MB, we are almost out of space to store the “finite” oil that North America is awash in. We are a long way from peak oil.

        1. Indeed. There is no peak oil. Only peak cheap oil. Similar with peak fish, or peak apples or peak clean water. It is all abundantly available, just not as cheap with only 1B people on the planet.

          One of the critical overlooked cost items is labour, also not at its peak, and with more and more immigrants labour in many cases has to come down, as it has at AirCanada, GM, WerstJet etc. THAT is the core issue in government supplied services: they are way overpriced, ie delivered too expensively as the excessive unionization does not allow prices to adjust to market value. Hence we have oversized classrooms but unemployed young, or would-be teachers. Ditto with BC Liquorstore employees, BC Ferries employees, ICBC and transit related jobs: bus drivers, managers, sky train mechanics, TransLink security guys .. all overpaid vs equivalent jobs at say WestJet, once one counts hours worked, benefits and defined benefit pensions to age 95 or longer in many cases.

          BC has far too much unionization and government run enterprises.

  5. Hope will not evaporate, nor will future transit expansion. The issue I see is that it will be delayed, for 1 year, 5 years, who knows. But road expansion will not. And then there will be the short term benefits of faster traffic that reduce the need for more transit. And then there will be delays. And then traffic gets worse, and then we’re back where we started.

    I have zero faith in the current provincial or federal parties to do a single thing about this, hope lies with new government, if only faint.

  6. Indeed we are sufficiently taxed, especially on the upper end. or for families with kids If any government takes more than 45% of anyone’s income above a certain threshold then it is far too high. Then you take the remaining 55% to pay buy stuff or live somewhere, i.e. pay property taxes, GST, PST on good purchased plus gasoline taxes etc .. and quickly more than 50% of income is taxed. That is grotesque indeed.

    YES INDEED INCOME TAXES ARE SUFFICIENTLY HIGH IN CANADA .. or too high as I would argue. Cut them, and maybe tax (imported) consumption or properties more.

    Federal taxes are far too high, leaving little, if any room for cities to fund their services. They can only increase parking fees or property taxes, which they should, especially in high demand cities like MetroVan where real estate money is parked by the billions without insufficient taxation.

    If you are looking for reason that no additional money is available for transit: blame CUPE and their affiliate BC public sector unions, as they have been able to force governments across the land to increase salaries and benefits, especially defined benefits of civil servants and public sector employees to the point of starving out necessary investments. Yes, we need to pay people well, but not too well and not forever when they retire early in their 50’s until they die in their 90’s, after having them educated (for free) for up to 20 years. It just does not add up: free education for almost 20 years, then work 30 or maybe 35, then collect an indexed pension for another 40 years.

    WHERE IS THIS DEBATE .. related to transit, but obviously far broader than transit ?

    Public servants/employees are, on average 20-33% overpaid, when counting risk of layoffs, benefits and defined pensions in a low interest world, more fickle stock market world. Yes 20-33%. Cut those salaries and benefits, or since that is very difficult legally, do not increase them for ten years or keep them at half the usual increase, i.e. 1% only per year like the recent teachers contract, and then, in 10 or twenty years we can find the money needed for necessary improvements. THAT is the core issue at this debate here on taxation: excess pay of current employees employed through our taxes.

  7. Ah, yes. The 6700 Southridge building. Built by Bombardier when building trains in BC that were ordered by the BC government was a good idea. Too bad they couldn’t sell them abroad too.

    CBC May 25, 2000

    “Bombardier’s new Burnaby Skytrain factory had its grand opening Wednesday. And there are already questions about how much B.C. taxpayers could end up paying for it.

    The $15-million factory was built to assemble 50 new cars for the Skytrain expansion. All that money came from Bombardier. Their investment was based on a $500-million contract from the provincial government to build the trains.

    The Burnaby plant is also designed as an operations and maintenance centre for Skytrain technology. That’s a contract Bombardier has yet to sign with the B.C. government.

    But that’s a fact Liberal Skytrain critic Doug Symons says shouldn’t be overlooked.

    “If they don’t reach an agreement on the operations and maintenance contract, then the government could be liable for the costs of that building and have to buy it back from Bombardier,” he says.

    Symons says there are similarities between the new Skytrain project and the ongoing fast ferries fiasco. But the government says there’s no way Skytrain could turn into another fast ferries because it’s based on a proven technology, and all the major contracts are fixed price contracts.”

    How many times do BC taxpayers have to purchase, rent and refurbish this building?

    “From 1988 to 2004, the property at 6700 Southridge Dr. was owned by B.C. Transit. The facility was formerly the Bombardier Centre for Advanced Transit Systems, which assembled SkyTrain cars and had tracks in place for them.

    When Bombardier failed to obtain contracts to build more trains for other companies, B.C. Transit was forced to purchase the facility for no more than $17.2 million. ”

    – See more at:

  8. Just the last two paragraphs above are from the Burnaby Now newspaper.

    Here’s a shocking quote, related to the building, from Bill Magri, president of the SkyTrain workers local CUPE 7000 union – “What bothers me is the outright waste and the poor financial decisions made by TransLink.”

  9. So you have an anecdotal example of TransLink waste, and a commentary on SkyTrain’s technology, but what exactly isn’t clear. Is it because it’s driverless? Or the linear induction motors?

    Well, here’s some real data on SkyTrain’s actual performance record compared to 12 other North American cities for you to ponder.

    SkyTrain is elevated and costs more, but it has phenomenal frequency and speed and can move a lot more people than street-running light rail at a much lower cost per rider. Moreover, some great cities like Paris and London have or are planning automated (driverless) operations on some of their metro lines to increase efficiencies and capacities. I once measured the frequencies at Burrard Station at one train every 75 seconds in each direction, or 96 trains an hour per station. And to think SkyTrain is running at significantly less than maximum capacity due to a shortage of cars. Once that is rectified and the Broadway subway is built the Network Effect will push ridership to very high levels and farebox revenue well into the black … or at least that’s the potential, but they have to complete the system first.

    1. I also note that Bombardier is one of the largest train manufacturers in the world. SkyTrain sales aren’t large, but an increasing number of jurisdictions are looking seriously at the performance stats and, as mentioned, moving increasingly toward driverless lines in the heaviest ridership zones. It has had an influence amongst the large sales of high speed trains, light rail and locomotives. It competes well with Siemens and Alstom regarding rail.

      No, I am not a shareholder.

  10. Pete McMartin wrote about TransLinks’s hyper expensive building in Burnaby. I gave some background information and a union boss’s point about even more wasted tax money. I’m sorry that you completely missed it.

  11. There is a huge amount of foreign money flooding into Vancouver real estate. It boggles the mind that the mayors want to tax the poor locals instead of tapping into this vast wealth. No doubt that a simple mansion tax on new purchases, or an additional levy on those who live in expensive houses, but don’t pay commensurate income tax, would appeal to the masses.

  12. Let’s not forget it was the sainted Gordon Campbell who chopped provincial income tax 25% thereby starving the treasury of funds for things like transit and education. The cynical among us would say the carbon tax was less Gordo’s Road to Damascus moment than an attempt to make up the tax revenue he recklessly chopped immediately after taking office.And who gets the biggest return on income tax cuts: those with the most income.

    1. And who pays the most taxes ? Those with the most income.

      Taking 50%+ of someone’s income is grotesque. Efficient delivery of services is critical. Much work needs to be done here.

      The era of free education, free healthcare, (fairly) free transit and free roads for all, at all times, in any amount is coming to an end as public $s are limited. All of these 4 will be more and more privatized and / or restricted to basic necessities or fee based beyond a certain amount.

      1. Post

        And yet this has no significance, given the lack of public (or blog) response:

        $230 million

        During the budget briefing, Finance Minister De Jong confirmed there are no plans to bring in legislation to extend a tax rate increase from before the last election, delivering a tax reduction to the highest income-earners.

        1. What is so wrong with a government keeping a promise? The extra tax was brought in when required, has now been collected and the accounts are in better shape, again. Nevertheless, the 230 million represents approx 0.5% of the total budget, both taxes in and expenditures out.

          Criticizing governments for keeping promises is the opposite of what citizens usually call for.

          1. Post

            Ah, such a small amount. Perhaps worth spending on critical, wealth-generating infrastructure, given that accounts are in better shape. Also a reflection of priorities: transportation for half the province’s population, or a few thousand to the wealthiest 2 percent.

            1. Rasmussen reports that seventy-seven percent (77%) say most politicians don’t keep the promises they make on the campaign trail.

              We should be pleased when they do.

  13. Now in the Sun today Gregor is pleading with the Premier:

    Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson wants Premier Christy Clark to promise to make changes to TransLink’s governance structure in hopes the move would bolster the Yes side in the upcoming transportation plebiscite.

    Are they going to plead and beg all the way through to May? Is Gregor going to set up a kiosk at at bus stop and offer to help people fill in their ballot and he, and probably Mable Elmore, will mail it for them?

  14. I’m not commenting on this post in particular, but I wanted to find something representative of what I see as a losing conflict for everyone involved.I will be voting yes in this referendum, seeing a no vote as a vote against public transportation. However I’ve been forced into this simplification. I find it extremely frustrating that progressive voters are being forced into cheerleading for translink, in the face of a ‘ford-nation’ like neoliberal assault on essential public services, via the Province and Feds.

    My main reason for writing here [ a blog that I thoroughly enjoy tuning into], is that I’m deeply concerned by one aspect of your ‘yes’ communications. There seems to me an almost smug righteousness to your wholesale defence of the system that is currently in place, never even a whiff of criticism [ that I’ve encountered anyhow] for a deeply flawed and unaccountable system.

    A quick wikipedia search yields: a 2013 report commissioned by the Mayors’ Council criticized TransLink’s governance model, stating that TransLink lacked “accountability to the population being served, which is almost completely missing from the present arrangements”. The report also stated that the absence of mechanisms to “ensure accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency” made TransLink’s governance “unique in the world and not in a good way”.

    I feel there is real danger in trying to simply messaging on these issues, as I’m seeing it backfire all over the place- observing the ‘no’ side gain traction in populations who should be voting yes, [greens, young urban commuters etc].

    It seems to me, the left make terrible ‘system justifiers’ [ to borrow from Naomi Klein], as its not really what we do most of the time. This is what the ‘yes’ campaign is asking us to do right now, on the Province and Translink’s behalf. And its backfiring- perhaps even to the Province’s ideological design.

    Thanks for listening 😀

  15. Passionately loving transit is now similar to Deep Ecology and being overly passionate and obsessively concerned about mother Earth. Both are now quasi-religions, right up there with hot-yoga, pilates, organic everything, & etc.

    Not bad in and of themselves but primarily luxurious indulgences of the wealthy western world. Hence smug righteousness.

    1. Eric, I don’t believe that dependable and affordable public transportation is a ‘luxurious indulgence’, but a pillar of modern living.
      I agree that we live with unimaginable privilege, and I think it is hard to truly understand how fortunate we are, and to keep our perspective on that.

  16. David, I agree; having grown up in another city and taking transit in various forms daily for years.

    The Yes side is prepared to ignore the criticism of TransLink, while repeatedly criticizing them themselves. It’s Yes and anyone that doesn’t agree is a philistine. Au contraire, many on the No side have perfectly valid points that should have been discussed and fleshed out before any popular vote.

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