Opinion

Please Advise! Where Can I Aim My In-transit-ive Rage?

Don't worry, commuters. Dr. Steve's got a ballot for you.

By Steve Burgess 29 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

I'm vaguely disgruntled. Is there some simple avenue of expression available to me?

Signed,

Vaguely Disgruntled

Dear VD,

You're displeased? You feel that kids don't listen to their parents anymore? The economy is suffering? Ungrateful cats pay no mind to their owners? The Vancouver Canucks should not have started goalie Ryan Miller against the Flames in game six? You are in luck -- all of your concerns can find a voice. We're having a referendum. (Plebiscite, if you want to get technical).

Ostensibly that plebiscite is about Metro Vancouver transit and the 0.5 per cent increase in the provincial sales tax that will secure a well-funded future for the transportation system. But that's a quibble. A referendum -- any referendum -- is your chance to blow off steam. But hurry: you have only a month left to put a big "X" through all of your grievances and get that ballot in the mail.

The "no" side has been winning the public debate, which is not surprising. Every stubbed toe or rainy day favours a "no" vote. I'm pretty sure I once heard a rumour about a TransLink executive who kicked his dog. On such matters rests the future of public transit in our city.

But aside from the transit issue being decided -- important though it is -- a plebiscite like this becomes a referendum on plebiscites. Are they the best way to settle public policy issues? Human nature has a funny way of settling such disputes.

Centuries of 'no'

History has seen many public polls. The infamous Pontius Pilate referendum was held somewhere between 30 and 33 AD. Standing before a Jerusalem mob, Pilate called a vote on the fate of a local prisoner. The result: a clear victory for the "no" side.

Four centuries earlier a similar vote doomed Socrates. Tellingly, Socrates was on trial largely for failing to support Athenian democracy -- the great philosopher favoured rule by a wise and enlightened potentate. And when the crowd voted "guilty," democracy did him in.

In 1978 California voters endorsed Proposition 13, capping property taxes for existing homes. Economists are still arguing about the net effects of that move but it's a matter of record that the state has since seen both major budget crises and a rapid decline in its national scholastic ranking.

2011 saw B.C.'s own tax revolt vote with the HST referendum. What strange bedfellows that fight made -- Bill Vander Zalm and the NDP, riding together into the fray. Say what you like about HST versus PST, it's hard to dispute that the anti-HST side was fuelled mostly by anger at former premier Gordon Campbell and his duplicity in breaking an electoral vow. Listen to a case based on the actual merits of the tax? Or line up to buy a baseball at the Gordon Campbell Dunk Tank? No contest.

The plebiscite becomes a vehicle for public discontent. As playwright Wilson Mizner once said, "I never saw a mob rush across town to do a good deed." Nor do mobs typically rush to the ballot box to pay more taxes.

Grab your pitchfork

Having said all that, I don't think the transit plebiscite is a bad idea. If you're going to have a vote on something, a dedicated sales tax increase for a particular public service is a justifiable reason. I just don't have much faith in the process. Jordan Bateman and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have proved once again that appeals to populist anger, in this case a cartoon caricature of the "Translink elite" wasting your hard-earned cash, are more powerful than an idea as bland as well-funded public transportation.

The only hope of the "yes" side is motivation. So far ballot return rates are highest in Vancouver where support is also highest. There's still a chance for a "yes" victory. It will require a lot more people to direct their anger at the right people -- namely the ones who are determined to hamstring our civic future just to save themselves the price of the tank of gas they'll waste idling in gridlock.

Let's get this mob rolling to do a good deed.  [Tyee]

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