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Metro Vancouver Transit Tax Debate: Transparency Is Key For 'Yes' Side

02/04/2015 03:41 EST | Updated 04/06/2015 05:59 EDT
Flickr: roland

Twenty-two years ago last fall, I began a young political campaigner's dream job, working in the B.C. war room for the Yes forces in support of the Charlottetown Accord. For the first and only time in Canadian history, all the major political parties -- Progressive Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats -- worked side-by-side to convince voters to support constitutional change in Canada.

Political observers have lately been comparing the 1992 referendum vote to bring Quebec into Canada's constitutional fold with the 2015 plebiscite on the Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax. A vote is taking place by mail-in ballot beginning in March to decide whether to raise the sales tax by 0.5 per cent.

Today, as it was back then, the Yes side has a broad coalition comprised of business and labour interests, but a public that is unclear on how they will benefit by voting Yes. And we have an articulate No vote proponent skilled at communicating to large audiences. In 1992 that was broadcaster Rafe Mair; in 2015 it is taxpayer advocate Jordan Bateman.

Are we really experiencing déjà vu, and will there be another resounding "no" as with Accord or a different outcome this time?

Back in '92, Mair was able to leverage Canadians' growing antipathy toward Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and their exhaustion with constitutional politics to undermine support for the Accord. The radio host's message then, like Bateman's today, was simple, sharp, and consistent: send a message to the politicians by voting No.

The Yes side's muted campaign since announcing the tax in December, if deliberate, feels like a tactical error. Add it to a list of missteps by the Mayors' Council that includes debating the funding options behind closed-doors and failing to put the congestion tax on the ballot during November's municipal elections.

A recent poll suggests the Yes side has a slight majority if the vote was held today. Not surprisingly, however, momentum is with the No side that has campaigned actively for weeks.

During the Charlottetown Accord campaign, the Yes side's biggest challenge was its inability to prove how it would benefit average Canadians. The unshakable impression of voters -- rightly or wrongly -- was that the Yes side only represented the interests of the elites.

Mayors, business groups, labour organizers, and others touting the transit tax might do well then to humble themselves when talking with voters. That means a different style of campaign that focuses on informing the public on all aspects of the plan. To date, however, the pro-tax proponents have adopted a sky-is-falling message box that could turn off voters.

The cynical view touted by the No campaign is the tax collected will be poured down the proverbial rabbit hole of government waste. The Taxpayers Federation wants you to believe the money will not be spent on projects that will relieve congestion.

The Yes campaign's job, therefore, is simple: assure voters that the taxes collected will be used where they are needed most. The mayors' key to winning is to be completely transparent about how they intend to spend the public's money. It is not to attack the No side.

What the Yes side has in its favour is a broad agreement that our prosperity depends upon our ability to move people and goods efficiently. Our region is growing and the high cost of housing is either pushing people to choose the suburbs, or to live in denser communities surrounding transit hubs.

The mayors assert that we need new revenue sources through taxation to improve our transportation choices. Critics argue local governments and specifically TransLink are wasteful and more funding could compound those issues. Both viewpoints have merit but annual spending audits -- which the Mayors' Council commits to in writing right on the ballot -- will help to protect taxpayers from abuse.

Just as any family has to save for a rainy day, I believe we must invest in our transportation system. Though I am personally wary of raising the sales tax, it is hard to see how the mayors could agree on another option intended to hit drivers harder.

The Mayors' Council could break from past unsuccessful referenda by getting a Yes vote this spring. But they have to get to work now and most importantly, use openness to earn the voters' trust.