Weekend Reading: Why the Vancouver Transit Referendum Was Savaged

Lessons for Auckland as we are in the EXACT same boat

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

— Dr. Seuss

The results came out earlier this week for the vaunted Vancouver Transit Referendum (an extra sales tax to pay for mass transit infrastructure) where over 61% said NO. The result was entirely unexpected to the YES campaign that spent over $7m in ‘advertising’ all to complete failure. A translation back to Auckland would be the recent Long Term Plan debate in which Aucklanders were not warm to either fuel taxes plus rate increases nor motorway tolls. Aucklanders were not particular warm to the two transport options (Basic and Auckland Plan) either but more receptive towards the more “balanced” approach presented by Generation Zero. That balanced approach due to Council budget limitation was more or less implemented with the help of the Transport Targeted Rate.

However, our Council especially the Mayor continue to pursue the rejected alternative transport funding options, while still wanting the Auckland Plan Transport Network (a complete smorgasbord of everything to please everyone) at a cost of over $12 billion. This is while as Auckland continues to grow our transport system is no where up to the standard needed for a World City especially one that claims to be The World’s Most Liveable City in which we are not.

Back to Vancouver

The Vancouver Observer has laid bare what happened over there as a result of the failed Transit Referendum. I will break each section down into here and how Auckland is in the same boat.

Mayors, premier led us into transit purgatory

Our communities are held hostage by this demoralizing and exhausting political game.

After nearly two years preparing and engaging in the #TransitReferendum, we are back exactly where we started: the purgatory of transit stasis. We are stuck, it seems, in the depths of a civic molasses; a never-ending debate that persists like a chronic disease, weighing ever heavily on our collective mental health.

Could it be that TransLink has become our own local Senate? An institution we all purportedly love to hate that our elected leadership cannot seem to improve or change?

The truth is, of course not. TransLink, this referendum, and indeed the whole issue of insufficient transit is the result of real decisions that are made by real people in positions of real power. This intractable dilemma has been created and could easily be undone if our leaders chose to take action. But they don’t.

So if you’re looking for somebody to blame, or better yet, somebody to figure out where we go from here, you need only look to the three so-called leaders that are holding us all, and the future of our community, hostage by continuing this demoralizing and exhaustive political game.


So Vancouver is back to where they started before the referendum, absolutely nowhere. At the same time it is becoming apparent the Governance and Management model at TransLink needs to be overhauled possibly starting with Board of Directors and all Executive Managers sacked in wake of the referendum failure? Why? It becomes somewhat apparent later on. In the case of Auckland Transport the Governance and Management model is certainly not working. We should have never gotten to the situation with the Pohutukawa Six situation earlier this year which is an example of Auckland Transport still being car and truck first and everyone else as a second thought. Two recent safety campaigns (the Green and Dancing Men) also illustrate the auto centric mentality of Auckland Transport. Mean while the ominishambles of May and June on the rail network also show Auckland Transport being slow in reacting to prevent the situations that had occurred over those two months.

The mayors

For over five years, the mayors have stubbornly refused to expand transit through property-tax funding. They believe that property taxes are simply too high and demanded the province okay a new source of funding for transit. After bandying around a laundry list of taxes and fees, only last December did they finally declare that the new source be a regional sales tax.

The province has always wanted the mayors to use the property tax, just as it has been used for the past decade for additional transit funding, but relented through the referendum process. If the people approved the new funding mechanism, the province would allow it. The people have given a resounding ‘No’ to the new sales tax. There will be no new funding source now — only the property tax.

If the mayors want to expand transit, as they should and as they must, they already can. Approve a property-tax increase.


Auckland has just gone through that experience with Mayor Len Brown forming a Consensus Building Group to explore alternative funding options for the $12 billion Auckland Plan Transport Network. The group finally whittled the choices down to a Fuel Tax plus extra Rates or a Motorway Toll. Both (apart from the Rates) needing Government legislation or action to bring into fruition. In the recent Long Term Plan discussion we were asked which of the two options we would back. Surprising it was none (neither had a clear majority) and the Government is cold to tolls at least.

Typically transport is funded through debt provisions that are repaid through Rates (or Property Taxes as North America calls it). Owing to the large expense of the Auckland Plan Transport Network the Rates were never going to be enough without alternatives and help from the Government.

Moving along a Transport Targeted Rate was brought in by the Council to kick-start some transport projects (road, public and active modes). until we settle on what transport options we want and how we will like to pay for it outside of Rates and taxation.

The premier

Premier Christy Clark knows her role. She is the leader of a government that serves 4.4 million people across 162 municipalities. The demands of the Lower Mainland must be tempered and balanced with the priorities of the other half of British Columbians. She knows that her majority was not secured by the urban voters of Vancouver, but by the farmers and labourers of rural B.C. The referendum was both a grapevine to the mayors and a strategic deflection of engaging in what she believes to be a local issue.

Transit, and indeed the future of urban B.C., is not on the premier’s agenda. If it were, she could have solved these issues a long time ago. Just look east to Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne of Ontario, who is investing tens of billions of dollars in transit infrastructure. Or, even closer to home, at the newly installed NDP government of Alberta’s Rachel Notley. With a swipe of the pen, Premier Notley has reinstated hundreds of millions in funding to keep schools and hospitals running and expanding to meet demand. When premiers have agendas they are committed to achieving, they get it done.

For Premier Clark, urban B.C. simply doesn’t matter. Whether it’s schools, hospital, or transit, the BC Liberals aren’t there for you. If you want a provincial government that cares about these issues, don’t re-elect Christy Clark. Better yet, join an opposition party and help them get organized and able to legitimately contest the Liberals in the next election.


Translate this back to New Zealand and you can say about the John Key National Government in regards to Auckland and its transport.

National’s votes are in the provinces with some in Auckland. Auckland can be deemed not a “priority” electorate wise unless Labour is mounting a very strong challenge when it won her Third Term in 2005. Right now our Opposition is a complete mess so Key can afford to be like Clark in British Columbia.

And for Auckland to get better with 21st Century planning and infrastructure we need an Opposition that has its collective self together.

The lobbyist

The ‘No’ campaign didn’t start this January; it began in 2011 when Jordan Bateman, a former pro-transit councillor from the Township of Langley, took over as the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a right-wing anti-tax lobby group. From day one, he has attacked TransLink and framed the organization as a wasteful, reckless and unaccountable agency. Since neither TransLink, nor anybody else, countered that message, it has grown to become practically common sense among most locals.

He didn’t win the ‘No’ victory with $40,000. He won it through four years of free and unchallenged media coverage pushing his anti-tax agenda onto an agency with no leader and no voice. That strategy enabled him to defeat a coalition of 145 institutions, the majority of the region’s elected mayors, and a $7-million education and advertising campaign.

All of which goes to show that when leadership steps up to the plate, people listen. In the vacuum of political leadership from the mayors and the premier, Bateman has filled the void with a simple and appealing message. Those of us who are pro-transit would be wise to learn from his strategy if we ever want to advance our agenda as effectively as he has his.


Now this gets interesting in the case for Auckland. Bateman from Langley is a classic case of a pro Councillor flipping to oppositional activist role and kicking the living daylights out of an institution. Bateman defeated 145 institutions, mayors and a $7m YES campaign through share persistence and complete incompetence at TransLink and other elected officials through wider Vancouver.

Whether I agree with Bateman or not (I actually do in this case) is beside the point. What he pulled is straight forward leadership on a contentious issue when the other side is completely null and void. This garners my respect towards Bateman and none towards to Yes Campaign and its “leaders.”

Translating back to Auckland you could argue that there are three distinct groups (one would have two sub groups) all vying for Auckland to go in a certain direction.

You have the Len Brown group and supporters. This group backs most if not all the Mayor’s calls which seem to be a grand all, be all everything. Basically Auckland running as a de-facto City State.

You have the Cameron Brewer opposition including the Ratepayers Alliance (part of the Taxpayers Union). Brewer has got not a lot to show for his five years on Council saying ‘no’ to just about everything possible. The Ratepayers Alliance is young and is yet to be seen if they can capitalise on any Long Term Plan fallout outside of the lower North Shore and the Auckland Isthmus. Remembering you need to support of the South and West to win the mayoral chains. If the Ratepayers Alliance can not get beyond the Isthmus and North Shore with their messaging then they will not be able to pull off what Bateman in Vancouver pulled off successfully. Why? Because of this next group of which I am in.

The final group is the middle progressive/conservative group which has two sub groupings under it. The first sub group is “Green” side where Generation Zero and their supporters sit. The second sub group is the broader pragmatism but more conservative side where I would sit and arguably our Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse would sit.

Both sub groups have similar goals on more balanced approaches to Auckland’s transport (and planning future) although there would be some key differences there even though we support one another often.

For example both of sub groups would oppose the East West Connections and support the City Rail Link. But while Generation Zero might not support the Southern Motorway upgrades I certainly do. Generation Zero would support light rail on the Isthmus while I go well what about South Auckland given that we have a large east-west flow seeming the South often commutes within herself.

Advocacy wise both sub groups advocate although maybe for different things in different ways. There might be alliances their might not be I suppose it depends on the situation at the given time. Neither sub groups are warm towards the Mayor and would treat 2016 as a case turn the page in Auckland propelling forward. However, the group wouldn’t be caught napping like in Vancouver to allow a vacuum to develop. One fast way to have the group fired up is the Brewer opposition group do something half-baked. The last thing the rest of Auckland wants is the fractured Isthmus politics of the last 80 years plaguing the rest of the City.

Both Generation Zero and myself could be considered Thought Leaders in the area of Auckland matters as well.

What next?

So after spending the past two years beating the drum of the referendum, in what has seemingly amounted to an incredibly expensive waste of time, what next? Unless one of these three leaders change their position, absolutely nothing.

The mayors aren’t playing ball; they say the premier has to fix TransLink. The province isn’t taking the bait, instead saying the mayors will have to find the money to contribute their share. All the while, Bateman continues to vilify TransLink, saying they need to tighten their belts before even uttering the word ‘expansion.’

Which leaves me with one simple thought:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

— Dr. Seuss


Source: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/opinion/mayors-premier-led-us-transit-purgatory

Bateman will continue to be successful because the other two continue to be hopeless. Change does need to happen and it needs to start at the top with the Premier, Mayors, Board and Executive Management of TransLink. IF they can show actual leadership and a solid way forward I would (hopefully) expect Batemen (if he is true to word) become pro again. I find it always curious when a previous pro person then successfully leads an opposition. It makes me ponder what the former did (or rather not do) to cause a person to jump.

In any case the Dr Seuss line to me is the crux on why I blog and advocate. Because unless someone like me cares a whole awful lot then nothing in Auckland is going to get better – because it wont. And that caring does come at a cost – a personal cost.