Here are a few quick, initial thoughts on Vancouver’s transit referendum, where new transit funding paid for by a regional sales tax was rejected roughly 60% to 40%. You might want to read on even if you’re not from Vancouver: after all, it isn’t the only property-value-driven urban “utopia” where public services, public spaces and people themselves are being pushed out by elites.
(1) The result is unhappy, but not unexpected. The process was designed to fail and it has succeeded at that task with flying colours: the provincial government took an area of long-standing funding responsibility, turned its expansion into a vote on new taxation, and then abdicated all responsibility for an effective campaign. (This rather than getting money for transit out of general revenues and sparking debate over how to fund services and which ones.) If and when Christie Clark gets her pink slip, someone should stick a gold star on it for this one.
(2) On one hand, the result confirms the ideological victory of the right on the level of a very concrete, local example. New taxes and expanded public services are easy to pick apart in an age where cutting both is a hard-won default position in political debate. On the other hand, it will be easy to interpret these results in a way that further strains any remaining bonds of social solidarity. There is self-satisfaction from the ideologues of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation; however, alongside it it’s already easy to see complaints about “stupid suburban voters” from those in favour of more transit on social media.
(3) The Yes campaign was part and parcel of a severely-limited, feel-good, paternalistic liberalism that passes for politics in Vancouver. More recent campaigns (or, less charitably, media events) like #DontHaveaMillion or “Give Us the Data” fall into the same broad category. This politics can make peace with the speculative-real-estate-driven model of development, but wants it to be accessible to the lower layers of the professional-managerial class and wants it to produce “livability” for those lucky enough to have had house values explode under their feet. And, of course, it should come with a green smiley face—helps with the property values too! The “stupid suburbanite” is all too easily blamed by this kind of politics, which can do little to tackle the growing inequality within the Vancouver region because it cannot connect with any deeper questioning of economy or state.
(4) It is important to recognize that the right played on legitimate concerns, especially regarding cronyism at Translink. It doesn’t matter that it’s been the Liberals who’ve had a good hand in increasing both the salaries and numbers of managers at the transit authority. In the same way, it was easy to turn this into a “do you want a new tax?” vote. Each way of framing the issue—cronyism and taxes—effectively leverages existing social conflicts to create the conditions for them to keep simmering. It’s possible to dislike crony bureaucrats and want better transit; the space for debate has narrowed so much that these are presented as polar alternatives.
(5) Finally, a small positive note: it was a plebiscite that wasn’t binding and increased investment can in principle be implemented by a new (or even the existing) provincial government, especially given significant local pressure. This is not a technical question but a political one. The solution is to go back and organise in our communities on the one hand (thinking smaller) and to propose bolder alternatives (thinking bigger). Today, the right’s organized forces and utopian demands are winning; neither needs to be the case.