MacPherson: Lessons for Alberta from Vancouver’s Translink Tax Referendum

By: Paige MacPherson


The most important thing about Vancouver’s recent Translink tax referendum was that there was a referendum at all. On this, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley should take note.

The people in the lower mainland of BC recently voted 62 per cent against a 0.5 per cent municipal sales tax hike to fund the regional transit authority’s expansion plan. The tax hike had been proposed by the mayor’s council of the 21 municipalities that make up the Metro Vancouver region.

Beforeduring and after the vote, some have argued the vote was a waste of time and money. If the result had been an overwhelming yes – showing the public was in lockstep with the local mayors’ plans – one could more reasonably make that point.

The result, however, was a resounding no.

Therein lies the lesson for Premier Notley and other politicians considering giving or gaining new taxing powers. Votes on game-changing new taxes are crucial. Forcing them on city residents might leave you on the wrong end of public opinion.

As Edmonton and Calgary are asking the province for more tax powers, Premier Notley has the moral imperative to respect this.

In BC, Premier Christy Clark necessitated the vote. Even though she was in favour of the Translink tax, Clark made a commitment that if Vancouver-area mayors wanted to impose a municipal sales tax, they’d better have residents’ consent first.

Mayors, unionists, business groups and environmentalists spent about $6.7 million of mostly taxpayer dollars campaigning for the ‘YES’ side, outspending the ‘NO’ side 150-to-one.

The ‘NO’ side, led by Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) BC Director Jordan Bateman, spent about $40,000 voluntary dollars for their campaign.

Most on the NO side like public transit. In fact, Bateman released a detailed plan during the campaign showing how to expand transit without raising taxes. For many NO voters, the question was whether they should to give more of their hard-earned money to an irresponsible transit authority that already receives busloads of tax dollars.

Edmonton mayor Don Iveson was vocal about the vote immediately after the results came in. He called the outcome “terribly shortsighted” and said he’s glad our new Alberta government is “unambiguously pro transit investment.” Iveson said it was “silly to put it to referendum in the first place.”

The National Post editorial board, which urged readers to vote yes to the Translink Tax, perfectly summed up the post-vote sour grapes of Mayor Iveson and others:

“That some are now inclined to blame the public for their defeat, or to conclude that the failure of the voters to give them the answer they sought proves they should never have been asked, probably helps explain the result. An enormous reservoir of distrust has built up between the political class and the public in this country, in part because of attitudes like this. People can sense when they are being patronized, and they tend not to take it well.”

Like in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton have infrastructure goals. The crucial question we could soon face is whether historic new taxes must be imposed to pay for it?

Alberta’s big city mayors have been pushing for city charters for some time. These special agreements between the province and cities could give mayors and council new tax powers. Calgary city council iscurrently considering options for how to fund their transit and infrastructure plans, one of which was a sales tax – but they’d need provincial approval. Sound familiar? 

In the past, former Alberta premiers have told Alberta mayors to put such new tax powers to the people in a referendum. Curiously, the cities chose not to.

Now, there’s a new sheriff in town and she’s expressed willingness to give cities the ‘tools they need.’BC’s premier respected the people, and Premier Notley should too. If she wants to dip into our toolboxes, it’s only neighbourly to ask first.

Paige MacPherson is the Alberta Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. 

This oped was originally published in the Edmonton Journal on July 13, 2015.

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