Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterFor what is likely to be my last letter to the editor of 2016, see today’s Vancouver Sun (fourth letter from the top). The gist of my argument is that Kinder Morgan is bad.

Fun fact: this ain’t the first time I’ve responded to a pro-Kinder Morgan op-ed by former NDP Premier Dan Miller.

The Case for ‘Yes’ in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

File:Vancouver Transit.jpgWell, anybody could have called this one.

According to a new survey by Insights West, 53 per cent of residents plan to vote No in the upcoming 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite. Only 38 per cent say they will vote Yes to the proposed half-percentage-point sales tax increase to help fund more buses, new rapid transit lines, improved walking and cycling networks, road and bridge upgrades, and more.

The once mighty Yes campaign’s decline is a regrettable development, but no one can honestly claim to be surprised. Though referendums can be useful exercises, they are out of place on matters such as public transit where the impacts of present-day decisions are borne in large part by future generations. Voters risk falling victim to the myopic lullabies of anti-tax zealots and their assorted useful idiots. Provincial and municipal representatives would have done well simply to sit down together and hammer out a fair cost-sharing arrangement.

But it’s too late for that now. For better or for worse, the provincial Liberals made a cheap pledge during an election which everyone expected them to lose, and we’re stuck with this plebiscite as a result. Mail-in ballots are on their way next month. It is therefore crucial, for reasons of social and environmental justice, that we do all we can to beat the odds and secure a win for the Yes side.

Is TransLink the problem?

So why, one might ask, is the delightfully named “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax” proving so unpopular? Apart from the reflexive mantra of “we hate taxes,” two primary reasons come to the fore. The first is the reputed wastefulness and unaccountability of TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority.

It is true that the organization suffers a democratic deficit, a convoluted governance structure, and bewildering levels of executive compensation. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Compass fare card system has been disastrous, and recent high-profile service shutdowns on the SkyTrain have not made matters any easier.

It is a mystery, however, why anyone would believe that voting No could solve these problems. High-level decision-makers and bureaucrats are not “punished” when denied the ability to implement sensible policies. They are neither fired nor forced to take pay cuts. On the contrary, the only effect is to punish the general public by worsening our transit system’s dysfunctionality in a time of rapid population growth. The poor in particular would suffer through this act of sabotage to one of the cheapest means of getting around. All this in addition to further increases in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion.

It is also worth noting that while any waste is indefensible — public bodies must always strive to improve their efficiency — the items commonly cited as examples of TransLink’s storied wastefulness add up to a mere fraction of one per cent of its annual expenditures. In other words, the vast majority of the organization’s budget goes to the vital public services we rely upon it to provide. So let’s keep matters in perspective, shall we?

Are sales taxes the problem?

A second concern for some segments of the No team is the kind of taxation being considered. Sales taxes, they argue, are regressive, in that they disproportionately impact people with low incomes. If we are to expand public transit services, we should try to do so by means of more progressive alternatives.

So far so good. Indeed, the options are limitless if we allow our imaginations to run wild.

In place of a regional sales tax, perhaps transfers from higher levels of government, which are already anticipated to defray the bulk of the costs, could cover every last dime of transit funding. Personal and corporate income taxes could be raised. So too could the provincial carbon tax, for although it is just as regressive as a sales tax (all else being equal), it at least adheres to the polluter pays principle.

The problem is that not one of these idyllic alternatives is on the table, nor will they magically become so if residents vote No. We are not faced with a choice between several different mechanisms by which to pay for needed transit investments; we are faced with a choice between making those investments and not making them.

A sales tax boost may not be perfect, but as far as tax hikes go, 0.5 per cent is fairly small — amounting to an average of 35 cents per household per day, according to the Yes campaign (or about twice that by the No side’s reckoning). And unlike other sales tax proposals, such as our dearly departed HST, this one is earmarked almost entirely towards public transit, an indisputably progressive cause which benefits people with low incomes and helps to prevent climate destruction.

So what exactly is the problem, Metro Vancouver? Will we succumb, as suggested by the latest poll, to the cynical panderings of “starve the beast” fanatics? Or will we defy the prognosticators and rise to the occasion?

This blogger is not optimistic, but he hopes to be proven wrong.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

It’s the Climate, Stupid!

Portland protestNot two weeks since the federal government’s long-anticipated approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the project are becoming clearer by the day.

There is widespread public hostility — both in Kitimat, envisioned as the pipeline’s end location, as well as across British Columbia more generally. First Nations and environmental groups have launched several court challenges, with more expected to come. Massive protests and civil disobedience are inevitable. Efforts will soon be underway to initiate a province-wide referendum. The government of BC, which must provide about 60 permits, is ambivalent about the pipeline at best, while federal opposition parties are promising to reverse the project’s approval if they win next year’s election.

All this in addition to the much-ballyhooed 209 conditions.

Nevertheless, as rosy as matters may look from certain angles, victory is far from assured. The entrenched power of Enbridge and its political backers in Ottawa and Edmonton is nothing to scoff at, and pipeline opponents would do well to take a step back and consider why exactly they are opposed.

I say this because in the coming months, British Columbia will be bombarded by relentless propaganda (as though we haven’t had enough already) claiming that Enbridge has heard our cries of protest and will commit to building the greenest, most environmentally responsible pipeline it can build. The threat of bitumen spills on land and at sea will be neutralized. The company will meet and exceed provincial demands for “world-leading” response, prevention, and recovery systems.

Never mind for a moment the disingenuousness of such attempts to deflect and to co-opt. Never mind Enbridge’s less-than-exemplary record on oil spills. Such promises, even if true, are irrelevant because they fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room, climate change. The fight against pipelines is not just about our wilderness, our rivers, our coastlines — vital though these are. It is about the planet-wide impact of dangerously accelerating tar sands expansion, a process that Northern Gateway is meant to facilitate.

According to current projections, if warming is to be kept within the two-degree limit pledged by world leaders at Copenhagen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak some time before 2020. Such a scenario is not consistent with the continued building of large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure with decades-long lifespans (at least not here in the developed world). Virtually every new pipeline, oil refinery, LNG facility, or coal-fired power plant is another nail in the coffin of climate stability.

It is possible to disagree reasonably about how rapidly to phase out existing infrastructure, how aggressively to tackle the transition to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewables. But at the very least, at this stage in our history, to continue full speed in the opposite direction without a care for the consequences should be unthinkable.

That — in addition to the risk of spills — is what’s wrong with Northern Gateway. That is why we can’t let them win.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Vancouver Sun Letter

letter to the editorA few days ago, former BC NDP premier Dan Miller had an op-ed in The Vancouver Sun in which he criticized his party’s insufficient enthusiasm on resource development. As regular readers of this blog may be aware, I take a slightly different point of view. Please see here for my response letter in today’s Sun (second from the bottom), in which I briefly discuss the environment and the economy.

Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Of the Greens and the Gutless

Green PartyThose who know me know that I want nothing more than for the Green Party to succeed, but this objective is imperilled if the voting public does not think of the Greens as real contenders.

Today, BC Premier Christy Clark announced July 10 as the date for the Westside-Kelowna byelection in which she will attempt to win her way back into the legislature under the Liberal Party banner. Both the NDP and the Conservatives have named candidates to take her on; conspicuous by their absence, however, are the Greens. In a press release last week, leader Jane Sterk said, “The BC Liberals won the May 14th election decisively and the riding of Westside-Kelowna by a wide margin …. It is clear that the premier deserves to be in the legislature and we are following the tradition of respecting the wishes of the voters in this regard.”

With all due respect to Jane Sterk and the aura of civility she seeks to instill, voters can speak for themselves, thank you very much. It is not Clark who won last month’s provincial election, but her party — or more specifically, most of her party’s nominees. There is no inherent sense in which the decidedly un-green Premier “deserves” a seat. Just like any other candidate, she must convince the people of a local community that she is the best politician to represent them. That is how Canadian parliamentary democracy works.

If Sterk believes that we should switch to some kind of presidential or semi-presidential model in which we elect our leader directly in a province-wide vote (not entirely a bad idea), then she is welcome to put the suggestion up for public debate. But otherwise, it just looks like the Green Party, despite its historic and well-deserved breakthrough in May’s election, is falling back into old habits and virtually dropping off the political map outside the writ period.

When the Greens do not bother to run in byelections, they are not taken seriously and neither are their ideas. It is one thing to refrain from fielding a candidate as part of a principled campaign for electoral cooperation, as the federal Greens recently did (although I had some qualms about that being a unilateral act without any other parties on board), but it is something else entirely to stand aside on the grounds that a Premier has a right to a seat simply by virtue of being Premier, regardless of her ability to win a fair fight at the riding level.

The only real way to go about “respecting the wishes of the voters” is to give them a broad range of electoral options and allow them to choose freely amongst them. To do otherwise does not put the Green Party above the fray. Frankly, it just makes them pushovers.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Five Lessons — Real and Imagined — from BC’s Election Results

electionIn a stunning upset of “Dewey Defeats Truman” proportions, the BC Liberals have defied all the polls save one and returned to power with a fourth straight majority government. No doubt, there will be much soul searching and wound licking over the coming weeks. I believe that five lessons — real, imagined, and not-quite-clear — will be gleaned from the experience.

1. Proceed with caution when predicting the future.

In last year’s US Presidential election, statistician Nate Silver made fools out of all those television pundits who privileged “gut feeling” over quantitative analysis. But sometimes even the data geeks get it wrong.

So what happened in British Columbia? Did voter support swing at the last minute? Did New Democrats fail to get out their vote? Were there methodological problems with the polling? All we can say for sure is that the political landscape is littered with failed predictions (albeit rarely so shocking as last night’s), and that in the future, partisans and non-partisans alike are probably better off displaying greater humility when speaking of what is yet to come.

2. Going negative works.

This is a very depressing development. Early on, NDP leader Adrian Dix admirably vowed to run a positive campaign, and although that strategy began to shift in the final days, his team never attempted anything on the scale of the unrelenting attacks unleashed by Premier Christy Clark and the Liberals.

While negative campaigning can sometimes backfire, it appears to have worked this time around, as the Liberals successfully tapped into the sizable block of BC voters susceptible to red scare tactics. All the Premier had to do was remind us of secret NDP plans to steal our hard-earned tax dollars and distribute them to greedy union bosses, or something to that effect, and BC’s “free enterprise coalition” dutifully flocked into action.

If I were inclined to ignore lesson #1 above, I would predict an NDP emulation of this campaign style for the next several elections.

3. Campaigning on the environment doesn’t work.

This is even more depressing — and not necessarily accurate. But in politics, it is perception that matters.

During this election, the NDP adopted a moderately progressive environmental platform. The strategy evidently did not pay off. Conceivably, the problem may have been that its environmental policies did not go far enough; perhaps a more stringent stance, like opposition to LNG, might have chipped off a few extra Green votes and energized the party’s base. But New Democrats are most likely drawing a different conclusion. I predict (again, with all due humility) that in the next election, the NDP will focus more on capturing the ideological territory of the Liberals than the Greens.

But there are different strategies to consider.

4. The NDP and the Greens must cooperate.

This call is likely to grow louder over the coming months and years, but electoral cooperation won’t be easy to implement. Green Party support comes from across the political spectrum — more so from the NDP than the Liberals, to be sure, but not overwhelmingly so. Plus, it is hard to determine exactly how Green and NDP transfers of support would break down on a riding-by-riding basis.

But while such a scheme is not guaranteed to succeed, neither is it guaranteed to fail. A pre-election alliance in targeted ridings is at least worth further exploration. And with Jane Sterk’s probable impending departure from the Green Party leadership, possibly to be replaced by new MLA Andrew Weaver who said he would prefer an NDP to a Liberal government, bad blood between the two parties may yet diminish.

5. It’s now up to civil society.

Regardless of what happens in 2017, BC will spend the next four years governed by a party that believes itself to have a mandate for pipeline ambiguity, LNG development, and climate inaction. Environmental and social justice groups must mobilize to demonstrate to the government that its priorities for the province are not embraced by the majority of voters who wanted someone else.

“Well, that was easy,” Christy Clark joked in her victory speech last night. It is now up to all of us to make sure that the next four years are anything but.

This post appears on rabble.ca.