Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Gateway vote? It’s just a dream

with 4 comments

Frances Bula, Vancouver Sun

Published: Friday, November 16, 2007


Coverage that compares the two systems, forces me to conclude that the Americans are more democratic than we are. I cannot say I like the electioneering and the expense, but at least it gets the arguments out in the open. And the people get to decide, not the elites.

That’s much different from here, where big regional transit projects are not voted on directly by the public, and voters don’t always see an immediate link between the project and their taxes.

Here, the Gateway project was largely driven forward by a coalition of businesses that got together in the late 1990s and successfully lobbied the provincial government for the project.

Actually I think it is much worse than that. The coalition included people who were public servants – or should have seen themselves that way. But often they were appointees to the Boards that now run important public facilities like the Port and the Airport. These used to be federal organisations, reporting to Transport Canada and dependent on Ottawa for funding. But now they have boards that are appointed by a “behind closed doors” process – and there is absolutely no pretence whatever that these peole are representative of the public. They are chosen because they are well known in a small circle of CEOs and MLAs and others. They are not expected to act in the broader public interest, but rather to voice the opinions of a small, narrowly focused group. And the people who run the port and airport have almost unfettered access to the operating surpluses and investment funds and have a vested interest in expansion – because it makes their jobs bigger.

The Gateway idea was eagerly adopted by a bunch of transport professionals, who saw career advancement, a bigger pay cheque or at least something impressive to add to their resumes. Consultants have done well out of the Gateway already. Lots of contracts for studies. There have been perks like conferences and trips to other cities – always nice to break the tedium of another day at the office. What was missing was any sense of genuine curiosity about what its long term effects might be – on the natural environment or local communities. There was certainly no question that the Gateway supporters would look at other ways of spending the huge amounts of money involved. Indeed, as a lobby group, you would not expect them to. But when the membership of that lobby includes the people who are supposed to answer just that question – is this the best way for us to proceed? – the objectivity of the advice they are giving their political masters is at least called into question.

In the conventions of our process, civil servants are supposed to be objective, apolitical, experts in their fields. The advice they give is supposed not to be tainted by personal or political preferences. The British Civil Service came in for some very harsh and politically biased publicity when Richard Crossman – a minister in the Labour Governments post 1964 – published his diaries. Two comedy writers turned them into scripts for the successful tv series “Yes, Minister”. Indeed, in my time in Whitehall we had copies of them in our top left hand desk drawer for ease of reference.  That process has been changing in recent years: Mrs Thatcher was known to stalk the corridors of power, pointing to those she did not recognise and asking pointedly “Is he one of us?” In BC there is supposedly a distinction between permanent civil servants and political appointees, but the distinction gets blurred. And there are those who manage to cross the lines – not just of ministries but our institutes of learning too – the universities where we tend to go for research to support our policy inclinations.

I have never understood why politicians think they can tell us that we do not want an election. I have the distinct impression that the reason people are less inclined to vote is the common perception that it makes not a blind bit of difference. No matter who we vote for we get the same bunch of venal self interested poseurs. Alright, that’s an exaggeration, but the really competent, honest politicians really never seem to last very long in the cage match of our political process. Politics in BC is a very dirty business.

As a general principle I am in favour of more public participation. I am always very impressed by the people who make the effort to take part, even though they must know that they have only a small voice easily ignored. Like the citizens assembly that looked at our voting system. What happened to their recommendations? I think we should trust the people. In a democracy they are the source of power and legitimacy. What we now have is an elected oligarchy, that cares very little about what the public thinks since they think they can successfully manipulate the communications process to get the outcomes they want.  Every so often, they badly misjudge the public mood, or their personal greed and cupidity gets the better of them and they get caught. In countries like France there is a long and proud tradition of revolution and even Baron Hausmann’s careful urban planning has done little to reduce the Parisians’ willingness to take to the streets. We don’t do that here as much or as often – but an elite that continues to ignore the will of the people knowingly risks civil disobedience. And since that grabs the airwaves better than any press conference, the people who need their voices to be heard can be expected to resort to it when it comes to issues of vital importance.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 16, 2007 at 10:57 am

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Stephen, you conclude your article in The World Edition with this: “Opponents of the freeway proposal are currently concentrating their efforts on the opportunities for comment presented by the [Environmental Assessment]. But if they are ignored, as seems to be the pattern in BC, it may be that stronger, less polite measures will be used. ”

    And this post concludes with: “We don’t [take to the streets] here as much or as often — but an elite that continues to ignore the will of the people knowingly risks civil disobedience. And since that grabs the airwaves better than any press conference, the people who need their voices to be heard can be expected to resort to it when it comes to issues of vital importance.”

    I get the impression you wouldn’t mind seeing some less polite and more direct measures taken. I agree. The time for saying “pretty please, listen to reason” is long past. I’m not sure what the best thing to do is, though.

    This is why I try to make it out to Critical Mass every month. I see it as an assertion of rights and a demonstration of how the city could look if cars were not at the top of the transportation food chain as they are now and have been for longer than anyone alive now can remember. It’s also civil disobedience on a pretty large scale, and it’s at its best when it is non-confrontational.

    But even something as harmless as Critical Mass is usually spun by the media in terms of “a traffic NIGHTMARE [for cars]” with fantasy scenarios of pregnant women and sick grandmothers stuck in cars, so I wonder how any kind of direct action or civil disobedience would be portrayed.


    November 16, 2007 at 3:58 pm

  2. I am simply reporting what I am hearing. There is a sense of frustration that this is a critical decision not a done deal at all – but the BC Liberals think they can proceed no matter what – just as they did with the Sea to Sky upgrade. And this goes much wider than the freeway – it is the whole “say one thing, do the opposite” of climate change and the Gateway

    Stephen Rees

    November 16, 2007 at 6:50 pm

  3. […] is plenty of insightful coverage on this issue, that is better informed and more knowledgeable than I will ever hope to […]

  4. […] and commentary here, here and here […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: