Op/Ed - How David Slayed The TransLink Goliath

Last December, I told a friend I was running the NO side in the upcoming TransLink plebiscite. Impeccably connected to Vancouver’s government and business communities, he told me I was making a big mistake, the result would be 80% for the YES side, and I would embarrass myself and damage my polling business. Everyone he knew was supporting the YES campaign, and TransLink and the municipal governments planned to spend millions to get the result they wanted.

All the NO side had was a website, a few thousand dollars donated by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and our secret weapon, Jordan Bateman. On December 15, Insights West released their first poll: among decided voters, 57% were voting yes and only 43% were planning to vote no.

Jordan and I had a plan of attack ready. On principle, we opposed the TransLink tax because we believed TransLink’s problem wasn’t lack of revenue but terrible management. We also knew that municipal governments across our region kept collecting more property taxes but never directed any of them to transit. Instead of making tough choices with their own budgets, the TransLink mayors wanted to take more money out of the pockets of people living in one of the most expensive places in North America.

In our plan, we developed both an offensive message – that TransLink couldn’t be trusted with any more of your money; and a defensive one – that the proposed plan could be paid for with savings from wasteful municipal governments.

After Christmas, we came out swinging with both our messages. We released examples of TransLink waste every day. We named TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis the “Face of the Waste” because he made more than any other transit system CEO and even the Prime Minister.

We also released a detailed, 73-page, accountant-authored, financial plan showing how the entire proposed transit expansion could be funded if municipalities simply dedicated a fraction of their expected growth in tax revenues each year to transit. No one was able to attack our plan on the numbers – it was a strong push back to the mayors’ message that a new tax was the only way to pay for more buses and subways.

People responded well and started signing up on our website, interacting with our Facebook group and donating money. The vast majority of donations were under $200. In the end, we raised $39,687.95.

In early January, we realized we had the YES side rattled. They started attacking Jordan personally. Every day, Jordan was assailed on Twitter and by YES side spokespeople. I told him this was a great sign – if this referendum was about who the voters hated more, TransLink or Jordan Bateman, we would win every time.

Around the same time, the YES side launched the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition – which eventually grew to include 145 groups ranging from big unions to the Vancouver Board of Trade and the Suzuki Foundation. Everyone who was anyone was involved and it became a group of elites telling everyday folks what to think.

Jordan was attacked for being “the only guy” opposed to this tax, so we rolled out spokespeople for the Chinese and Punjabi language media, and released supportive op-eds by other people. On balance these attacks helped us – making the David and Goliath struggle all the more real in the eyes of the voters.

On February 11, the YES side gave us our biggest break. They fired the “Face of the Waste,” Ian Jarvis, but kept paying his salary. This proved what we had been saying was true – TransLink was mismanaged. Less than a month later, they did it again, promising that a billionaire would look over the books – further proof TransLink couldn’t be trusted to manage your money. The YES side was proving our core message.

We kept pushing our simple message in the media and using traditional grassroots methods. We deployed 700 lawn signs and were rewarded by ham-fisted municipal officials confiscating them, generating more sympathetic coverage. We had volunteers hand deliver thousands of flyers and we even had a crowdfunded plane tow a No TransLink Tax banner over the Vancouver Marathon.

The results speak for themselves – 62% voted NO, including majorities in supposed YES strongholds Vancouver and New Westminster. We won by producing straight-forward messages that connected with what voters thought themselves about TransLink and their tax burden.

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun.