How can I tell I am in a referendum campaign in BC? Well, people who are encouraging me to vote “no” cover the waterfront with their positions on the issue before the public. In my forty-two years, I have been an active participant in nearly every referendum campaign my city and province have seen. I fought on the “no” side during the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992 and then, in 1996, I organized the “Yes to proportional representation” campaign in Vancouver’s municipal voting systems referendum. I served on the steering committee of the “yes” campaigns for proportional representation in the 2005 and 2009 provincial referenda on the voting system and here I am today, a foot soldier in the “Yes to better transit” campaign by the GetOnBoard BC coalition in the upcoming vote.
And things do not look good. British Columbians love voting “no” to things. Indeed, the only time I have been aligned with a referendum campaign that gained majority support, 58% voted for proportional representation in 2005, it was because we disguised ourselves as a “no” campaign.
The fact is that when most British Columbians look at a ballot, the option we are really looking for is “FUCK YOU!!!!” If that option isn’t available, they try to find the next best thing. If the word “no,” is on the ballot, we generally don’t need to look any further, as evinced by the crushing 70% victory for the forces campaigning against the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, despite being out-spent by our opponents by about twenty-five to one.
For all the talk about BC politics having changed since the days of WAC Bennett’s “socialist hordes at the gates!” and Education Minister Tony Brummett’s fist-pounding defense of the last Social Credit budget in 1991, “the people of the world have spoken and they will never, never accept communism!” we really are just the same people, the best market for negative populism in Canada. BC voters will choose whatever political formation most clearly articulates an anti-elite narrative that identifies a villain, his or her allies and their hidden agenda. As we saw in 2013, what we are not up for is “a better British Columbia, one practical step at a time” or in the case of the gong show I am backing this year, “creating a cleaner, safer, smarter transportation system.”
Because BC politics is fundamentally negative in that it is mainly about figuring out who is really in charge so that they can be punished for fucking everything up, British Columbians need to find unity in the political process in other ways. One way we do that is by having a provincial political scene in which 80-90% of voters have aligned themselves with one of only two major provincial parties for the past seventy-eight years. This locates us on big, diverse teams where we can feel like we are working shoulder-to-shoulder with half the province to stop those evil New Democrats/Socreds/BC Liberals/CCFers/Coalitioners from carrying out their hidden agenda to wreck everything.
An even more effective way to unite British Columbians and make them feel a sense of cohesion is a “no” campaign because, in BC, it doesn’t even matter what the ballot says: the result of defeating some hated measure (which is no doubt cloaking some even more dastardly hidden agenda) is that every voter will magically get their preferred alternative to whatever is on offer. That is how, during the Charlottetown Accord debate, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs worked side-by-side with John Cummins’ BC Fisheries Survival Coalition. That is why advocates for mixed-member proportional representation worked shoulder-to-shoulder with supporters of first-past-the-post in 2009 to defeat STV.
The “no” side in a BC referendum does not just succeed in making the perfect the enemy of the good. It succeeds in making everyone’s individual, imaginary perfect the enemy of a single, specific good. That is why people who want the BC government to build twice as much transit for free are working so harmoniously with those who oppose any further government funding of mass transit. That is why people who want transit to be funded only through progressive income and inheritance taxes are working so happily for a campaign run by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation. In a “no” campaign, there is an implicit social agreement to enable each individual campaigner’s act of utopian self-deception, as I witnessed in 1992 when Preston Manning activists helped future gadfly and perennial candidate Imtiaz Popat produce a video explaining that a “no” vote was a vote for the restoration of hereditary indigenous rule for all of British Columbia.
When I speak with my fellow New Democrats who are campaigning for the “no” side, I have to listen to them explain how we should not have to pay any new taxes for this transit, how it should all come from general revenue, how it should include a reduction in or abolition of fares, how consumption taxes are regressive and how we should abolish the PST and replace it with higher corporate, income and resource taxes. Of course, they argue, Christy Clark will be made to see that transit should be free, consumption taxes are evil and we all must pay our fair share. To which I can offer only one lame response, “Based on what you know of the BC government and its ideology, do you honestly believe they will build the new transit you want anyway, after you vote ‘no’?”
But if asking people to confront their socially-enabled self-deception ever got anyone anywhere in BC politics, everything would already be different. This, obviously, is no way to get things done. As I have written elsewhere, one of the reasons we view political campaigns as a self-sufficient act, irrespective of their public policy outcome, is because we have grown so deeply pessimistic about the idea that the result of any vote will make our lives better in any way. People are enthusiastic about the “no” campaign not because they believe it will make their lives better but because it will provide real experiences of social cohesion and victory, rare commodities under present-day neoliberal hegemony.
Instead, I am writing this post to beg my side to retool, to stop and think about how negatively we British Columbians react to a paternalistic, cross-partisan elite consensus that presents some political outcome as good and positive for everyone.
The reality is that the “no” forces really do have a hidden agenda, that their puppet-masters are dangerous, shadowy forces of extreme-right think tanks who will be satisfied with nothing less than the total annihilation of our social safety net and the sacrifice of public health and education to their invisible-handed god. The fact is that climate change deniers, oil companies and Ayn Rand fanatics are sitting back in their plush leather chairs laughing about how easy we are to manipulate for their purposes and what witless dolts the clowns who pass for our local civic elite appear to be.
It’s time to stop all this nonsensical positivity. Identify the villain; expose their friends; explain their hidden agenda. Time is running out.