B.C. government engages ‘Otto pilot’
(January 19, 2014)

A democracy can die in one of two ways: It can fall victim to foreign invasion, or it can be betrayed from within.

Here in British Columbia, democracy is dying its own particular slow death, thanks to successive Liberal provincial governments that have reverted to old-style autocracy. Perhaps the most conspicuous example is the government’s treatment of TransLink, the public transit authority of Greater Vancouver.

In 2007, Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon, imperiously replaced TransLink’s elected board with nine politically unaccountable, appointed “professionals”—lawyers, real estate developers, and the like. Why? Three years earlier, the board, consisting of GVRD staff and the 21 regional mayors, twice refused to endorse his pet project.

The board deemed a proposed Richmond-Airport-Vancouver SkyTrain line not to be in the public interest: overly costly, detrimental to other transit services, inconsistent with the priority of expanding rail service into the northeast, and founded on Falcon’s insistence that it be built as a public/private sector partnership.

Whatever one may have thought of the board’s decisions, it did precisely what it was supposed to do—rule in the public interest the way politicians should. Falcon, though, had other expectations and did not take defeat graciously. After the second refusal he said: “I would be dishonest if I didn't tell you that my confidence in TransLink’s ability to make regional transit decision [sic] has been severely shaken.”

Falcon’s fit of pique cannot be taken at face value since TransLink’s ability to decide matters of public transit had never been in question. A plain-English translation uncovers Falcon’s real message: “I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you that my confidence in TransLink’s duty to do what I damned well tell it to do has been badly shaken.”

At length, the pressure became too great and in December 2004 the board gave in, approving the now-named “Canada Line” after two opposition mayors switched votes. However, there is evidence that one of these swing votes was coerced. North Vancouver City Mayor Barbara Sharp, told the Vancouver Sun she found a threatening note on her car that summer after a contentious board meeting. Though she said she knew who left it, she took no action.

Despite the victory, the episode taught Falcon an important long-term lesson: if he expected to bring TransLink completely under his control he had to do away with its democratic, elected structure. What Falcon did amounted to a frontal assault on representative democracy, and cannot be defended according to any modern, political standard.

However, it does have a precedent of sorts, so please bear with me as I turn briefly to medieval Europe and the unique way that Otto I dealt with his political rivals.

Soon after being proclaimed Duke of Saxony and King of the Germans in 936, Otto I set about centralizing royal authority. As was the case throughout Europe at the time, real political and military power was wielded by regional nobles, and in north-central Europe these nobles were the dukes of Saxony, Swabia, Bavaria, Lotharingia and Franconia. Otto’s campaign came at the expense of these other dukes, and time and again they resisted loss of political power.

After the first uprising in 939, Otto replaced rebellious dukes with relatives and allies to ensure loyalty and to break political links between the people and their local leadership. This solution would prove ineffective because Otto still had to govern through political authorities, and in 953 his own relatives put their dynastic ambitions ahead of royal loyalty. Otto found himself facing his son Liudorf (Duke of Swabia), brother Henry (Duke of Bavaria) and brother-in-law Conrad (Duke of Lotharingia) in a major war because of events in Italy.

In December 954, after putting down this second major rebellion, Otto hit upon a more permanent solution when he decided to make his other brother Bruno, Archbishop of Cologne, the new duke of Lotharingia. The difference this time was that, as a member of the clergy, Bruno could not generate a dynasty, had no political base, and owed allegiance to nobody but Otto. In short, Otto would bypass politicians altogether and turn the clergy into his policy enforcers. In 962, Otto was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor, and the Ottonian system of imperial-church government lasted for centuries.

In this historical sketch, similarities to Falcon’s handling of local political leaders are clear. Because the Greater Vancouver regional civic leaders stuck to their political guns to rebuff the RAV line not once but twice, Falcon condemned them for being parochial—he might as well have said “political”—and three years later replaced them with an appointed “clergy” of business types, whose loyalty to him and his public/private corporate ideology was pre-established.

Technically, this reduction of TransLink to a governmental fiefdom was effected in December 2007 when the legislature passed the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority Act, to replace the 1998 Greater Vancouver Transportation Authority Act. The fact of legislative passage did not mean the government acted democratically, though. Under the section “Structure and Administration of Authority ” the new act declares that the SCBCTA continues the authority of the GVTA, which states, in part: “The [transit] authority is not an agent of the government.”

Translink--no politicians allowed

Since the elected board was fired because it would not do as the government wanted, and since the appointed board is comprised of pre-screened, like-thinking loyalists that support government objectives, Falcon essentially did make TransLink a de facto agent of the government. That means that the new board’s conduct and all of its decisions appear to violate its own terms of reference. (When asked to comment, Todd Stone, the new minister of transportation and infrastructure, refused to be interviewed.)

On Nov. 6, 2007, one month before the deed was done, opposition MLA Maurine Karagianis rose in the legislature to say the following:

“I believe that a larger discussion needs to take place in this province about this shift of allowing business interests and non-elected boards to do the business of government. In fact, if we allow this to happen here, we are not only on the slippery slope. We are over the edge and flying down the slope of losing governance and democracy here in the province.”

In 1999, TransLink had an operating budget of about $358 million and managed about $100 million in small capital projects. By November 2008, the renamed SCBCA had an operating budget of $992 million and responsibility for about $4 billion in major capital projects. TransLink, by whatever name, had become a subservient governmental fiefdom.

If people want to know the future, all they have to do is look into the past, because that’s where we’re headed. Autocracy, feudalism, mercantilism, imperialism, fascism—concepts once thought consigned to history in the name of progress—are now the present and the future. In B.C., Canada and elsewhere, the march of progress has doubled back on itself, trampling people underfoot.

In the next part, we’ll look at the decision of TransLink’s appointed board to impose a debit card/gated entry system (Compass Card/Faregate). The public didn’t ask for it; the rationale behind it is wasteful and self-defeating; and it has so far cost nearly $200 million of public money.