British Columbia

B.C. Liberals drop referendum requirement for new transit funding

Sam Sullivan, the new B.C. minister responsible for TransLink, says if Metro Vancouver mayors want a new transit funding mechanism like a regional sales tax, a referendum will no longer be required. It's a sharp break from previous Liberal Party policy.

Premier said referendum was necessary as late as April 2017

After insisting for years a referendum was needed for new sources of transit funding, the B.C. Liberals have reversed their position, as they face defeat in the legislature. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The new B.C. minister responsible for TransLink has announced an about-face on his party's stance on Metro Vancouver transit funding.

Sam Sullivan says if Metro Vancouver mayors want a new transit funding mechanism like a regional sales tax, a referendum will no longer be required.

"What has changed? It's called 'an election,'" Sullivan told On The Coast host Stephen Quinn.

"We just hollowed out in the urban areas of Vancouver. [Premier Christy Clark] heard that message loud and clear.

"She approached me, asked my opinion on where we went wrong, how we could repair this relationship both with the municipal governments and the voters and the urban areas. I said the most symbolic thing we could do, for a start, is get rid of this referendum requirement."

Sullivan says now that he is minister — for the time being — getting more transit in Metro Vancouver will be a top priority.

Referendum defended in April

The Liberals insisted on the necessity for a referendum for new transit funding during the 2013 election, as well as during the run-up to the unsuccessful transit referendum in 2015 and even just months ago, during the 2017 election, when Clark reiterated her commitment to one during the leaders' radio debate.

"The NDP have said that they want to give the mayors the right be able to to hike people's taxes: vehicle levy, sales tax, who knows what it would be?" she said.

"We are still committed to making sure that if there is any new revenue source required from cities for TransLink, we will go to a referendum on that. We won't just let them hike taxes."

But now, Sullivan says his party is interested in connecting with urban voters, especially with an election coming possibly sooner than four years from now.

"These will be values we are going to the voters with."

Listen to the full interview with Sam Sullivan:

'You're going to need Metro Vancouver'

Simon Fraser University political scientist David Moscrop says while the about-face could be viewed as cynical politics, it's also an example of the democratic system working.

"A party adjusted its policy because it's what people wanted."

But if Sullivan, a former Vancouver mayor, was the driving force for the change, it could speak to him taking on a more prominent role in the party.

His appointment as minister of community development and minister responsible for TransLink this week is his first time in cabinet.

Moscrop suspects this might be the first of several policies the Liberals rethink, as they look for a way to return to power in the event they lose a non-confidence vote at the end of June as expected.

Moscrop agrees an election could come sooner than expected, and the Liberals know they need to do better in Metro Vancouver.

"They became arrogant, out of touch. And now they've got some re-evaluation to do," he said.

"It could very well be that this is people saying, 'look, if you want to govern again, this is the way it's gotta be. … you're going to need Metro Vancouver.'"

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast