Campaigning to Yes

Last night I attended an event on how democracies can address climate change, co-hosted by UBC’s Center for Democratic Institutions and the David Suzuki Foundation. It was a tale of two panels – which is bad news for the Yes side of the MetroVancouver Transit Referendum.

The first panel spoke of the politics of the possible – what California and Ontario have achieved by setting climate targets and phasing out coal, respectively. Both experiences shared a similar approach to getting the word out, and securing public support – grassroots campaigning. In California, there were people making signs and rallying for more renewable energy. In Ontario, there were public demonstrations and other signs of popular support for phasing out coal and moving toward green energy.

In both cases, reducing fossil fuels use was a human issue – it was about helping asthmatic kids and creating jobs in the renewable energy sector. In Vancouver, it is precisely this human element that is missing from the transit referendum Yes side, because the Mayors are campaigning like Mayors and not like activists.

The Mayors are using math, statistics and sound policy advice to make their point. Debating policy is what Mayors do. It could get them re-elected, but will not win a referendum. It’s easier to say no, to use knee-jerk reactions and to support the status quo. The Yes side needs to inspire people. Math isolates people – visions and narratives inspire.

The referendum will not be won on the content of the policy – it will be won on the ability to connect the content of the plan to the everyday lives of people. What is needed is a growth of grassroots advocacy where a 1000 flowers bloom, rather than a network of organizations. The Better Transit and Transportation Coalition need to reach out and start seeding advocacy at household levels. It’s great that 100+ groups support the Coalition (a link which should be upfront and center on the webpage). These members may have their own connections, but they cannot do it alone.

It’s easier to campaign for a No vote. It’s easier to use knee-jerk reactions rather than reasoned debates. By making the campaign personal and public – telling the stories of people and doing so in the media and on the streets – the Yes side can prevail.

When asked what the Coalition wants everyone in the audience to do, a representative of the Better Transit and Transportation Coalition replied “pledge your vote.” That is an insufficient. It does not encourage people to act – a pledge is not registering to receive a ballot and it makes any action a private affair. We need support for the plan to be very, very public.

Here is what the representative should reply in the future:

  • Register to vote, and send the registration link to your friends
  • Work with your friends to start a Twitterstorm using #40moreaday – the transit plan will save commuters at least 40 minutes more per day – what would you do with that time?
  • Talk to neighbours, friends about why you will vote yes
  • Organize a registration center at your local church or community center
  • Write to the newspapers, call into radio shows
  • Get everyday people to talk about how their lives, health and community will be better served by better transit
  • Get offline and knock on doors.

Where are the rallies? Where are the media events with everyday people? Where are people’s personal stories (such as the Director for the Centre for Democratic Institutions reasons why he is happy to vote Yes in the referendum).

The public may trust municipal politicians more than provincial or federal ones, but they trust their neighbours even more.


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