When writing about public votes on stadium or arena plans, I’ve occasionally gotten in trouble from readers for mixing up “referendums” with “initiatives,” which are apparently very different things, at least in some places like California where people actually get to vote on things directly on a regular basis.
Which is why I’m really glad to see that in Canada, they just avoid the whole nonsense by holding “plebiscites,” which is what CBC Calgary anchor Rob Brown is proposing for the Flames-arena-plus-Stampeders-stadium proposal:
The mayor isn’t in favour of that idea, saying in his interview that he’d like to see council make the decision. He points to the complexity of the proposal, and how difficult it would be to arrive at a simple yes or no question.
It’s a fair point.
This idea represents a massive change to our city, with a lot of moving parts. Council is supposed to have the expertise to scrutinize this stuff and arrive at conclusions. That’s why we elect these folks.
But city hall could also decide to use that expertise to negotiate a much better deal with CSE, and then bring it to a thumbs-up/thumbs-down public vote.
It’s a fine enough idea in the abstract, and one that CBC readers seem to mostly agree with in the site’s own web, er, plebiscite. (Really, it’s amazing that even 29% of respondents would say “No, I don’t want to have a vote on this” for anything, but maybe Canadians are just polite that way.) But there are some problems with “Let the people decide!” as a complete solution to the question of sports subsidies.
First off, holding a public vote isn’t always a guarantee of the public getting what it wants, for the simple reason that money can often play a bigger role in referenda/initiatives/plebescites than in the usual political process. Back when Joanna Cagan and I were researching the first edition of Field of Schemes, we got to hear Jay Cross, then an executive with the Miami Heat, talk on a panel about public votes where another panelist had said it was too risky to put your entire project in the hands of voters. Nonsense, countered Cross: He’d rather put things to a vote every time, because he knew that by spending enough money on a campaign, he could all but guarantee a win — at which point he showed video clips of the multimillion-dollar ad campaign that eventually won the Miami Heat more than a hundred million dollars in arena subsidies.
In Calgary’s case, Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been a staunch skeptic of the Flames/Stampeders plan, such that the teams’ owners might see making their case directly to the people as a better option, especially given that this is one of those everything-including-the-kitchen-sink development plans that makes the financing (and benefits) as confusing as possible. Nenshi, interestingly, would rather have the city council decide than go to a public vote, which could just be local elected officials defending their turf, or could be a tactical move of his own.
Anyway, all this is to say that direct democracy, while a fine goal, isn’t any less susceptible to the corrupting influence of money than anything else in this universe. (Or even the alternate universe that is Canada.) The best solution, as always, is transparency and education about the real economics of sports subsidy plans — hopefully CBC Calgary can tackle that next.