Thursday, May 02, 2013

Photo radar and taxes and the power of political myths

It’s interesting the way political orthodoxy emerges, without much real evidence.
Take two examples - photo radar and irrational tax phobia.
Photo radar, it was clear during the leaders’ debate, is seen as political poison. Asked about reinstating it, all four leaders said  no.
The evidence from around the world is conclusive - photo radar reduces crashes and health care costs and saves lives. In the six years that B.C. had photo radar, road deaths averaged 408 annually. In the previous six years, an average 534 people died on the roads. That’s 126 families spared the death of a loved one each year. (You can read more stats here.)
And the politicians can’t claim they’re reflecting the will of the people. A 2007 poll for the Canada Safety Council found 75 per cent of British Columbians supported photo radar on the highways - and 90 per cent in school zones.
So why the fear about an evidence-based public policy move - one accepted in Alberta? Maybe the opponents are considered passionate enough that they’re not worth riling. Maybe the politicians have bought into a myth of public opposition.
The more dramatic and damaging myth is around taxes.
Somehow, politicians have reached an agreement that they have to pretend all taxes are bad. If they plan increases, they offer elaborate apologies.
But the public isn’t stupid. Government services cost money, and have to be paid for. If you want a hospital bed, or a road, or a school for your children, then taxes have to be collected.
Further, people have indicated they’re willing to pay more for better services from government, just as they are in any other area of their life. A B.C. poll several years ago found 60 per cent of residents would pay more in property taxes to improve services. 
And an April poll for the Roundtable of Community Social Services of BC found 53 per cent of British Columbians would pay higher taxes to ensure better services in their community.
There is an important qualifier there - more money in return for better services. Not for convention centre or fast ferry overruns, or endless re-orgs or government advertising.
Still, it’s odd that politicians have largely accepted the myth that citizens reject all taxation, and allowed it to shape their policies and the public debate.