Never flush an opportunity - The Orca

Never flush an opportunity

Katy Merrifield

Katy Merrifield: Relatable and inherently silly, Vancouver’s now-infamous toilet is the kind of issue that tends to stick. And stink.

The porcelain throne. The water closet. The can, crapper, loo and my favourite, “el retrete.”

Toilets, in some form, are a necessary and functional part of everyday life for every citizen of the world. But should a taxpayer-funded toilet cost more than a two-bedroom condo?

This week we learned the NDP government funded a whopping $645,000 for a public toilet to be installed in Vancouver’s Cooper Park under the Cambie Street Bridge. The funding comes from the Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program, a $100 million spend dedicated to one-time infrastructure grants.

This golden throne is built by a company called Portland Loo, which managed to build a similar lavatory in Prince Rupert for less than a third of the cost. Naturally, the reaction from critics has ranged from disbelief to outrage over what is legitimately an enormous waste of taxpayer money when many struggling non-profits are ineligible for funding after a year of pandemic-imposed hardship.

So far the government’s strategy has been to shift blame (we give out the money, municipalities decide what to do with it) or straight up ignorance (umm have you heard we are leading the country in jobs?). Meanwhile, opposition MLA Todd Stone has done a solid job pushing this story around the world, getting coverage in the New York Post, Fox News and even one I just discovered existed,

In my view, the opposition shouldn’t stop there. Issues of a greater magnitude, like the continued financial and structural woes at Site C or the lack of online booking systems for COVID vaccines, aren’t always the ones that resonate with ordinary people just trying to live their best lives. A price tag of billions of dollars is often less understandable than a flagrant misuse of the amount of money a family would use to purchase a home.

What’s missing here is a robust and fairly simple digital strategy. A quick video on TikTok and Snapchat targeted to a younger demographic your teams can amplify and share. Boosted ads on Instagram and Facebook, where your audience ranges from teens to seniors. Get your 22-year-old communications intern to maximize memes contrasting NDP priorities (gold-plated toilet) with your priorities (literally anything else). Get really creative and prepare a cost per flush meme.

Not only is it relatable, the issue is begging to have some fun with it. The lines write themselves – “Share if you’re sick of the NDP flushing your money down the toilet,” “John’s crappy waste of your money,” “NDP budget flush.” This is one of the few moments where the job of a political staffer can actually be fun, and your efforts could go viral. Don’t waste it! Often, it’s not the big policy fails that cause a loss of trust in government, but a steady stream of small but embarrassing missteps.

Of note, a special shout out to Vancouver Park Board commissioner John Irwin, who did his best to shine sh*t: “So yes, the sticker price for the toilet is high but…it’s like a tank of toilets, it’s virtually indestructible.”

The thing is, all toilets have tanks – that’s how you flush. With a little creativity, this problem might circle for a while longer.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC.