The HST dominated economic-policy debate between B.C.'s Liberals and New Democrats Thursday, but as the referendum on the current tax approaches, the rhetoric suggests lines of attack that may be heard in a fall election.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon was the face of the government Thursday - Premier Christy Clark was in Cranbrook for a town-hall meeting, then travelling to Kimberley. Mr. Falcon was the sole minister on his feet in a raucous Question Period, taking on six NDP MLAs, including former leader Carole James.
Mr. Falcon essentially chided the NDP for clinging to a status quo that would leave a 12-per-cent consumer tax, as opposed to the 10 per cent the Liberals are proposing.
But NDP Leader Adrian Dix, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, took on the Liberals on economic credibility, an area traditionally seen as a strength of the governing party. "Their credibility on any of these issues is none," Mr. Dix said, referring to proposed government revisions to the controversial tax.
Early next month, a voter guide on the HST referendum will be mailed to voters, with ballots to follow starting June 13. Ballots must be returned to Elections BC by July 22.
If the tax survives the referendum, the B.C. Liberals are promising to cut it by two points, increase the corporate income tax by two points and send out transition cheques to help families and seniors cover the costs of the HST.
Mr. Dix was not impressed. "This is clearly made up as they go along. As recently as last week, they were condemning some of these measures [such as raising the corporate income tax rate]and calling me names because of it," he said. "But now, because they are desperate, they are doing [it]"
Mr. Dix questioned what happened to the government commitment to put all the revenue from the HST toward health care. "From a fiscal point of view, they do not make any sense," he said.
Mr. Falcon, the former health minister, told The Globe that health spending will not be affected by the budget measures made necessary by dealing with the HST, noting that the health budget has been increased $3-billion over two years with further scheduled increases. "His argument about health care is simply wrong," Mr. Falcon said.
In turn, Mr. Falcon signalled that he was relishing the fight ahead, also dropping hints about lines of attack against the NDP that might be deployed if Ms. Clark calls a fall vote in a bid to secure the fresh mandate she has said she would like. Ms. Clark has said a fall election remains an option.
"If the fight is going to be on the grounds of fiscal irresponsibility, [Mr. Dix]was chief of staff to an NDP government that ran eight consecutive fiscal budget deficits and multiple credit-rating downgrades," Mr. Falcon said, referring to Mr. Dix's years as chief of staff to former NDP premier Glen Clark. "I will put up our record against his."
In Question Period, Mr. Falcon defended the government's approach to the HST against criticisms over its impact on the restaurant and housing sectors, and on costs related to bicyclists.
"This B.C. Liberal HST gimmick is clearly an obvious and desperate attempt to buy votes. B.C. families know it. I know that the Finance Minister knows it, though he won't admit it," said Spencer Chandra Herbert, NDP MLA for Vancouver-West End. "Even the Premier knows it," he added, referring to quotes from Ms. Clark in which she said voters would see a cut in the HST as a bid to buy voter support with their own money.
Mr. Falcon accused the New Democrats of being averse to any kind of tax relief. "It's incredible. It's in their genetic structure. 'We must have higher taxes. We must have higher taxes.' That's an NDP approach. It is incredible."
On Friday, Mr. Falcon makes his first speech as minister, to the Vancouver Board of Trade. The harmonized sales tax is expected to be the focus of his remarks.