B.C.'s embattled Liberal government has launched radio advertising to explain the unpopular harmonized sales tax, but the Finance Minister said Wednesday he is not prepared to say how much the campaign costs.
"I don't have the exact costing of all these things, but it is within our existing budgets," Colin Hansen said in an interview.
Mr. Hansen said he was involved in discussions around developing the ads that are set to run for at least three weeks, but left management of their costs to the Public Affairs Bureau, which will make sure they are properly financed within existing budgets. The bureau's annual advertising budget is less than $10-million for this calendar year, Mr. Hansen said.
"I don't go around micromanaging every budget in ministries. We give them budgets and we expect them to stay within it, so in the case of this campaign, I was part of the discussions around how it should be approached, what the messaging should be in terms of the radio ad, and roughly what the costs would be for various elements of it, but they're the ones that have to make sure it stays within their budgets, and that they're going to manage through the fiscal year," he said.
NDP Finance critic Bruce Ralston was incredulous by Mr. Hansen's vague response. "He knows exactly how much it costs so it's just further deceit in their rollout of the HST that has characterized it from the lie told before the election that they wouldn't bring it in," he said.
The Finance Ministry will be mailing out pamphlets on the 12 per cent HST, which combines the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax, to B.C. households soon, paid for by the ministry, but Mr. Hansen also declined to disclose those costs.
He noted that elements of the pamphlets are still being developed. "I know roughly what it's going to cost, yes," he said.
But he said he would not provide the figure. "It has not gone to bed. It's not arriving on the doorsteps tomorrow."
He said that costs will be disclosed in full as part of the release of Public Accounts information about a year from now.
Former B.C. premier William Vander Zalm, leader of the Fight HST movement that has gathered more than 700,000 signatures as part of a drive to kill the tax, said he found it hard to believe the minister was not able to come up with a specific cost for the ads.
He said he suspected the minister was tactically reluctant to disclose the cost figures. "The cost of it might cause them more political harm than the whole of whatever the advantage might be of the advertising campaign," he said.
He said an ad campaign would have made sense when the tax was announced to introduce the policy to the public. "To do it now is simply political. It can't be anything else."
The radio ads tout the tax as good for business, likely to generate jobs, and suggest that most goods will be exempt from the tax. Mr. Hansen said the idea behind them was to drive listeners to a government website for more information on the HST.
"It's not about trying to do a campaign to convince people to like the HST. It's more a case of 'Here's the opportunity to understand it.'"
No TV ads are currently planned.
As an opposition leader in the 1990s, current Premier Gordon Campbell was a ferocious critic of advertising by the era's NDP government.
But Mr. Hansen said this effort is different.
"It is incumbent upon a government that if they're putting out policy initiatives, they should be explaining to the public how they work and how families can benefit from it."