After a year of mounting protest, the harmonized sales tax comes into effect on Thursday. But the arrival of the tax is a mere prelude to the political battle looming for the rest of the year, as the anti-HST petition process led by former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm moves from street corners and shopping malls into the legislature. Ahead of the official start of the HST, Premier Gordon Campbell talked to The Globe and Mail's Patrick Brethour about the looming political debate - including the disclosure that his government will not initiate a legal challenge of the petition.
There are any number of benefits that you, your Finance Minister and economists have enumerated about the HST: administrative savings, the benefit to export-oriented businesses, job creation. Why is that not getting through to British Columbians?
Frankly, for a lot of people, they're still incredulous that we could act as quickly as we did. I think one of the things that we haven't communicated well is that the reason we were able to act as quickly as we did is that Ontario was in the midst of a major negotiation.
There were three reasons that this really made sense at the time. The first was we actually saved $1.6-billion in debt that we didn't have to load up on the next generation of British Columbians. Second, it provided us with some interim funding to help support the health and education expansions we were planning. Third, it created a far preferable investment climate.
Former attorney general Geoff Plant has talked about a possible legal challenge to the anti-HST petition, that it might not be properly formulated. Is that a route you're willing to contemplate or should this remain a political question?
The government won't be contemplating that route. Obviously, the law is there for everyone. But the government will not contemplate that; we will allow the petition process to follow its course.
Looking back, there seemed to be a couple of tactical missteps. Might it have been a good idea to announce income-tax cuts along with the HST, or to register as a pro-HST part of the petition debate? On either of those fronts, do you wish you've played the deck differently?
I'm glad you said there were only a couple. When we announced the HST in July of 2009, we tried to lay out why we'd done it. We actually said at the time, we knew we were not going to have a happy rollout, because we didn't have any time.
There were other decisions that were made; for example, do we follow Mr. Vander Zalm with a kind of a truth squad to make sure people got the full facts? We decided not to do that, but the fact of the matter is Mr. Vander Zalm said a lot of things that resonated with people, that were simply false. So, I think there was a campaign of misinformation. We should have been much more aggressive with a campaign of real information.
Speaking of Mr. Vander Zalm, how concerned are you about a fracturing of your free-enterprise coalition?
I think we should never underestimate the ability of Mr. Vander Zalm to fracture the free-enterprise coalition. He did it once in the 1990s and it took years to recover from that. We knew there would be a lot of reaction to this. Mr. Vander Zalm has taken advantage of that. Our job is going to be to unite the free-enterprise, centre coalition to make sure we don't have a New Democrat government. People don't want a New Democrat government. The problem is, Mr. Vander Zalm doesn't care about that. He cares about Vander Zalm.
A year from now, people will have been paying the HST for almost 12 months. How do you think that will change the nature of the public view of the tax, once it's a known quantity?
There are two things. I don't like taxes, you don't like taxes. People don't like taxes. But I do like health services, and education services, and roads and environmental quality, and policing. We have to find a way in government that we are paying for the services that people want.
I think that when people discover all the misinformation that was in place, I think that a year from now you'll find that consumers are getting savings, businesses will find that they are recognizing the benefits. I think you'll find that investment intentions are increasing and starting to deliver in the private sector across the economy. And I think that people will say we've taken the right steps to strengthen the economy and create jobs in every region of the province.
This interview has been condensed and edited.