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David Parkins for The Globe and Mail
David Parkins for The Globe and Mail

Dispatch

HST backers need to think fast if they want to win the June referendum Add to ...

The B.C. government is about ready to start printing the ballots that will give 2.9 million voters a chance to decide the fate of the province's harmonized sales tax in June. Participation is hardly onerous - all voters have to do is mark their ballot, seal it up and drop it in the mail.

Opponents of the HST applaud the mail-in ballot scheme because, they say, it will improve voter participation. But making voting easy doesn't guarantee a good turnout.

The province's last mail-in referendum ballot, in 2002, allowed voters to set the province's treaty negotiations mandate. As an exercise in democracy, it was an embarrassment - less than 37 per cent of British Columbians who received a ballot in the mail bothered to return it.

The Tsawwassen First Nation, by contrast, had 96 per cent of its enrolled members take part in a mail-in vote on their treaty in 2007.

One big difference was that the Tsawwassen people were voting on something that would have an impact on their daily lives. But beyond that, the small community can offer some lessons on citizen engagement.

"It was a kick-ass consultation process," said Valerie Cross-Blackett, the Tsawwassen manager of government services.

While the first nations community was considering whether to accept the terms of a self-government proposal negotiated with Ottawa and Victoria, Ms. Cross-Blackett oversaw dozens of hearings, individual family briefings, and panel sessions where both the 'yes' and 'no' sides could answer questions from band members. There were DVDs, calendars and plain-language pamphlets tailored to feedback from the community. Not to mention door prizes and catering for the meals that were provided at meetings.

While the printing presses are ready to roll on the HST ballots, the government and its supporters still don't have a strategy to win the vote. The government doesn't want to be seen "selling" the tax, and it certainly can't offer door prizes for showing up.

Finance Minister Kevin Falcon has gone all bashful this week - he refused to be interviewed about the HST referendum. Last month, after being handed the task of winning the vote, he set the tone by insisting his job is only to put good information - pro and con - into the hands of voters. He is still consulting with the cabinet on how to do that.

The business coalition that wants to save the tax is also unsure of how to approach the public.

"The Smart Tax Alliance will hopefully get its act in order and start doing some of that," said John Winter, chair of the Smart Tax Alliance. The business community was not happy that Premier Christy Clark is moving the date of the referendum from September to June 24 - it wanted more time to win over a public that fiercely opposed the tax when it was announced in 2009.

The tax has been in place since last July. The ballot question will read: "Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (harmonized sales tax) and reinstating the PST (provincial sales tax) in conjunction with the GST (goods and services tax)?"

Mr. Winter says opposition is softening. But it's also harder to generate any enthusiasm, either way, about the tax. That ambivalence doesn't hurt those who want to kill it.

"I think we have a harder core of supporters who will vote than the no side," predicted Fight HST strategist Bill Tieleman. In any election campaign, the key to victory is getting out your vote. And Mr. Tieleman is appealing to people who are angry about the tax, while supporters of the HST are trying to motivate people who are, at best, lukewarm.

For the Fight HST side, the messaging is pretty straightforward. So Mr. Tieleman is dreaming up slogans that play off the "yes." Yes to government accountability, yes to paying less tax on your restaurant meal or your haircut.

For the No side, the task is trickier. The politicians have been told they have no credibility, and business leaders can rub the wrong way too. The message requires more finesse. It's a campaign of consequences - telling people all the bad things that will happen if the tax is rejected (the money B.C. will have to repay to Ottawa, the potential damage to the economy). But go too far on a fear message and you risk a backlash.

Ms. Clark had to move up the date of the referendum to demonstrate that she was listening to the public. Now she needs the public to tune in to her message that the tax is a good one. A kick-ass consultation process two years ago would have been brilliant. But at this point even a smart campaign slogan is still elusive.





It's in the mail

Premier Christy Clark has promised a June referendum on the HST because voters didn't want to wait until September to have their say. But the choice of a mail-in ballot means it will be well into the summer before the results are known.

That's assuming that Canada Post is running smoothly - which is not a sure bet.

The Canadian Union of Postal Workers is taking a strike vote which could have put them in a position to take job action in April. But because of the federal election campaign it is expected that any strike or lockout would be deferred, under the national Labour Code, until three weeks after the May 2 election day.

Which means the postal union could be walking off the job just as Elections BC is putting the ballots in the mail to voters.

- Justine Hunter

Follow on Twitter: @justine_hunter

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