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Illustration by David Parkins for The Globe and Mail
Illustration by David Parkins for The Globe and Mail

Politics: Dispatch

Selling the HST Add to ...

Last August, a posse of B.C. business leaders rolled into a downtown Vancouver hotel to challenge critics of the harmonized sales tax. The 19 executives marched past the assembled news cameras before taking their seats at an impressively long table: The point of it all was to demonstrate that government wasn't alone defending the broadly unpopular tax.

Since then, the pro-HST coalition has been so quiet that even the government wasn't sure if all those groups were still onside.

Two weeks ago, officials from the government's public affairs bureau started putting out feelers to determine who could be counted as supporters of the controversial measure. In a follow-up e-mail, government officials sought an endorsement in writing: "At this time, I am wondering if I can include [your association]as part of a list of businesses/organizations that support the HST in a brochure we are producing now," the note reads.

Even with the next election date three years away, the B.C. Liberal government is nervous about the unpopularity of the tax, which blends the provincial sales tax and the federal Goods and Services Tax to create a combined 12-per-cent levy. The HST hasn't even come into force yet, but it is the biggest challenge the government faces this year, and a new brochure is unlikely to change that.

Premier Gordon Campbell and his Finance Minister, Colin Hansen, announced the HST last summer, just two months after winning a third term in office. Their party's popularity promptly nosedived and it hasn't bounced back.

Mr. Hansen's introduction of provincial legislation last week and the start of an anti-HST petition this week have stoked resentment, but the people who begged the government for this tax seem content to sit back and let the Finance Minister face down their opponents on his own.

One of the groups that received the recent are-you-still-with-us call was the Truck Loggers Association. David Lewis, executive director of the association, was surprised that the government needed to ask. He had agreed to a request from the B.C. Liberal Party last fall to appear in a pro-HST video. The "Liberal TV" video was posted in October as "frank talk about why the HST is the right move for British Columbia."

He hasn't changed his mind on this one. "This is a huge help," Mr. Lewis said in an interview this week. With every major mill on the coast either shuttered or running at reduced capacity, the HST is one of the few bones the government has tossed to the industry to help it reduce costs.

"Politics aside," Mr. Lewis said, "this is a very good initiative for the forest industry and those who invest in it and draw a living out of it."

But the truck loggers didn't sign up to oppose Bill Vander Zalm's repeal-the-tax petition that began this week. Not a single entity has, and that means supporters will be limited in what they can do to sell the HST for the next three months even if they chose to get into the act now. That's because under the Recall and Initiative Act, advertising on the HST petition is strictly controlled during the petition period.

Jock Finlayson, chief economist of the B.C. Business Council, was the leading proponent of an HST in B.C. and the de facto head of the pro-HST coalition last fall.

The coalition hasn't met since the fall and the contract with the PR firm hired to help it has lapsed.

"Maybe the assumption here has been that the government has taken a tough step in terms of the politics of this, and there is no wavering," Mr. Finlayson said. "If there was a sense the government was rethinking it, the profile would be quite different."

John Winter of the BC Chamber of Commerce was also a leading advocate for the tax.

"Once the federal legislation passed [to enact the HST in B.C.] the fight was over as far as we were concerned," he said. Not everyone in business is happy, he said, but most have at least accepted the change is coming July 1. "Other than maybe the emotion and rhetoric of the initiative, I think people have recognized the inevitability of this," he said.

Notwithstanding Mr. Vander Zalm's claims about a roaring start to his campaign this week, his petition stands little chance of forcing the province to repeal the HST. But it could spell trouble down the road for the B.C. Liberals.

"The problem with the Liberals now is credibility," said pollster Mario Canseco, vice-president of public affairs for Angus Reid. Last month, an Angus Reid online poll found 77 per cent of British Columbians oppose the HST. And even Liberal supporters didn't believe the budget spin that the revenues will be dedicated to health-care spending.

"Health care is the second-most important issue in the province, and nobody believes them, not even their supporters," Mr. Canseco noted.

The same poll showed Carole James's B.C. New Democratic Party hasn't convinced voters that it can manage the economy. That leaves the door open for a third-party option - something Mr. Vander Zalm, the former Social Credit premier, has long agitated for.

"You always look at the third option when there is disenchantment with the leaders," the pollster observed, pointing to the popularity of the Wildrose Alliance Party in Alberta, and the electoral success of the NDP in Nova Scotia.

A third party doesn't have to be hugely viable to scare the Liberals. It just has to grow big enough to split the centre-right vote, allowing the BC NDP to dream of victory in 2113.

 

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