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Thousands attend HST rallies in B.C. Add to ...

Former British Columbia premier Bill Vander Zalm jumped back into the political spotlight Saturday when he led the biggest of 20 provincewide rallies against the proposed harmonized sales tax.

Mr. Vander Zalm, 75, told more than 1,000 people gathered outside a downtown convention centre that the HST will deal a cruel blow to most people while boosting profits for big business.

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"It takes from the people, the consumers, particularly those who are packing the lunch bucket, the seniors, the students, the people that can least afford to pay yet another tax and it's giving it to the big corporations," Mr. Vander Zalm told the rally.

Mr. Vander Zalm, who led the Social Credit party from 1986 to 1991, headlined the anti-HST rally in Vancouver and said 19 other communities from Prince George to Victoria were also waging an attack on the tax that the Liberal government will implement next July.

In Vancouver, small business owners and families made up the crowd, many carrying signs including "Don't bleed us dry;" "More taxes, more lies;" and "Fight the HST."

Mr. Vander Zalm told them they have the power to stop the 12-per-cent HST by putting pressure on Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government, which maintains the tax is being unfairly slammed.

Mr. Vander Zalm said he hopes public outrage will lead to a referendum if 10 per cent of voters in each constituency oppose the HST, which is also being implemented in Ontario next July, but at 13 per cent.

"We'll do whatever it takes and we'll go from now until election time so that the people won't forget," he said to cheers.

The charismatic Mr. Vander Zalm resigned as premier in 1991 when a provincial conflict-of-interest report found he had mixed private business with his public office in the sale of his Fantasy Gardens flower business and theme park.

He has only occasionally commented publicly on issues since then, but Saturday's rally was perhaps his most high-profile appearance in nearly 20 years.

Opposition NDP Leader Carole James joined Mr. Vander Zalm and leaders of smaller political parties to say halting the HST will take people from all political stripes to stand together.

Ms. James said the Liberals introduced the HST after saying that wouldn't happen and then failed to consult voters.

"The public is angry at being betrayed by this government and I have to tell you it shows how angry people are when you can get political opponents together," Ms. James said, adding she and Mr. Vander Zalm have been on opposite sides on many issues over the years.

Ms. James said the vitriol against the HST could eventually force the government to bow to public pressure.

"It will take seven Liberal MLAs to vote against the HST," she said. "So I encourage you to get out there. Phone your Liberal MLAs, talk to them, write to them. Tell them to do the right thing."

The HST combines both the provincial and federal taxes, and the Liberals have tried to sell it as the best way to create jobs and boost B.C.'s economy.

But critics say the merged tax will hurt families because they'll be paying tax on things that are currently not taxed, including haircuts and restaurant meals.

Kyle Reagan, who came to the rally hoisting a big red "Stop HST" sign in the shape of a stop sign, said his spa business will suffer because people will have to pay more in taxes than is currently the case.

"It's an area where it's discretionary income that people are spending their money on," he said, adding higher costs elsewhere will force people to spend their money on necessities.

He said any benefits for small businesses will be outweighed by fewer customers.

For example, Mr. Reagan said he now gets a rebate on the existing 5 per cent federal Goods and Services Tax, but will start recouping 12 per cent when the HST is introduced.

"But the concern I have is that there are so many people upset with this tax that there will be an overall loss of business," he said.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen told reporters in a conference call later that he understands the criticism against the HST but that government didn't have enough time to prepare the proper "communication" before announcing it earlier this summer.

"The federal government made it clear to us that if we wanted to get on the same timeline as Ontario then we had to make our announcement in the middle of July at the latest," Mr. Hansen said.

He called exaggerated claims against the HST "pure hyperbole."

"There's no question that the HST is the most effective form of consumer form of consumer tax that a country or a jurisdiction an implement," he said, adding the tax will create jobs.

The Liberals have said the current system means the provincial sales tax is paid by every business through the various steps of creating a consumer product before it gets to a store, where those costs are passed on to consumers.

But the HST will mean tax refunds for businesses that will result in lower prices, Mr. Hansen said.

Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have already implemented the HST. Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba have not merged their sales taxes and Alberta has no provincial sales tax.

B.C. will get $1.6-billion from Ottawa during the next three years to make the switch to the GST.

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