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After the HST: What will happen to the referendum process in B.C.?

Former British Columbia Premier Bill Vander Zalm (C) celebrates the result of the Harmonised Sales Tax (HST) referendum vote outside the Law Courts with fellow supporters Bill Tieleman (L) and Chris Delaney in Vancouver, British Columbia August 26, 2011.

Ben Nelms/ Reuters/Ben Nelms/ Reuters

The HST referendum succeeded only because of a miscalculation by former premier Gordon Campbell, who bet he could convince British Columbians to keep the tax and get away with lowering the vote's requirements, say political science experts.

The referendum would have failed under the rules of B.C.'s Recall and Initiative Act. The act requires half of all registered voters in the province to vote in favour of change, a benchmark the HST referendum did not meet.

Mr. Campbell announced last September that he'd accept a simple majority of those who cast ballots, a break future referendums might not be as likely to catch.

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"In many respects, it can be argued that [the Liberals]clearly made a mistake," said Doug McArthur, a public policy professor at Simon Fraser University. "What the past months have shown is that as people talked about it and discussed this, they became more accepting. I think people probably would have accepted the result under the recall initiative."

Prof. McArthur, who helped craft the act when he was in government in the 1990s, said now that a simple majority has been utilized it could be more difficult for leaders to use the stringent requirements the next time a referendum is held. However, he doesn't expect any more referendums to be held in the near future.

"In the future governments, will be much more careful about providing transparency and clarity about what their intentions are in election campaigns. You're going to see a lot of lessons learned that way," Prof. McArthur said. "I also think that the next time we go through this, it's likely the government instead of a referendum will consider doing a consultation process and then go into the legislature, have a vote, and avoid the referendum."

After it was announced the harmonized sales tax would be abolished and B.C. would return to a GST/PST system, Fight HST leader and former premier Bill Vander Zalm held a celebratory news conference outside the Vancouver law courts. Mr. Vander Zalm arrived to cheers from supporters and was presented with a pair of boxing gloves for a fight he characterized as David versus Goliath.

Mr. Vander Zalm acknowledged the role Mr. Campbell played in the eventual scrapping of the HST.

"We thanked Premier Campbell at one time for having suggested that a simple majority, which is democratic, would rule the day."

Chris Delaney, a Fight HST organizer, was quick to jump in to ensure Mr. Campbell didn't get too much credit.

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"That wasn't an act of benevolence on his part. That was an act of desperation by a premier that was polling somewhere between 5 and 9 per cent. It was an act of desperation because he knew his government was going to come down as a result of it."

When asked if the fact that the referendum wouldn't have been successful under the act took anything away from the win, Mr. Delaney said no.

"The initiative legislation was designed not to work. This is a day forward for British Columbia. We know referendum works, we know it has a legitimate place in our society, in our democracy now. The people have endorsed it overwhelmingly. Let's have the legislature go back, both parties, and draft new legislation to make it workable. It doesn't have to be so easy that it can happen every day, but it shouldn't be so difficult that it only happens every 20 years. That's not right either."

Mr. Campbell announced he would step down as premier last November. Christy Clark won the B.C. Liberal leadership contest in February.

Norman Ruff, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, said he expects to hear debate about the Recall and Initiative Act over the next few months. He said some politicians would love to see the act abolished, though that might be politically dangerous shortly after a major vote.

Prof. Ruff and Prof. McArthur both expressed their support for keeping the act. Prof. McArthur said he'd be open to tinkering with some requirements, but wouldn't want the bar to be set too low. The act, he said, is there as an important balance, not for use every time a government does something certain members of the public don't agree with.

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Numbers breakdown

More than 1.6 million British Columbians in 85 ridings voted in the harmonized sales tax referendum and ultimately scrapped the tax.

Percentage breakdown

55 % voted Yes, to extinguish the HST

45 % voted No, to keep the HST

75 % is the largest percentage of Yes votes, coming from Surrey-Green Timbers (NDP)

64 % is the largest percentage of No votes, coming from West Vancouver-Capilano (Liberal)

District breakdown

60 ridings voted Yes, to extinguish the HST

25 ridings voted No, to keep the HST

25 Liberal ridings voted Yes

24 Liberal ridings voted No

All 34 NDP ridings voted Yes

1 Independent riding voted Yes

1 Independent riding voted No

15,674 is the highest number of Yes votes (Vancouver-Fraserview)

3,300 is the lowest number of Yes votes (Stikine)

15,676 is the highest number of No votes (West Vancouver-Capilano)

2,018 is the lowest number of No votes (North Coast)

Vivian Luk

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