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Fight HST pin. (Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail/Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail)
Fight HST pin. (Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail/Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail)

Taxes

Final pitches launched in B.C. HST fight Add to ...

With ballots making their way through the mail and the voting deadline drawing near, British Columbia's pro- and anti-HST forces launched last-ditch salvos Thursday in a bid to sway public opinion.

In what it called a "rare display of solidarity," the Smart Tax Alliance put together a panel of spokespeople representing a broad sweep of industry sectors to make the case for retaining the harmonized sales tax. The deadline for mail-in ballots is Aug. 5.

Sitting under posters that advertised a 10-per-cent HST - the level to which Premier Christy Clark has promised to reduce the tax from its current 12 per cent by 2014 - industry representatives said the HST has been good for business and that a return to B.C.'s former two-tax system would cost money and kill jobs.

"The HST is making the B.C. agricultural industry more competitive," said Judy Guichon, a Merritt rancher and president of the B.C. Cattlemen's Association. "If food security is a goal in this province, we must be able to compete."

The HST, introduced last year to replace the former GST-PST regime, has simplified bookkeeping and resulted in savings that businesses have been able to put toward staff and equipment, said Ms. Guichon and other industry representatives at the gathering, which took place just before Fight HST head Bill Vander Zalm held a news conference a few blocks away.

The streamlined HST benefits B.C.'s export-oriented forestry industry, said Rick Jeffery, president of Coast Forest Products Association. "More than 95 per cent of what we produce is exported," Mr. Jeffery said. "And under the old system, we paid PST every step of the way."

Under the HST system, a lumber producer no longer has to pay sales tax on items such as equipment, fuel and electricity. It's estimated that the move to the HST in B.C. has resulted in $140-million a year in tax savings for the forestry sector.

The HST on restaurant meals - formerly taxed with a 5-per-cent GST - hurt business when it first came into effect, said Geoffrey Howes, past chairman of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association. But over the past year, the HST impact has lessened and most restaurateurs now consider the HST system preferable to the former two-tax system, he added.

Going back to the former regime would "be a terrible opportunity for auditors to hurt small business," said Lawrence Alder, controller for Delta-based IMFS International Marine Floatation Systems.

Mr. Alder was not among the business representatives gathered at the front of the room, but spoke in support of their position, saying the two-tax system is rife with complexities that can trip up small businesses.

Mr. Vander Zalm, on the other hand, has argued that the HST hurts consumers. The Fight HST leader and former premier has also criticized the province's Liberal government for introducing the HST without public debate.

On Thursday, as pro-HST forces made their case, Mr. Vander Zalm held a news conference outside B.C. Supreme Court to draw attention to what he called professional alteration of his campaign signs.

Mr. Vander Zalm said he's asked police to investigate how a number of signs in Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Campbell River were altered to change the message from "Vote Yes" to extinguish the HST to "Vote No."

"There is clearly an organized effort to subvert the democratic vote on the HST through criminal means. The extent to which these people are going is astonishing," he said, adding that the altered signs have vinyl patches printed in the same colours, size and typeface as the original signs.

Fight HST also recently filed a new police report after dozens of its Vancouver signs were stolen for the second time in less than a month, Mr. Vander Zalm said. More than 40 signs vanished about three weeks ago and another 100 have since disappeared.

B.C.'s HST was implemented on July 1, 2010. In response to public anger over the tax and how it was introduced by former premier Gordon Campbell, the provincial government agreed to hold a referendum, which is now under way.

Deadlines to request and return ballots were extended as a result of the labour dispute at Canada Post. Results from the referendum are expected to be announced in late August.

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