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The Globe and Mail

St. Paul's by-election hardly a referendum on HST

Adam Radwanski

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

It might have started with Tim Hudak, the novice Progressive Conservative Leader looking to build some momentum, or Sue-Ann Levy, Tory candidate trying to make her decision to leave tabloid journalism pay off. Perhaps it came from Andrea Horwath, the NDP Leader aiming to make the most of an issue tailor-made for her party and to help out her candidate, Julian Heller. Maybe it was an especially clever gambit by Dalton McGuinty's governing Liberals, or else just the product of a bored media, trying to impart some meaning upon a pretty mundane moment in democracy.

However it happened, the notion that tomorrow's provincial by-election in the riding of St. Paul's would somehow serve as a referendum on sales-tax harmonization long ago took flight.

If the by-election were taking place in British Columbia, rather than Ontario, there might be something to it. But while Ontarians may one day render judgment on the combination of their provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax, it won't be this week.

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First, the requisite disclaimer: As a rule, by-elections are a lousy barometer for much of anything. They're nothing like general elections, placing more emphasis on local candidates than on leaders, parties and platforms. And because of voter apathy, they mostly become ground wars in which the parties flood the riding with volunteers and staffers, who spend a month identifying supporters and on election day trying to drag them by their ears to the polling station.

Since they allow protest votes with no real consequence, by-elections do occasionally prove useful in highlighting a single issue. That happened in Ontario in February, 2007, when provincial NDP candidate Paul Ferreira successfully campaigned in the heavily working-class (and usually Liberal) riding of York South-Weston on the promise of a minimum-wage increase. Predictably, speculation that this represented any broader electoral trend amounted to little; the NDP fared miserably in the general election eight months later, and York South-Weston returned to the Liberals. But in the meanwhile, it compelled the government to announce in its March, 2007, budget that it would accelerate planned minimum-wage increases as part of a broader anti-poverty agenda.

If Ms. Levy wins St. Paul's - which is improbable but not impossible - some of the more skittish members of the Liberals' caucus may interpret it as cause for another change to their agenda, this time on the HST. Conversely, the government may try to spin a victory as evidence that voters are just fine with the new tax. (Although the Premier's Office denies it, one wonders if that might be the cause of the government's decision to dispatch Revenue Minister John Wilkinson to speak to the Toronto Board of Trade about the HST tomorrow morning, which will have little bearing on how people cast their ballots, but may help advance the "referendum" storyline in the media.)

In reality, there are few signs that most Ontarians have yet given the HST serious consideration. The last available opinion poll, taken this summer, showed little impact one way or the other. Liberals who have canvassed in St. Paul's say they are barely being asked about it; Conservatives acknowledge that awareness is not high, though they say voters are upset once it's explained to them why they should be. There seems to be very little simmering anger.

That doesn't mean, however, that there never will be. For one thing, Ontarians will be vastly more aware of the additional tax on certain goods once it starts being applied in July, 2010. And to make matters worse, its implementation may come at a particularly delicate time.

The announcement of the HST in Ontario was much smoother than the subsequent one in B.C., which has contributed to a precipitous decline in the polls for Gordon Campbell's government. That's mostly because Mr. McGuinty, unlike Mr. Campbell, did not spend an election campaign denying his HST plans (along with the scale of the provincial deficit) right before announcing them. But it might also have something to do with the fact that, in B.C., it was accompanied by a wave of unpleasant news - including belt-tightening in most ministries - delivered in a grim summer budget.

Next spring, just before the HST starts being collected, Ontario will have to deliver what insiders are already describing as a "tough" budget of its own. As a result, the Liberals may be stuck trying to overcome one of the deadliest perceptions a government can face: that they are taking more from taxpayers, and delivering less in return. That's the sort of impression that can cost a government seats - and not just in a by-election.

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