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British Columbia Premier Christy Clark answers questions about the HST referendum results. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark answers questions about the HST referendum results. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe Editorial

HST's defeat in BC shows danger of ruling by plebiscite Add to ...

The people of British Columbia have passed up an excellent opportunity for their province’s economy and thus for themselves, by voting against the Harmonized Sales Tax – a visible, neutral tax that favours productivity. B.C. will now have to wait for decades before a future provincial government summons up the courage and wisdom to try again – probably on less favourable terms.

It is an understandable result, considering the unexpected 2009 announcement of the B.C. government’s HST agreement with the federal government, so soon after a provincial election, though Gordon Campbell, the premier at the time, and Colin Hansen, the finance minister, were responding to a federal offer that was occasioned by the HST agreement that had just been reached between Ontario and Ottawa. There was no sinister, underhanded plot to deceive the public. In the end, the anti-HST vote was not as strong as might have been feared; almost 45 per cent voted in favour of an unpopular tax. The turnout in the mail-in referendum was in the same range as in the 2009 election; at any rate, the outcome was not skewed by over-representation of cranks and fanatics.

Premier Christy Clark and Kevin Falcon, the Finance Minister, are left with the thankless task of picking up the pieces. B.C. will presumably have to revert to a combination of the federal GST and the old Provincial Sales Tax. The PST goes back to 1949, to a time when manufacturing made up a far larger part of the economy – B.C.’s and the Western world’s as a whole – than it does now. The upshot of this unfortunate exercise in plebiscitarian – as opposed to parliamentary – democracy will be an unjust treatment of all those who take part in the making of physical objects and a privileging of those who deliver services.

Proverbs such as “The voice of the people is the voice of God” are not true. For all the failings of politicians, the processes of parliamentary assemblies yield better policy than take-it-or-leave-it plebiscites; in this case, a good tax has been defeated. An unholy alliance of the left and the populist right has prevailed. Let other governments take heed, and resist the temptation to tamper with representative democracy. Eventually, B.C. will need to return to a tax very like the HST it has now rejected.

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