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Jeffrey Simpson

Harmonizing a death knell Add to ...

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell is doing a Margaret Thatcher: introducing late in a political career a loathed tax likely to end that career.

For the former British prime minister, the poll tax she proposed was vilified almost everywhere, and caused even strong Conservatives to say her popularity had tumbled so far that her time was up. For Mr. Campbell, the death-knell tax is the harmonized sales tax that went into effect on July 1. The HST is wildly unpopular, both in and of itself, and for being embraced by the Premier just after an election in which he denied having it on his agenda.

Into this maelstrom of unhappiness, from which there appears no escape except for the Premier's departure, Mr. Campbell's critics can gleefully throw all the other complaints that have accumulated over the years - which is the risk politicians face when they stick around a little too long.

So, yes, there are very particular reasons why the HST, introduced by this leader, in this province, has become so viscerally unpopular, dragging down the government's popularity to a mere 23 points. But there's something Canadian, too, in this reaction to taxes, and to consumption taxes in particular.

Across the country, Canadians have ambivalent, even contradictory, attitudes toward taxes in general, but they especially dislike consumption taxes such as the HST because they're the most visible of all taxes. Even when governments, as in B.C. and Ontario, pledge that revenues raised from the HST will be offset by lower personal taxes, people don't believe it. Or at least they don't see those reductions in the way they do a higher price for gasoline or a haircut.

Public opinion surveys curiously show repeatedly that "taxes" rank low on the list of public concerns, way below hardy staples such as health care, education and, more recently, the environment. People don't much like taxes, but they appreciate many of the services paid for by them.

Sure, everyone can point to this or that wasteful program, and anti-tax critics always assume much greater administrative savings to pay for lower tax rates than are actually available. It's easy for anti-government voices to say chop this or that program, but look at the Harper government. Far from eliminating programs, it increased spending well beyond the rate of inflation every year since taking office.

One paradox of taxes, however, is that politicians who lower them are seldom rewarded, whereas those who raise them are usually penalized. Another is that conservative parties that scream the loudest about high taxes still keep spending at very high levels, thereby running up deficits or, as with the Harper Conservatives before the recession, eliminating inherited surpluses.

The Harper government had witnessed the lack of political gratification that Canadians showed Paul Martin, who, as Liberal finance minister, had lowered personal and corporate taxes. So the Harper Conservatives chose, for political reasons, to reduce the GST by two points. This high-profile, easily understood reduction was supposed to be a big political winner, but there was almost no outpouring of thanks from Canadians.

Reduce the GST (or other taxes), therefore, and be greeted by a yawn; hint about raising the GST (or other taxes), however, and be greeted with a storm.

This fear of the storm explains why the New Democrats and Liberals tiptoe around taxes, provincially and federally. The federal Liberals wouldn't dare hint at raising taxes to pay for more social programs, lest they be blasted by the Conservative attack machine. The NDP shies away from such talk, worried about being accused of "taxing and spending."

In this era of large government deficits, we should talk seriously about taxes, but apparently we can't. Quebec is raising them to help finance burgeoning health care, and is being lambasted. Ontario is getting pasted for harmonizing the sales tax.

To all the HST's many critics in B.C., here's a nasty truth: Now that the system's in place, unwinding it would be an administrative nightmare.

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