British Columbia government launches public consultation process for HST

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by Richard Gilbert

The B.C. Government is launching a $1.7 million public consultation process to consider options to improve the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).

The B.C. Government is launching a $1.7 million public consultation process to consider options to improve the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).

“This is something that needs to be done now, because the government implemented the HST without any public consultation,” said Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Territory Building construction Trade Council.

“If Premier (Gordon) Campbell had asked people about this before the last election, this would not be necessary. So, they will have to do it now and provide funding to both sides.”

The Talking Taxes public engagement is providing the government with an opportunity to listen to the public and help determine what improvements can be made to the implementation of the HST.

“Over the next three weeks we want to hear from British Columbians about fiscally reasonable policy options available to improve the HST,” said Kevin Falcon, minister of finance.

“While it is clear to everyone the implementation of the HST was poorly undertaken, this engagement will assist in helping us to better understand what changes could be made to improve the HST.”

The program will spend a total of $500,000 for the “yes” and “no” sides, subject to conditions on the appropriate use of public funding and accountability.

“I think this is a watershed decision by the B.C. government to get all the facts out,” said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) of B.C.

“The government doesn’t have to persuade people one way or another, but they need to promote the facts.”

In contrast, Fight HST leader and former B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm said the government’s initiative is blatantly unfair.

“The government’s announcement today means everything is stacked against ordinary citizens who want to eliminate the HST,” he said.

“It is totally unfair, totally biased against the consumers who are paying this terrible tax and want to get rid of it.”

Vander Zalm said that the BC government is giving $250,000 to a group that opposes extinguishing the HST. The government is also letting business spend as much as they want privately to keep the HST.

“It’s no surprise the government is going to fund both sides,” said Sigurdson. “But, I think you will find business will outspend those groups that are opposed to the HST.”

According to Vander Zalm, big business will spend millions in advertising to keep the HST, because it will benefit from a $2 billion a year tax shift.

On top of that, the BC government will give $250,000 to business groups to spend promoting the HST.

Fight HST is not guaranteed any funding and at most could receive $250,000, which is a tiny fraction of the amount government and business will spend to defend the HST.

“All we have asked for is a level playing field and what we’ve been given instead is a steep hill to climb with a ball and chain around our ankle – that’s just not right,” Vander Zalm said.

He believes $250,000 is inadequate to have a fair debate and let both sides present their views to the public around the province.

Hochstein disagreed.

“I would hate to see British Columbians relying on the misinformation campaign led by Bill Vander Zalm about the HST,” he said

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the BC Federation of Labour are spending money during this campaign to help Fight HST.”

Hochstein said the ICBA is getting involved in the campaign to educate their members, so they can inform their employees about what is at stake.

The government initiative will create a Public Dialogues Fund of $500,000 for public universities, colleges and institutes to hold public dialogues in advance of the referendum.

In addition the government is going to send a voter’s guide to every home in B.C. with information on the referendum including statements provided directly by the main “yes” and “no” groups and a summary of the independent panel report on the HST.

The cost of this guide is about $700,000.

The majority of registered voters are expected to receive their referendum ballots from Elections BC by June 24.

Elections BC must receive completed ballots by July 22. The results of the June 24 referendum should be known in August.

Fight HST called for a boycott of the ICBA, after they launched an advertising blitz in the first riding targeted by recall campaigners in Victoria.

The campaign to recall Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong failed, after recall campaigners couldn’t collect signatures from 40 per cent of the eligible voters by Feb. 4.

The registered campaigners had 60 days from Dec. 7 to force a by-election, by going door to door and collecting 15,368 signatures.

They got only 8,818.

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