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Government's HST promoting pamphlet would break provincial law

Finance Minister Colin Hansen says Elections British Columbia is preventing the government educating the public on the harmonized sales tax. The agency says the government has to register as an advertiser if it wants to promote the HST while a petition initiative is on.

At issue is a publication the government planned to distribute that Elections B.C. said appears to meet the definition of initiative advertising under the Recall and Initiative Act. If the government registered as an advertiser, it would be limited to spending $5,000 on advertising.

“This is especially surprising and disappointing given that previous communications the public affairs bureau had with Elections BC left them with the clear impression that the budget mailer would be in compliance with the law,” said Hansen.

Hansen declined to provide a copy of the mailer, saying even giving it to a reporter would violate the law.

According to a letter from deputy Chief Electoral Officer Linda Johnson to the government's lawyer, the publication is different from the kind of information the government has provided about budgets in the past.

“The timing and format of the mailer are not consistent with previous mailers regarding past budgets,” wrote Johnson. “To a large extent the mailer is focussed on the HST, at times in a very promotional way, and that focus appears to go well beyond the coverage that other budget highlights receive in the document.”

She continued, “Other budget mailers, which again are generally pre-budget consultation documents, are not dominated by a single issue to the extent that this one is. Of particular concern are pages 4 and 5, which solely focussed on the HST and result in the topic dominating the mailer.”

It appears the main intent of the mailer was not to inform the public about the budget, but to oppose the initiative campaign, she wrote, citing Hansen himself. “Comments by the Minister of Finance in the Legislative Assembly regarding the plans for this mailer imply that the intent of the mailer is to oppose the initiative petition,” she said.

Hansen suggested Elections B.C. is treating the government unfairly. “We will fully expect Elections BC to apply the law equally to everyone involved in the HST debate, including the NDP and Bill Vander Zalm and his canvassers,” he said.

People opposing the HST are spreading misinformation, he said, and questioned whether signatures collected to date should be considered valid.

As Hansen put it in a letter to Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld, “I request Elections B.C.'s opinion on the validity of names collected through misleading information.”

He told reporters the government will send out its mailer on July 6, after the initiative campaign period ends. “We believe the government has a fundamental obligation to inform British Columbians how the HST really works and why we think it's in the public interest,” he said.

Representatives of Elections B.C. were unavailable for an interview.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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