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Premier Clark misdirects blame for 'confusing' HST question

The "confusing" referendum question on British Columbia sales taxes is the fault of the enemies of the HST, Premier Christy Clark asserted today. But observers will recall that's not quite how it came to be.

"I didn't set the question," Clark said during an exchange with reporters on a Richmond farm this morning. "It's not the least confusing question they could have come up with."

The question is a product of the thinking of HST opponents, she said, naming former Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm and former NDP communications director Bill Tieleman.

But they didn't set the referendum question either.

That distinction belongs to acting chief electoral officer Craig James, appointed by the Liberal government. In a Nov. 10, 2010, letter to then Attorney General Mike de Jong The Tyee reported he proposed, “what I consider to be the most sensible question for the initiative vote.”

The draft wording James presented is as it will appear on the ballots: “Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and reinstating the PST (Provincial Sales Tax) in conjunction with the GST (Goods and Services Tax)? Yes/No.”

Vander Zalm, with support from Tieleman and others, was behind the petition drive that resulted in the HST being put to a province wide vote. Here's how the cover sheet for the petition explained what they were doing:

"The purpose of the initiative draft Bill is to declare that the agreement between the federal government and the British Columbia government to establish a harmonized sales tax (HST) is not in effect. The draft Bill would reinstate the 7% provincial sales tax (PST) with the same exemptions as were in effect as of June 30, 2010 and establish the provincial sales tax as the only sales tax in British Columbia for the purposes of raising provincial revenue. The draft Bill proposes that it be effective retroactively to June 30, 2010. The Bill also proposes that the provincial share of HST revenues received between June 30, 2010 and the date of Royal Assent of the Bill that exceeds what would be collected under the PST rules as of June 30, 2010 would be reimbursed to British Columbians on a per capita basis."

The petition received 557,383 verified signatures and was the first successful initiative in the province's history.

Update, 11:50 a.m.: "We never wrote the question," said Tieleman. "We had no authority, we had no right to veto the question." If Clark really wanted to reduce confusion she'd fund neutral ads that explain 'yes' means getting rid of the HST and 'no' means keeping it, he said. "I doubt she's going to follow my advice."

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

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