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Citizens Deprived of pro-HST Mailer, Complains Hansen

As he shuts down debate in Leg over the tax, finance minister slams Elections BC for preventing government's mass mailing.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Apr 2010 | TheTyee.ca

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

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Finance Minister Colin Hansen: HST opponents spreading misinformation.

On the day the provincial government had set to shut down debate on the harmonized sales tax, Finance Minister Colin Hansen criticized Elections British Columbia for disallowing a mail-out about the tax.

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

The setback comes while inside the legislature the government was closing debate on the Consumption Tax Rebate and Transition Act, the legislation needed to repeal the provincial sales tax and clear the way for the federal government to begin applying the HST on July 1.

But it is entirely to do with the initiative campaign the government is facing outside the legislature. That campaign, headed by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, is collecting signatures to overturn the HST.

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.

Hansen argued that the publication was the kind of thing the government would normally put out to let people know about the budget and doesn't have anything to do with the initiative campaign. "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.

Hansen declined to provide a copy of the mailer, saying even giving it to a reporter would violate the law. He said the government will send out its mailer on July 6, after the initiative campaign period ends.

Mailer promoted HST

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.

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

Government's scared and angry: NDP

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."

"I saw the complaint and I had to laugh," said NDP house leader and Port Coquitlam MLA Mike Farnworth. "To me it's an indication of a government that's lashing out in all directions because it misled British Columbians about the HST. It's finding British Columbians aren't buying it's message and it's angry."

Elections B.C. is doing its job and the government hadn't even consulted the agency when it announced it was doing its mail-out, he said. "They were dismissive about the initiative campaign. Now that it's taking off and appears to be having some success, they're scared and they're angry."

The campaign has until July 5 to collect signatures from 10 per cent of registered voters in each of the province's 85 constituencies to succeed.  [Tyee]

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