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Opinion

Campbell Gambles BC's Economy on HST Politics

Vote pushed back a year; who in their right minds will buy a condo now?

By Bill Tieleman 21 Sep 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"If you're playing a poker game and you look around the table and can't tell who the sucker is, it's you." -- Actor Paul Newman

Premier Gordon Campbell thinks B.C. voters are suckers.

And when it comes to the Harmonized Sales Tax, Campbell wants to deal you in for a poker game where the premier gets to:

Oh yes, the stakes you are playing for: $2 billion a year, forever.

Welcome to Campbell's Gamble -- or HST Hold ‘Em -- where the premier always deals his hand from the bottom of the deck.

If you play, expect Campbell's pair of deuces to easily beat your royal flush, because the only rules are his own.

The poker game is actually a province-wide vote on the HST.

Campbell was forced into that when Fight HST, the group I helped start, did what was previously thought impossible -- win a citizens' initiative petition signed by over 10 per cent of registered voters in all 85 B.C. ridings in just 90 days.

The government had only two choices -- introduce the HST Extinguishment Act proposed by Fight HST leader and former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm -- into the B.C. legislature or hold an initiative vote on Sept. 24 of 2011.

That ballot requires more than 50 per cent of all registered voters -- not just those who turn out -- to vote to kill the HST, plus two-thirds of all ridings voting more than 50 per cent -- and if passed, the act only goes to the legislature for introduction, not passage.

But with his party polling at just 23 per cent -- half its winning 2009 election percentage -- and his personal approval rating of 12 per cent the worst in Canada, Campbell had to do something drastic or face open BC Liberal revolt.

Campbell's solution -- dealer's choice. Hold the vote Sept. 24, 2011, but say he will respect a simple majority vote of those who turn out as "binding."

But the problems with Campbell's Gamble are enormous.

Crazy gamble with economy?

First, how does the premier get to override the law? Campbell is neither following the existing Recall and Initiative Act nor B.C.'s Referendum Act, which allows binding votes.

And why hold a vote in a year, except to buy the beleaguered Campbell political time?

Why make consumers pay a tax they hate and want eliminated immediately for another year?

Who in their right mind would buy a newly built home and pay seven per cent more tax on every dollar over the $525,000 exemption when the HST could be gone in a year? On an $825,000 condo, the seven per cent extra tax on the remaining $300,000 is a cool $21,000 more -- worth waiting for the lower price.

And who would do a $100,000 home renovation and pay an extra $7,000 HST when the tax could disappear in a year?

Why force businesses to deal with great uncertainty about the future of the HST, making long term investments and plans impossible?

Bob Rennie, the real estate marketing mogul, says Campbell's "insane referendum" on the HST will hurt sales.

"We need certainty," he said. "Gordon Campbell, for everything amazing that he has done for my province, is the worst salesperson on the planet. Seriously."

Greater Vancouver Home Builders' Association CEO Peter Simpson agrees.

"I'm hearing from builders that this is the slap on the other side of the face," Simpson told the Tri-City News. "Waiting a year I don't think was the appropriate course of action."

And Helmut Pastrick, chief economist for Central 1 Credit Union, also condemns the delay.

"When you have this kind of uncertainty regarding tax policy, it's typically quite negative for economic activity," Pastrick told CTV News.

What electoral financing laws will be used? Will the government spend millions, plus millions more from HST-supporting big businesses to try and buy votes?

What is the campaign period for those laws? From now till Sept. 24, 2011?

Why would voters trust the government and Elections BC -- currently run by an acting chief electoral officer appointed by the BC Liberals instead of a CEO picked with all party agreement -- to draw up a fair question? When will we see that question? Soon or just before the vote?

If British Columbians did vote to kill the HST, when would it happen? In 60 days? Or after the five year agreement ends in 2015?

How can Finance Minister Colin Hansen rule out any HST refunds when the citizens initiative that passed with 557,000 signatures had proposed legislation giving refunds?

Nobody but a sucker would play in this poker game.

And there's one more reason why to stay away from the table -- look at who thinks it's a great idea.

The very same big business coalition that went to the B.C. Supreme Court to try and throw the entire HST initiative out because it would create instability is now saying Campbell's Gamble a year from now will ensure stability.

"The provincial government's decision to send the HST to a referendum is a step towards the certainty the business community has been seeking," Phil Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, wrote in the Vancouver Sun.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Mining Association of B.C. and others involved in the lawsuit have similar good things to say about the initiative they tried to kill.

And with major B.C. Liberal Party donors like the ICBA in the premier's cheering section, smart poker players will see that this game is fixed.  [Tyee]

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