Opinion

Secrets of the HST Referendum

What the BC gov't won't tell you about the tax and who's behind the campaign pushing it.

By Bill Tieleman 5 Jul 2011 | 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 here or visit his blog.

"Where secrecy or mystery begins, vice or roguery is not far off." -- Samuel Johnson

There are many things powerful people want to make sure you never know about the Harmonized Sales Tax binding referendum now underway.

What is the total budget of the pro-HST Smart Tax Alliance? $15 million?

They won't tell you. But it could be more than the $12 million the BC Liberals spent in the 2009 election. And over double the $6 million B.C.'s New Democrats spent.

That big business group is buying expensive television, print, radio and Internet advertising, paying for automated "robo" calls to millions of voters and hiring spin doctors galore.

That's on top of the more than $5 million the B.C. government is spending to promote the HST.

But you will never know what the Smart Tax Alliance spent -- because Premier Christy Clark made sure of it.

Believe it or not, there are no third party financial spending disclosure rules for this referendum. None.

You can read who spent how much in both the 2005 and 2009 electoral system referenda -- but you won't be able to on this one.

How much did the Coal Association of Canada donate to the Smart Tax Alliance? The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers? The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association? The Insurance Bureau of Canada? Other business groups?

And why?

They are all Smart Tax Alliance members, but you won't ever know unless they voluntarily decide to tell us -- fat chance, especially before voting takes place.

Nor are there rules requiring referendum advertising to identify who authorized it or how to contact them. The BC Liberal government chose not to demand it.

These regulations are essential parts of any B.C. election or referendum, but have gone missing this time.

So the Smart Tax Alliance can completely avoid voter scrutiny before and after the ballot.

That stinks. Badly.

Won't 'save us all money'

Did you know that the HST won't instantly become 10 per cent if you vote "No" to keep it?

It would only become 10 per cent if the BC Liberal government still exists in 2014 and keeps its promises, first to cut the HST to 11 per cent in July 2012, and then to 10 per cent in July 2014.

But government and Smart Tax Alliance ads don't mention that key fact.

"To lower the HST from 12 per cent to 10 per cent vote NO," a June 17 government print ad says -- with no reference to when or how.

A Smart Tax Alliance TV ad featuring cherry orchardist Christine Dendy boldly states: "And now the decrease in the HST from 12 per cent to 10 per cent saves us all money."

But there hasn't been a decrease. And no, it doesn't save us all money.

You still have to pay a full seven per cent more on hundreds of goods and services like restaurant food, basic telephone and cable, home repairs and maintenance, domestic air flights and much more that you never had to pay under the previous combined PST and GST.

Even if you believe the BC Liberal government, which broke its word over and over about the HST, will really reduce the rate to 11 per cent and then 10 per cent three years from now, you will still pay an extra five per cent on all those items that you never did before.

It won't "save us all money" -- unless business passes on 90 per cent of its savings to consumers -- which is what the government claims will happen.

And most big businesses in B.C. don't produce consumer goods you buy -- so their savings on exported aluminum, forest products, coal and copper will go to their pockets, not yours.

The HST also won't save you money, unless you don't have to ever repair your roof or do significant renovations. Or unless you don't spend much money going out for dinner and a show or travelling or on and on and on.

Did you also know that government ads saying the 10 per cent HST is "law" are completely misleading?

"We want people to know if they vote to keep the HST that the reduction will take place by law," Clark claimed last month.

But the "law" is simply a federal Order-In-Council approved by the federal Conservative cabinet, not a vote by Parliament.

And it could be just as easily rescinded with only a signature.

Besides, B.C. has a fixed election date law setting the next provincial election for May 14, 2013 -- but Christy Clark can easily change that law and has repeatedly talked about holding a vote long before then.

The BC Liberals also repealed their own "balanced budget" law when they went deeply into the red ink. This is a government with laws to be broken.

Inaccurate and unfair

The HST Referendum Voters Guide mailed to British Columbians with the views of both Fight HST and the Smart Tax Alliance, as well as the so-called "Independent Panel" of experts on the tax was sent out before the Clark government announced additional HST rebates and proposed a future reduced rate.

That means the expensive mailing was both inaccurate and unfair -- since the registered proponent opposing the HST had no way to respond in the one flyer going to every British Columbian.

But the government has spent more than $5 million on misleading "stick man" and other advertising to promote its position.

You can choose to disregard my views -- as a Fight HST founder, I've opposed this tax from the beginning.

But I'm not paid to do so, and I don't have a multi-million dollar ad campaign trying to mislead you. The other side does.

Before you vote on the HST, ask why there is no disclosure of spending despite a massive pro-HST campaign, why standard election financing rules were dropped, why there is no requirement for government or corporate advertising to be truthful or even authorized by an official agent.

Ask the business members of the Smart Tax Alliance how much money they are spending and who is giving it to them.

But you won't get an answer. Just more ads supporting the HST.  [Tyee]

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