New Westminster responds to plan to scrap the HST

Postmedia News, 26 August 2011 By Theresa McManus

The HST has indeed proven to be the Hated Sales Tax among a majority of British Columbians.

Elections B.C. has announced that a majority of British Columbians want the province to scrap the harmonized sales tax, which has been in place for about two years.

"The Yes side won, a clear rejection of the HST - 54.7 per cent was the overall result," said New Westminster-Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly, who has campaigned against the tax in a byelection and general election. "New Westminster was slightly higher - 57.33 per cent in terms of the Yes."

The referendum results mean B.C. will begin a transition back to its former provincial sales tax.

"I think people were obviously not liking how the tax was introduced, how it was presented to them and they have clearly rejected that," Donnelly said.

The B.C. Liberal government announced plans to adopt the HST shortly after winning the May 2009 election.

"That is probably one of the biggest lessons to be learned - listen to the people, consult with the people, be open and honest," Donnelly said.

In response to the province's decision to adopt the harmonized sales tax, former premier Bill Vander Zalm launched an anti-HST petition to force the government to hold a referendum. Ten per cent of registered voters in each of B.C.'s 85 ridings signed the petition, making it the first petition in B.C.'s history to achieve the threshold needed to force a referendum.

"If we want to improve our tax systems, we have to have honest, accountable and transparent processes to do that," Donnelly said. "I think that is what a lot of British Columbians were upset with."

Donnelly believes there's much to be learned by provincial and federal governments when considering new tax policies.

"I really didn't know what to expect. I knew how angry people were about the way the Liberals brought I the HST, how angry they were about the broken trust," said New Westminster MLA Dawn Black. "But it has been in place for two years now. You wonder how they would vote."

While she couldn't predict the referendum result, Black was happy with the outcome.

"I am pleased," she said. "The Liberals got us into this mess. People knew intuitively that people were paying from their own pocketbooks to pay for this tax."

When reached by phone, Black was in Toronto to attend federal NDP leader Jack Layton's funeral. Although she hadn't had time to review all of the referendum results, she said it appeared that a couple of Burnaby ridings held by Liberal MLAs were among the top ridings to support killing the HST.

"The lesson is you better be honest with the voters, be truthful," she said. "It is a very terrible thing to lose the trust of the voters."

Elections B.C. estimated that 1.6 million people voted in the referendum, representing about 52 per cent of the electorate. Under the Referendum Act, one side would have to achieve more than 50 per cent support before being declared the winner.

"I am glad this is over," Black said. "There has been economic uncertainty in B.C. for two years."

Black said it is incumbent on Premier Christy Clark to tell British Columbians what her plan is for dealing with the referendum results, and to move quickly to restore the tax system to the way it was before the HST was adopted.

The B.C. Liberals have vowed to honour the results of the HST referendum when the legislature resumes in the fall.

B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said a vote to kill the HST would cost B.C. an estimated $3 billion, $1.6 of which will have to be repaid to Ottawa.

"The late Jack Layton was instrumental in letting Harper know that compensation repayment should be forgiven," said Donnelly, noting that's something the NDP will continue to fight for. "I think it's a possibility. Hopefully the provincial government will listen to the results and act on it."

On the local front, the City of New Westminster will be consulting with the province about changes to B.C.'s tax system.

Blair Fryer, the city's communications manager, said there are some implications to changing the tax system on the city's systems and programs. Like other municipalities, he said the city will be looking to the province for guidance and for timelines for the change in the tax system.

"Once we have those dates we can execute a plan," he said. "Obviously, there's been thought given to it, should this occur. While's is a move back (to the PST) you can't do it without spending some time and energy on it."

With Vancouver Sun files

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