B.C. has introduced legislation that would put an end to the provincial sales tax and replace it with another seven per cent levy that is harmonized with the federal Goods and Services Tax.
The new 12 per cent Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) would take effect July 1 and apply to a much wider array of goods and services than the provincial sales tax does.
B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen said the HST is the most important step the province can make to get itself out of the recession and it will make the province more competitive.
But opposition to the HST is heating up at both ends of the political spectrum, with the B.C. NDP and a former Social Credit premier aiming to mobilize those opposed to the new tax.
Former premier Bill Vander Zalm has been campaigning hard in the province's Interior, looking for volunteers for his Citizens Initiative to force the government to hold a referendum on the new tax.
"HST is a big issue. It's the wrong tax at the wrong time and it gives us the opportunity to address this whole issue of democracy," he said.
The blended tax means B.C. consumers will pay much more tax on items that were previously exempt from the provincial sales tax, including big-ticket items like real estate.
Vander Zalm says 85 per cent of British Columbians oppose the HST, but he only needs 10 per cent of registered voters to sign his petition to trigger a referendum on the HST.
B.C. Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld approved the initiative application in February, giving the opponents of B.C.'s harmonized sales tax 90 days — starting April 6 — to collect signatures from 10 per cent of voters in each of the 85 electoral districts.
Anyone who intended to register as an opponent to the petition needed to register with Elections BC by March 8.
Anyone intending to canvass or conduct advertising that directly or indirectly promotes or opposes the petition must register with Elections BC and has up to the day the petition is submitted. The submission deadline is July 5, 2010.
For an initiative vote to pass, more than 50 per cent of registered voters in at least two-thirds of the electoral districts would have to vote in favour of it.
If that happened, the government would be required to introduce the draft bill contained in the petition to withdraw the HST.
The government also has the option of sending the draft bill directly to the legislature without a initative vote.
But if either of those options succeed, there is no requirement for the government, which has a majority in the legislature, to pass the draft bill after it is introduced, and it could die on the floor of the house, just as many private member's bills do.
Despite not holding office for two decades, the 75-year-old political veteran was campaigning hard in Nelson on Monday, speaking for 45 minutes without a break, notes, or even a drink of water, as he appealed for volunteers to help him gather signatures for his anti-HST initiative.
"I'm not affiliated with any political party. I can bring together NDP, Liberal, no political party. All these people are coming together and that's what it takes," he said.
He's banking that people like Ray Burgess of Nelson will help him get the tax repealed.
"It's going to affect my shopping. I like sailing and my bicycle. It's going cost more and that's just really annoying," said Burgess after hearing Vander Zalm speak.
NDP targets swing riding
Meanwhile in Victoria, NDP Leader Carole James is organizing petitions and a campaign against the HST, targeting Liberal MLAs who might be worried about losing their seats in the next election.
James has singled out seven swing ridings where she thinks Liberal MLAs will feel the heat and might be persuaded to vote against the tax.
"I think it's a difficult job. There's no question. I'm a realistic person and I know it's going to be a very tough job to get those Liberal MLAs to stand up. But I wouldn't discount the public voice," said James.
On Monday, voters from one of those swing ridings were in Victoria with James to present a petition urging their B.C. Liberal MLA to vote against the bill.
Larry Day and a handful of others travelled from Williams Lake to the front steps of the legislature with an armload of petitions urging MLA Donna Barnett to vote against the HST.
"It's the Stop-Campbell-government-HST petition … 4,000 names of people from throughout the Cariboo-Chilcotin," said Day.
Former NDP MLA Charley Wyse — who lost to Barnett by just 88 votes in last year's election — was also on hand to voice his concerns.
Wyse said the Liberals hid their plans to introduce the HST during the election last May, and he believes the election results would have been much different if the HST had been a campaign issue.
"There's no question, if there had been honesty in the election, right across the whole province, I think the election results would have been different," said Wyse.
B.C. Finance Minister Colin Hansen maintains the government had no plans to introduce the HST before the May election.
Hansen also says the harmonized tax will improve the tax structure for businesses in B.C., leading to more jobs and eventually to lower costs for consumers.
He also points out the federal government will give the province several billion dollars in badly needed transfer payments once the tax is brought in.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that everyone involved in collecting signatures or conducting advertising regarding the petition had to register with Elections BC by March 8. The correct date is July 5.Mar 29, 2010 10:45 PM PT