British Columbia

B.C. HST referendum to be binding

If British Columbians vote against the HST in a referendum, the province will dump the controversial tax, says B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell.

B.C. premier lowers the threshold for axing the Harmonized Sales Tax

If British Columbians vote against the HST in a referendum, the province will dump the controversial tax, says B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell.

Campbell said the issue will be decided by a simple majority in a referendum to be held Sept. 24, 2011, and if more than 50 per cent of those who vote want the tax gone, the Liberal government will get out of the tax deal with Ottawa.

The move dramatically lowers the threshold of what the legislation requires the province to do after a petition like the one against the HST has met the required number of signatures.

Under the legislation, the referendum is non-binding and has extremely difficult rules to allow it to pass, requiring the majority of votes from registered voters in each riding.

Earlier Monday, a legislative committee decided to send the HST to a referendum rather than put it to a vote this fall in the provincial legislature.

The committee had the option of sending a draft bill repealing the HST to the legislature or calling for a referendum called an Initiative Vote.

"People signed a petition throughout this province in order to have a say, and now we're giving them that say," Terry Lake, the Liberal chair of the all-party committee, said Monday after the unanimous decision.

"If 50 per cent of the people who show up at the polling booths next September say they want to get rid of an HST then certainly, as a government, I would want to get rid of the HST," Campbell said a later interview with the Vancouver Sun.

Vander Zalm upset

The NDP had been urging the Liberals to send the matter to the legislature for a free vote, but voted in favour of the referendum in the end.

New Democrat committee member Jenny Kwan said the party had little choice after its own motion calling for a legislature vote was defeated.

Elections BC had verified about 557,000 signatures on the petition, in the anti-HST fight led by former premier Bill Vander Zalm.

"I don't know why I came to this crazy place," said Vander Zalm after the hearing.

"I am disgusted that there's all these people out there, they elect these people to represent them, and they sit there and talk against the wish and the will of the people. I just can't believe what I see happening."

Vander Zalm and his supporters have promised to begin recall campaigns to have Liberal MLAs thrown out of their jobs.

British Columbia's unique direct democracy laws allow voters to launch campaigns to recall politicians from office 18 months after the provincial election.

Referendum options considered

Earlier Monday, B.C.'s chief electoral officer, Craig James, told the committee an election-style referendum using ballot boxes in polling places would cost about $30 million.

Internal documents released earlier this month revealed Liberal bureaucrats were contacting Ottawa about the HST prior to the May 2009 B.C. election where the Liberals were re-elected to their third consecutive term.

Campbell and Finance Minister Colin Hansen said the bureaucrats were exploring the HST without government direction, but Vander Zalm and the Opposition New Democrats have accused the government of working behind the scenes on the HST while telling British Columbians the tax was off the government's radar.

With files from the CBC's Jeff Davies and The Canadian Press