More than 1.6 million B.C. voters took the time and effort, in the middle of the summer, to express their views on the HST.
This is an excellent testimonial to the willingness of people to have a say on a highly-controversial issue, and to help rebuild stronger democracy in B.C.
The BC Liberal government, under former premier Gordon Campbell, made a critical strategic error in adopting the HST two months after an election, in which the subject was barely discussed. The government did so with no public consultation, and in fact the decision was basically dumped on the Liberal caucus after cabinet adopted it. This was largely on the strength of a $1.6 billion transition payment from the federal government to align the provincial and federal sales tax systems.
But the public didn’t just sit back and take it, as Liberal MLAs predicted they would. They fought back, using every tool in their arsenal. The most potent one, as it turned out, was the ability to petition for a province-wide initiative vote. This legislation, passed by the NDP under Mike Harcourt, had never been successfully used because of its very high threshold — requiring 10 per cent support in each provincial riding.
But through the efforts of Bill Vander Zalm, Chris Delaney and Bill Tieleman, and the hundreds of grassroots people on the ground in each riding, the initiative was successful. This stunning fact doomed Campbell as premier, and he eventually saw the writing on the wall and resigned.
His successor Christy Clark at first favoured another vote on the HST in the legislature, but that wasn’t democratic and she eventually realized that. So a mail referendum was adopted, largely to reduce costs. Clark has pledged to abide by the results, and has also promised that the HST will be reduced to 10 per cent by 2014 — if voters agree to retain it.
This very important decision on sales tax policy was taken out of the hands of politicians because, frankly, they got too arrogant. They did not consult those who were affected by the shift in policy, and Campbell fittingly paid a steep price.
The public took control of this issue, and whatever the outcome of the referendum vote, it is a massive victory for democracy. Any future B.C. government that chooses to make such as arrogant shift in policy will pay the price. Such a future thumbing of noses at voters is now very unlikely.