The legal attack on the HST petition by business groups is terrible for the Liberals.
In fact, when the release announcing the court action showed up in my inbox, I wondered if it was a hoax.
The groups - the Council of Forest Industries; Mining Association of B.C.; Independent Contractors and Businesses Association; Western Convenience Stores Association; Coast Forest Products Association; and the B.C. Chamber of Commerce — want the B.C. Supreme Court to rule the anti-HST petition invalid.
The work of hundreds of volunteers and the signatures of more than 700,000 people would then be junked.
Under the initiative process, proponents draft a bill to go before the legislature, in this case the HST Extinguishment Act.
The business group’s main argument is that the HST has now been imposed by federal legislation. The B.C. legislature can’t vote to undo a federal law, it says, and the courts should declare the petition not valid.
Maybe they’re right. The court will decide. (Although Elections B.C. approved the initiative after a legal review.)
But in waging an unnecessary fight to protect the harmonized sales tax, the business groups are doing more damage to the Liberals’ already battered chances of winning the next election.
The intent of the petition is clear — to tell the government to cancel the tax.
And that is within the province’s power. If the B.C. Liberal government accepted the voters’ wishes and asked the federal government to let the province out of the deal, the federal Conservatives would likely go along. They have seen the anger directed at the provincial Liberals; no minority government wants to turn its candidates into pariahs.
The legal challenge reinforces the impression that the Liberals are governing in the interests of business, not individuals and families.
And the timing seems certain to infuriate the people who supported the anti-HST initiative.
The business groups announced their challenge the day before Bill Vander Zalm and supporters delivered petitions with the names of more than 700,000 British Columbians to Elections B.C.
That’s 11 weeks after the petition information was made public. It’s three weeks after former attorney general Geoff Plant wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun questioning the petition’s legality.
The last-minute intervention will be seen as an attempt to sink the effort after the volunteers have done all the work.
It’s baffling. The government is not going to retreat on the HST anyway, barring a Liberal leadership change. The business groups’ effort seems unnecessary.
If they win, HST opponents will feel cheated. They will still expect the government to act on the petition, signed by about the number of people who voted Liberal in the last election.
And there is the issue of political donations. The Vancouver Sun noted that the Independent Contractors and Business Association has contributed $62,455 to the Liberals since 2005, the Coast Forest Products Association $61,700, the Council of Forest Industries has $24,615, the Mining Association of B.C. $13,180 and the Western Convenience Store Association gave $500.
But the $162,000 is a small part of the picture. Members of the forest industry council contributed another $957,000 to the Liberals in the same period; mining association member companies contributed $913,000.
Which is all perfectly legal; B.C. electoral laws set no limits on corporate, union or individual donations.
But again, some of those volunteers who spent days gathering petitions are likely to believe that the big donations earned the companies special benefits — including the HST's $1.9-billion tax cut for business, with the costs shifted onto individuals and families.
If the petition is tossed, the Liberals will be blamed. The recall campaigns will be energized.
And the growing perception that the Liberals aren’t listening will be reinforced.
The business groups have, oddly, increased the chances of an NDP government after 2013.
Footnote: How bad could this get? Here’s Rick Jeffrey of the Coast Forest Products Association in the Globe and Mail. “We are not challenging the 700,000 people who signed the petition – they have been led down the garden path by the petitioners, they didn’t really know what they were signing.”
Not just wrong, but hapless, witless dupes.