Poor Colin Hansen. Being the front man for the harmonized sales tax is a wretched job that seems to get worse every day.
Now that the anti-HST petition signatures are being counted, the government is launching its ad campaign to try and sell the tax. It's running radio ads around the province over the next three weeks and plans to mail flyers to every one of B.C.'s 1.7 million households.
But as the campaign lurched out of the starting gate, Hansen was back on the defensive.
What will the radio ads cost, reporters asked. I don't know, he said.
What about the flyer? I don't know that either, Hansen responded.
He was involved in planning the strategy and the messaging, Hansen acknowledged. But he doesn't know what it is costing taxpayers.
Which leaves the public to consider two options. Hansen doesn't pay much attention to how their money is spent. Or he's determined to keep it a secret in case people get angry about the expense.
The second is the correct answer, I'd say. As health minister, Hansen was amazingly well-informed on all aspects of the ministry, including the financial ones.
If he doesn't know what these campaigns cost, it's because the Public Affairs Bureau, finance ministry staff and Hansen decided it was best that he didn't. That way, he could avoid questions about the costs.
So as they met to develop the marketing plans, Hansen was careful never to say, "hey, what's this going to cost, anyway?" And the staff took care not to volunteer the information.
It's a dumb strategy. The Globe and Mail headline was "Liberals refuse to disclose costs of HST ads." A National Post online column was headlined "B.C. Liberals' HST amateur hour routine." Critics were quick to suggest Hansen was either not being honest or irresponsible in approving campaigns costing millions of dollars without knowing the price tag.
The Liberals have, despite all the open and transparent talk, always refused to reveal the cost of ad campaigns. The information would be available in the annual financial reports, they said.
So a year from now, taxpayers might be able to figure out how much they paid for the ads and the flyers about the HST.
It's hard to see how refusing to provide the information helps the Liberals. If they came clean, some people might be angry at the cost. But this approach means people can be angry about the cost and the secrecy.
This is also about what's right. You would expect a government, spending taxpayers' money, would be open.
That's what Gordon Campbell demanded in opposition. Ads promoting the NDP governments and their policies were "disgusting," he said.
When the government was slow to say what the campaigns cost, Campbell was furious. "The taxpayers who are funding this latest exercise in NDP election propaganda deserve to know the full cost, in terms of preparation, production and distribution," he said.
But that was then. Now secrecy is OK. (It is worth noting that the NDP lost, spectacularly, the next election.)
Hansen said he wasn't interested in the cost, as long as the Public Affairs Bureau stayed within its budget for the year.
But two days later, he announced a lower-than-forecast deficit for the last fiscal year because the government, thanks to "unprecedented" spending scrutiny, had spent $833 million less than projected.
But the scrutiny apparently doesn't extend to PR campaign costs.
Meanwhile, the anti-HST battle is also moving to the courts with a legal challenge to the tax.
The government passed a bill eliminating the provincial sales tax. But, unlike other provinces, there was no debate or vote on the new tax.
I might have been inclined to dismiss the challenge. But the lawyer is Joe Arvay, former general counsel for the attorney general's ministry. Arvay is recognized as a top constitutional lawyer.
Footnote: The public accounts this week revealed the government spent $37 million on the "You gotta be there" Olympic ads. Bob Mackin of 24 Hours obtained government documents that said "voting age" British Columbians were a key target audience and the campaigns were to include "special Premier-focused promotions." Which sounds much like Liberal party advertising, paid for by taxpayers.