Friday, September 10, 2010

Liberals might risk HST referendum

It actually appears the Liberals are seriously considering sending the anti-HST initiative to a provincewide vote next year.
And that seems a remarkably dangerous way to handle an issue that has already done such damage.
The initiative, with its bill to rescind the harmonized sales tax, has made it to the legislative initiatives committee.
The committee - composed of six Liberal and four New Democrat MLAs - has two choices. They can send the bill to the legislature or send it to a provincewide vote Sept. 24, 2011.
In either case, the government doesn't have to actually repeal the tax or even call a vote on the bill. The provincial vote on the tax wouldn't be binding. The bill to eliminate the HST could be left on the order paper or, if the government chose, voted down.
The committee met for the first time Wednesday, in what appeared to be a fairly bumbling start to the process.
The New Democrats were quick to move the bill be sent to the legislature for consideration this fall.
The Liberals said the motion was too hasty. They needed more information on the options, especially on a referendum, the Liberals said.
What would it cost? Could other questions be added to the ballot.
And they proposed compiling a list of questions which the committee's clerk would ask Elections B.C. She would then report on the answers.
The New Democrats thought that inefficient. What if the response raised other questions, they asked?
They proposed just inviting acting Chief Electoral Officer Craig James to answer questions at the next meeting.
Liberal Terry Lake, elected to chair the group, wasn't sure if the committee was allowed to do that. After about 45 minutes of confusion, it was agreed the committee could indeed invite James. (That does seem like the kind of basic question that could have been sorted out in advance.)
That suggested the Liberals believe a referendum might be a good idea. Lake reinforced that view in comments outside the committee room. The anti-HST petition was only signed by 19 per cent of registered voters, he said, and many were misled into supporting the initiative. A referendum might reflect the public will more accurately. (Finance Minister Colin Hansen later used the same talking points.)
It's a risky argument. After all, the Liberals were elected with the support of 26 per cent of registered voters. And the referendum is certain to irk many of the 575,000 people who signed the petitions.
The thinking, according to those in the Liberal camp, is that by the time the referendum is held the anger over the HST will have eased and people will have come to understand the tax is good for them.
And to kill the tax, the anti-HST side would have to get the support of 50 per cent of registered voters - close to 1.5 million votes, or about twice the number the Liberals got in 2009.
So the vote would fail and people would accept the HST and move on.
That could be a serious miscalculation. The anger is not directed just at the tax. Many people believe the government has been arrogant and dishonest in implementing it.
A referendum - at a cost of at least $10 million and likely significantly more - isn't going to reduce that anger. Rather, it will help fuel it as the 2013 election grows closer.
And in the meantime, recall campaigns will likely begin against some Liberal MLAs in November. The Liberals know how disruptive and distracting those campaigns are, based on Kevin Falcon's "Total recall" campaign against the NDP in 1999.
The committee is to meet Monday, hopefully with a representative from Elections B.C., to consider options.
There is no good way for the Liberals to escape this morass.
But keeping the anger alive for another year, through recall efforts and a referendum campaign, seems like a very bad choice.
Footnote: Liberal cabinet ministers all offered great support for Premier Gordon Campbell on their way into a meeting last week. But cracks are starting to appear in the party's base. The skill - or lack of it - in handling the issue in committee will be a factor in quieting or fuelling calls for a change at the top.


Anonymous said...

I think keeping the issue before the public by holding a referendum, even if that referendum doesn't get 50% support, won't help the BC Liberals. Between recall efforts and a referendum the NDP and other fledging parties are going to get so organized and have such accurate and up to date lists of supporters that they will be able to stage a very effective campaign in the 2013 provincial election.

paul said...

An interesting point I had not thought of, anon.
Those 575,000 names and addresses on the petitions, and more critically the rosters of volunteers, are quite valuable for any political party.

North Van's Grumps said...

In Vaughn Palmer's column this morning, last paragraph:

"Earlier this week, I reported the Liberal party membership as "40,000 or so members," an estimate I attributed to Jordan Bateman, president of the riding association in Fort Langley-Aldergrove. In fact, he pegged the membership at 34,000. My apologies to Bateman, who has been taking enough heat lately for the things he said that were accurately reported."

Let's be clear here, its not just those who signed the petition AND were accepted, but also those who signed (125,000+) and were not accepted by Elections BC, that are willing to stand up to the BC Liberals because now we know just a how few people in their membership have been running roughshod over our province for too many years.

Crankypants said...

I wonder who will represent Elections BC at this upcoming meeting of the standing committee. Craig James is in Kenya, or somewhere like that, and won't be back until Sept. 20. Before he left, he fired Linda Johnson, the Deputy Chief Electoral Officer.

First of all, where does an acting Chief Electoral Officer get the right to reorganize an independent body of government, and after a scant three months on the job.

It seems as if the dirty tricks of Campbell & Co. just keep on coming.