New premier gears up for HST vote

Fight HST organizer Chris Delaney (background) prepares to speak to an eclectic group of protesters outside the Vancouver convention centre.

Premier-designate Christy Clark chaired her first caucus meeting in Vancouver Wednesday afternoon, and one of the most pressing issues facing her government is how to proceed with a promised referendum on the harmonized sales tax.

After musing about dispensing with a referendum during the B.C. Liberal leadership contest, Clark settled on moving the province-wide vote up from the scheduled Sept. 24 date to late June. But it isn’t clear how that would be done, or if it is even possible.

The vote is currently required to be held in September under the terms of the Recall and Initiative Act, after B.C.’s first-ever successful initiative petition last year called for the HST to be “extinguished” and the old provincial sales tax reinstated.

To hold the vote earlier, the B.C. Liberals would have to call the legislature into session to amend the act, or cancel the initiative vote and set a new date under the Referendum Act.

Whatever the date, a province-wide vote with election-style polling stations would cost an estimated $25 million. Elections BC would have to hire hundreds of temporary staff to run it, and preparations could take too long for the vote to go ahead in June.

Acting Chief Electoral Officer Craig James said in February it would take Elections BC about nine months to prepare for an election-style referendum.

Premier Gordon Campbell and Finance Minister Colin Hansen have both said the government should stay with the September date, to allow time for people to see the real effects of the HST and understand what is and is not affected.

A panel of independent experts is taking submissions on the HST until Friday, and has a deadline of April 1 to produce a report that will be made public immediately.

The panel is chaired by University of Alberta chancellor Jim Dinning, a former Alberta finance minister. Other members are former B.C. Auditor General George Morfitt, Coast Capital Savings CEO Tracy Redies and John Richards, a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University.

The B.C. government has set up a website to answer questions about the tax. It details what has more, less or the same tax under the HST compared to the PST.

For example, car purchases are unchanged except for buying or leasing alternative fuel or fuel efficient vehicles, where an exemption under the PST no longer applies. HST also applies to parking fees, one of the services covered by the federal GST and now the HST.