COLUMN: HST vote critical for Clark

Surrey will have even more clout in the new version of the BC Liberal government, unveiled Monday by new Premier Christy Clark.

That’s mainly because Clark’s closest rival for the top job in the party, Surrey-Cloverdale MLA Kevin Falcon, is now deputy premier, minister of finance and, most importantly, the chief salesperson for the HST.

The latter role is vital to the government. It’s the HST that eventually forced former premier Gordon Campbell out of office, and it’s also the main reason that former finance minister Colin Hansen isn’t even in cabinet.

Clark has said she wants to hold the HST referendum on June 24, three months ahead of the original date of Sept. 24. That doesn’t give the government a lot of time to sell the public on the merits of the tax, and considering that over 700,000 members of the public signed a petition against the HST, it’s a very big selling job.

Clark has also said that she wants to ensure that both the pro-HST and anti-HST campaigns compete on an even playing field. That will likely mean that each side gets about $500,000 in tax dollars to spend, to convince the public on the validity of their viewpoint.

The business groups that want the HST to stay will likely spend a great deal more, unless there are limits put on their spending, but the anti-HST campaign, which was financed mainly with $5 and $20 bills, will have no such additional source of funds to draw on.

Falcon will be in the hot seat trying to ensure it is a fair campaign, while at the same time acting as chief salesperson for the tax. His idea floated on the Liberal campaign leadership trail, to lower the provincial portion of the HST to five per cent as provincial revenue permits, is a good one and would be helpful in convincing at least some skeptical members of the public to support the HST.

Clark has not indicated whether she backs that approach.

The HST referendum is critical to the future of the Clark government. If the referendum fails, and at this juncture that seems the most likely scenario, the province will have to come up with a plan B to assist businesses in simplifying sales tax procedures. At the same time, it will almost certainly have to pay the federal government all or most of the $1.6 billion given in transition money.

Some of that has not yet been transferred to B.C., but most has.

Despite Clark being a fresh face, most of her cabinet served in Campbell’s cabinet at one time or the other. If the referendum fails, the Clark government may have trouble winning an election – one she has said she wants to hold before the May 2013 date set by law.

Any election call must also take into account the new leader of the NDP. I’ve had the opportunity to meet each of the three front-runners and hear some of their plans, and in my view, each is capable of running a much smarter and better-focused election campaign than was waged by the NDP in 2009.

They didn’t lose by much that year.

And all that was before the HST reared its head.

It’s good that Clark also kept Surrey-Panorama MLA Stephanie Cadieux in cabinet, as minister of labour, citizens’ services and open government. It will be interesting to see how she handles the latter part of that job.

One area of responsibility that she has is for the public-affairs bureau, which expanded greatly in the Campbell era and was effectively run out of the premier’s office. Clark appears to want to change the way the government communicates with the public and has given Cadieux responsibilities in that area.

Open government is always a challenge, but for the BC Liberals after 10 years in power, it is a much bigger challenge. In recent years, a great deal of decision-making took place behind the closed doors of the premier’s office – the HST being just one example.

Clark has a short window of opportunity to convince the public that her government is different, and she will be leaning on her two Surrey ministers to help make that case.

Frank Bucholtz writes Fridays for the Peace Arch News. He is the editor of the Langley Times.