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April 14, 2011

Use an Extinguisher to Put Out the HST

Did Premier Christy Clark break one of her leadership campaign promises on the HST? Her promise was: “We will provide equal funding to both sides during the referendum period, as was done in the electoral reform referendum.” Technically, one dollar could be given to each side and the Liberals could argue that Christy kept her promise; that's the kind of trickery we've come to expect from them.

For the electoral reform referendum, $500,000 was provided to each side and each side was represented by a single organization. That is important because dividing the funding between several groups can mean that none of them have enough to run an effective campaign.

For the HST referendum, each side will receive $250,000 and that reduced funding could be spread between several organizations on each side. The electoral referendum took place on a single day; the HST vote will be spread over more than a month, June 13 – July 22. Having adequate funding to advertise throughout that period is important. It is very expensive to advertise. A 60 second ad on the News Hour can cost $2,700, on a popular drama show it can cost $12,000; that’s for a single 60 second ad!

Even if the full $250,000 is awarded to a single organization on each side, it will be virtually impossible with that amount to run a province-wide advertising campaign. Meanwhile, there are no restrictions on third party advertising. Business oganizations will spend millions to protect the $2 billion per year in benefits they get from the tax shift. You can expect to see a lot of pro-HST ads on TV, but no ads opposing the HST. Is that what Christy Clark meant when she promised equal funding for both sides? In the 2009 referendum, both sides were able to afford TV ads. The only way the YES campaign can fight back is to use its 7,000 volunteers to mount the kind of ground campaign that allowed it to succeed with the initiative petition.

Notice that it is the “yes” side that is opposing the HST. The question is: “Are you in favour of extinguishing the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) and reinstating the PST (Provincial Sales Tax) in conjunction with the GST (Goods and Services Tax)? Yes/No.” A yes vote means you are voting to extinguish the HST; think of a fire extinguisher and using it to put out the tax.

In addition to what business organizations will spend, the government is funding its HST information office, a tour by Kevin Falcon and Blair Lekstrom, $500,000 for “public dialogues” and $700,000 for household mailers. The government will argue that the dialogues and pamphlets are neutral, but there is no such thing. At a minimum it is fair to say that $1.2 million will not advocate against the HST.

With the deck stacked so heavily in favour of getting a vote approving the HST, it will be an even greater blow to the government if all its well laid plans go down to defeat.