HST fiasco is a warning to all politicians

On May 4, 2011, a group referred to as the independent panel released a report on the difference between the HST and the combined GST/PST.

On May 4, 2011, a group referred to as the independent panel released a report on the difference between the HST and the combined GST/PST.

This panel included the CEO of a large British Columbia credit union, a Simon Fraser University school of public policy professor, the Canada West Foundation chair, and British Columbia’s former auditor general.

The panelists are not political heavyweights, but their credentials embody vast knowledge and experience in public finance.

Their report offers neither good news nor bad news; it is a clean display of relevant and referenced facts, and it gives the names and affiliation of every person consulted (http://nlc.bc.ca/library/Its_your_decision.pdf).

Who first proposed the idea of harmonizing sales taxes in British Columbia and when the decision was made to go ahead is of no concern today.

What remains a concern is the way the decision was first presented to the public.

There is more to democracy than free and fair elections. Equally important is that elected politicians show respect for the maturity, responsibility, views, opinions, and preferences of the citizens they were elected to serve.

Public policy is not merchandise; it is not something to be sold as one would sell a new line of lip gloss. Democratic governments are compelled to engage the public, to acquaint it with a proposed policy’s rationale and objectives, and to win broad public consent before making HST-style decisions.

Governing by these principles is neither difficult nor expensive; it is both democratic and effective. The independent panel has demonstrated that it can be done.

The B.C. government’s strategy to sell the HST as if it were a new line of lip gloss created a major political fiasco.

The consequences included the first successful citizen-initiated petition in the province’s history, to be followed with a referendum, the resignation of the Premier which in turn caused the resignation of the Leader of the Opposition, two party leadership contests, and one by-election.

It was only after all this waste of money, effort, and good-will that sanity gained the upper hand and resources were applied to establish an independent panel, assigning to it the task of producing a comprehensive, unbiased, and factual report on the HST.

Why was such a report not commissioned, produced, and widely circulated before the government announced the decision to harmonize sales taxes?

Surely this scheme was not concocted by a couple of politicians sipping a latte in an airport lounge.

And yet, the government’s flippant announcement that the HST would be revenue-neutral and create hundreds of thousands of jobs — both nonsensical claims — leads one to conclude that the decision was made on the basis of sketchy calculations jotted down on a napkin.

The other possibility is that the government knew the facts and decided that the best way to sell the deal to the ignorant masses was to exaggerate the positive and fudge the rest. Neither option does much to raise the public’s confidence and trust in government.

The money and effort expended on the HST fiasco will not have been a waste if the government has learned a lesson from the experience.

The citizens who elected you are responsible adults. We are not simpletons; we do not need your paternalistic guidance. When next you see a need to rethink a major public policy — education, health, environment, transportation — remember the HST.

Resist the temptation to sell solutions. Establish instead independent panels to produce factual information and use that information to engage us.

Consider our views before you make decisions that affect all our lives in the long-term.

Andre Carrel is a retired public sector administrator who lives in Terrace, BC.

Referendum ballots, barring any disruption if the postal dispute continues, will be appearing in provincial mail boxes beginning next week.

They must be returned by July 22.

Voting is expected to take several weeks with results being released in late August.