CONTRIBUTION · 21st September 2010
A Vancouver lawyer and business columnist, Tony Wilson, has written an article in the Globe & Mail (Sept. 14) praising the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in which he claims that such a tax is like "that colonoscopy you're dreading: an awful experience but one that could very well save your life." The job of government, according to him, is to "make it as painless as possible."
Further on in his article, he mixes metaphors (and body openings) when he writes, "The question is how to do [a colonoscopy] without killing the goose that lays the golden egg."
Well, frankly, I can't think of a more ghastly idea than Premier Gordon Campbell and his cabinet performing a colonoscopy on me, and I think most other British Columbians would second that emotion.
But, in his odd metaphor, Mr. Wilson completely misses the point about the HST and other taxes. And that is, if a person decides to have a colonoscopy, he or she gives their consent to have it done. No doctor can force it on you.
But taxes, such as the HST, are another matter, and that is where Mr. Wilson's metaphor falls hopelessly apart. Governments, whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level, impose tax increases on voters all the time, often, as with the HST, against the fierce opposition of these same voters.
These days it seems like every week, there is a tax hike of some kind, or, what amounts to almost the same thing, another user fee jacked up, whether for kid's school activities, recreation, licensing, or something else. People have the distinct feeling that their pockets are being regularly and thoroughly picked by all levels of government.
It is a weird fact of modern life that the population provides all the tax revenue which government collects, but has no say over tax policy whatsoever. The power to tax is vested solely in government. Increasingly, as during the Middle Ages when the king had absolute authority, this power is ending up in the hands of the Premier or Prime Minister who can bring MLAs and MPs into line with the crack of a party "whip". Presto. Another tax increase. A GST. An HST. And more to come. Welcome to the new feudalism.
But things have hit a glitch in British Columbia. Because of massive public opposition, the Campbell government is now conceding that it will allow British Columbians to vote on whether or not to adopt the HST, using a simple, and binding, majority. This is a step in the right direction although, as many are saying, we should not have to wait a year for a vote and the Premier should enact legislation to back his decision up.
However, the politicians and party pundits are already trying to qualify and limit the scope of this unprecedented event in the province. Premier Campbell has made it clear that voters being allowed to cast a ballot on this tax will be an exception, and not become common practice. For her part, Carole James, leader of the NDP, has stated that a referendum is a "terrible way" to "set tax policy," agreeing with Campbell that this time is an "exception."
So after British Columbians vote on the HST, it will be back to the same old practice of government making all tax decisions.
But the question needs to be asked: In a true democracy, shouldn't all power flow from the people? Why shouldn't citizens have the final say on major tax legislation, using the mechanism of a referendum?
"That's what elections are for," the party pundits say. "If voters don't like what a government does in regards to taxes, they can just vote them out in the next election. End of story."
But does that really work for voters? Take the example of the GST, which was brought in federally by the Brian Mulroney Conservatives 20 years ago. Yes, the voters were outraged. And yes, they punished the Conservatives at the polls, reducing the party to just two seats in Parliament. The opposition Liberals campaigned against the tax and promised that, if elected, they would get rid of it. But, once in power, they chose not to. And, as a result, voters have been stuck with the GST ever since. It's a fact that, whether at the federal or provincial level, the establishment parties act like a tag team against the voters on issues of taxation.
And then there is the bogey man of "California Proposition 13". Party pundits argue that the reason why California is so deeply in debt is that voters approved this controversial legislation in a referendum. For example, one of the components was language "requiring a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses for future increases in all state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates." This effectively means that tax increases are extremely difficult to get passed on virtually anything. And there are other provisions in that legislation that some feel are also too unwieldy and restrictive.
But, in raising a scare about "Proposition 13", the party pundits are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Because California voters, through a referendum, brought in legislation that some consider faulty, doesn't mean that the referendum mechanism itself should be rejected. It simply means that, on some occasions, voters may make a wrong decision. Don't governments on their own often make mistakes, sometimes even catastrophic ones? The point is that we, in British Columbia, can learn from the referenda experience of California and other jurisdictions and craft what works best for us.
Another criticism of referenda is that powerful vested interests (including big corporations and government itself), can "buy" the outcome through spending a ton of money and massive advertising. Yet, various vested interests already do that with ordinary elections and the party pundits say nothing. The fact of the matter is that, to have a referendum on taxes (or even on changing the entire tax system itself) that truly reflects the will of the people, stringent controls on funding, advertising and media coverage are necessary.
Referenda are not the end all and be all of the democratic process. If properly set up, they are just one means by which people can gain more "local" or "provincial" control over government that has come increasingly under the sway of a global elite of multinationals and monopolies.
We don't need more Premiers and Kings with colonoscopes in their hands to make final decisions about taxes. We need voters with ballots, and democratic mechanisms that give people more power.
Peter Ewart is a writer, columnist and community activist based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: peter.ewart,,,shaw.ca