By Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press
Campbell said Monday he intends to toss aside the official referendum rules and turn the vote into an election-style simple majority vote that decides the future of the HST in the province.
Earlier Monday, an all-party legislative committee voted to send an anti-HST petition to a non-binding referendum that involved a difficult threshold of victory that included winning 50 per cent of the votes cast by registered voters in the 2009 B.C. election.
But Campbell said he will honour what the majority of British Columbians who vote in the referendum decide, meaning the majority vote will carry the day next year.
“Quite candidly, we don’t have any interest in trying to play games with this at all,” he said after the all-party committee opted to hold a referendum in September 2011.
“I think the fact of the matter is people want a direct say. If a majority of people that show up to the polls say they don’t want to have the HST, then they won’t have the HST.”
The province was forced into either holding a non-binding referendum or putting the issue to a vote in the legislature after anti-HST forces gathered more than half-a-million signatures on a petition.
“My bias right now is to say to people quite clearly that if they have a strong voice with regard to the HST and it fails, then it’s failed and we have to figure out what we do next,” said Campbell.
“This is about giving people a full say.”
He acknowledged that it would be difficult for anti-HST forces to achieve referendum success under British Columbia‘s current recall and initiative law that permits recalls of sitting politicians and referendum votes on issues.
“I recognize what the legislation says,” Campbell said. “I believe that it’s appropriate to say to people if 50 per cent of the people that show up to the polls and vote against the HST, then we’ll get rid of the HST.”
The HST deal British Columbia signed with Ottawa in July 2009 includes escape clauses, but reneging means the B.C. government will likely have to pay back the $1.6 billion Ottawa offered to cover the cost of transitioning to the blended tax.
Former premier Bill Vander Zalm stormed out of Monday’s committee meeting, noting that the referendum rules make it almost impossible to win.
The law requires 50 per cent of registered voters cast ballots in favour of ditching the tax. That same threshold must be met in at least two-thirds of the province’s 89 ridings.
Vander Zalm, who’s led the charge against the tax, commended Campbell Monday evening after hearing the premier will leave the fate of the HST up to the people.
“I guess the premier saw our frustrations, at least I’m hoping that might have been the reason,” Vander Zalm said in an interview.
“Some would say he’s finally come to his senses, but I would like to think that he’s finally beginning to give recognition to the voice of the people. That’s a good thing.”
Vander Zalm said the only way he’ll scrap plans for a recall campaign against Liberal MLAs is if the referendum is held in 2010, instead of 2011.
He expressed concern that if the referendum is held next year it will hurt the economy, because British Columbians will hold off on certain expenditures until the tax is gone.
The Opposition New Democrats, who ended up voting in favour of the referendum question, said they will be watching to ensure the B.C. cabinet does not become too involved in influencing the development and approval of the eventual referendum question.
University of Victoria political scientist Dennis Pilon said Campbell’s decision appears to be a bold act of political survival, while also honouring the efforts of the thousands of British Columbians who worked on the anti-HST petition.
“This is a major breakthrough'” said Pilon. “The premier should be commended for doing the right thing. The rules for this referendum were rigged to fail.”
Campbell’s government has faced a growing firestorm of criticism after it announced the tax just weeks after winning an election in May 2009 in which it said it wasn’t contemplating such a switch.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen has maintained the province wasn’t considering it until days after the election, when he was presented with documents that outlined the HST deal Ontario was about to enter into with the federal government.
Vander Zalm’s forces were out all summer gathering signatures.
The government received another blow when internal briefing notes revealed bureaucrats in the Finance Ministry were working on the HST well before the election. Hansen said they were doing their job and he was unaware of it.
The controversy prompted one cabinet minister to resign and several Liberal party supporters have come forward with calls for Campbell’s resignation.
Campbell said Monday he feels terrible about it all.
“I feel awful that people feel like we let them down.”
But Campbell isn’t conceding that the HST will eventually be repealed.
He said he still believes it’s the right move for the province and will vigorously campaign in hopes of convincing people to vote in favour of it.
He said by the time the referendum is held next fall, some of the benefits of the tax will already have set in, including the creation of thousands of jobs.
Vander Zalm can’t see how a majority of voters would elect to keep the tax.
“That’s impossible, in my view,” he said.
The referendum will cost $30 million.