Hope for change — but not optimism — driving anti-HST petition in B.C.

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VANCOUVER — David Lin stands at a small table at the base of the imposing, coliseum-like library in downtown Vancouver, signing his name to a petition aimed at stopping B.C.’s controversial harmonized sales tax  without any optimism the government is actually listening.

“I don’t think it can make much difference,” said the 30-year-old Vancouver resident, who was called over to the table as he strolled by on a drizzly afternoon.

“But I just want my voice to be heard. I can only do my best.”

Lin is one of hundreds of thousands of British Columbians who have signed their names to a petition opposing the province’s plan to blend its provincial sales tax with the federal GST — a plan that was announced last year shortly after a provincial election.

Organizers say they’ve already collected the required number of signatures to force the Liberal government to acknowledge the petition using a rarely used provincial law that allows citizens to bring issues to the legislature.

But many of those signing their names appear resigned to the inescapable truth: none of this, not the petition or the potential referendum it might lead to, can force the government to do much of anything.

Of a dozen people approached after signing the petition — a far from scientific survey — only one thought, wrongly, that the document has the legal power to actually block the HST. And even that person was convinced the government would ignore it anyway.

Seppo Vartiainen, a 67-year-old Vancouver resident, said the petition isn’t just about trying to force the government’s hand.

“It has got the moral power,” he said after inking his name on a page full of signatures.

The Fight HST campaign, led by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, has been collecting signatures since last April and has until the first week in July to reach 10 per cent of the registered voters in each provincial riding.

Vander Zalm said they’ve already done that, but are still collecting signatures just in case some aren’t accepted by Elections BC.

At most, all the petition can do is force the government to table legislation dumping the HST, which would likely get voted down by the Liberal majority.

A legislature committee will decide whether to introduce the legislation right away or hold a referendum in September 2011 when a Yes vote would result in the same likely-to-fail, anti-HST legislation.

Vander Zalm said he’d prefer the issue head straight to the legislature.

“We’ve just covered the province and got all these signatures — we know where the people were at,” Vander Zalm, who was premier in a Social Credit government from 1986 to 1991, said in a recent interview.

“It’s crazy to spend big bucks — when we don’t have enough money — on a referendum. They could take it to the House and vote for it or against it, but make a decision right then and there. Don’t stall and cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said the current law appears designed to ensure initiative campaigns like the HST petition fail.

He said the petition’s real impact will be known if anti-HST critics follow through on their threats to start recalls.

“Right now, what we’re seeing is a costless political effort; people can say, ’I’m against the HST.’ They can sign the petition, but what does it cost them?” he said.

“If you say to those people, now let’s defeat this government and bring in another government — what’s the only one around? The New Democrats. Now, some of those anti-tax signers are not going to be so convinced that’s a good idea.”

British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in Canada with legislation that allows residents to recall politicians or present citizen’s initiatives to the legislature, but it isn’t easy.

Initiative petitions such as Vander Zalm’s are never binding, and if one heads to a referendum, the threshold for a successful Yes vote is high: more than 50 per cent of all registered voters in the province — not just those who show up to the polls — must vote Yes, and that same threshold must be met in two-thirds of all individual ridings.

It’s different than its sister legislation allowing voters to recall MLAs they’ve grown unhappy with. The threshold in those cases is also dauntingly high, but recall petitions are binding — a byelection must be held though the incumbent is free to run again. 

The current recall and initiative legislation actually dates back to Vander Zalm’s time in office: the Social Credit government of the day proposed such a law in a referendum during the 1991 provincial election.

The results endorsed such legislation but tossed the SoCred’s out of office. The subsequent NDP government was left to draft the actual law, and the party set the bar high.

Six other initiative petitions have been launched in the legislation’s history, but none have come close to amassing the required number of signatures.

There have been 20 recall campaigns, and two have actually come close to unseating a sitting politician.

The first, in 1998, appeared to have enough signatures to force a byelection in Liberal Paul Reitsma’s Vancouver Island riding, but he resigned before that could happen. Liberal Val Roddick seemed to be in trouble when a recall petition collected more than enough signatures to unseat her in 2002, but more than 3,000 signatures were declared invalid by Elections BC.

 

Organizations: University of British Columbia, Democrats

Geographic location: Vancouver Island, British Columbians, British Columbia Canada

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