B.C. voters rejected the controversial harmonized sales tax in the referendum, although the majority of Central Okanagan residents would have preferred to maintain the status quo.
Results of the mail-in referendum were announced Friday by Elections BC, which spent weeks tallying 1.6-million ballots mailed in by voters.
In total, 881,198 voted to extinguish the tax, making up 54.73 per cent of the vote, while 728,927 voted to keep it afloat, amounting to 45.27 per cent of the vote.
Although the majority of the province was in favour of killing the tax, a narrow majority supported the tax in Central Okanagan ridings, which are held by the B.C. Liberals.
In Kelowna-Lake Country 53.10 per cent of 22,613 eligible voters wanted to keep the HST. In Kelowna-Mission 55.58 per cent of 22,795 voters wanted it to stay, and 53.7 per cent of 20,784 voters in the Westside Kelowna riding wanted it to remain.
Locally, Kelowna-Mission MLA Steve Thomson said he was disappointed with the result but the government fully accepted it and will move as quickly as possible to return to the combined seven per cent PST and five per cent GST system.
Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said it could take as long as 18 months to do that.
“I think we knew it was a very significant challenge in this referendum vote,” said Thomson.
Kelowna accountant Heather Weber, who spoke in favour of the HST at a debate between pro and anti-HST proponents in Kelowna and was featured in provincial pro-HST television advertisements, said she was disappointed by the result but not surprised.
“It’s unfortunate because it’s not the right way to go,” said Weber.
She said she expected the vote to be close.
But HST opponent Dan Thorburn called the result “a step in the right direction.”
“For me it was never a question of whether or not HST was better than the GST and PST scenario. My issue with the HST is that it was, and still is, a federally mandated tax. That, in effect, makes us dependent on Ottawa and essentially leaves our province with our hand out every year to ask for some money back from the revenue that’s generated from our own province.”
He said another factor was the feeling that the government lied to the public about its intentions concerning the introduction of the HST.
“People don’t like to be lied to and when they are blatantly lied to, it makes them give up on the system,” said Thorburn.
As to where B.C. goes from here, Weber said with such a big impact on businesses across the province, it will be important for the government to provide as much information as quickly as possible to the public and to business about the transition.
In Victoria, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said that is exactly what the government plans to do. “This has been a lesson on how not to introduce public policy change,” said Falcon.
“This is a big bump in the road, a significant bump in the road. But it is, however, a manageable bump in the road.”
One of the biggest results of the referendum is that the province will now have to pay the federal government back $1.6 billion that it received from Ottawa as a transition payment when B.C. moved to the HST in July 2010.
Thomson said one of the bigger challenges now will be to help businesses go back to the old system, particularly the 30,000 that have started up since the HST was introduced last year and have only known the HST.