The Kelowna stop on the B.C. HST debate tour was a battle for the head and heart of those on hand at a public forum held Monday night at Okanagan College.
While the pro-HST side used the facts, as they see them, to promote the controversial tax, the anti-HST representatives appealed to the emotion of the crowd.
“It’s all about trust,” said former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm, a leader of Fight HST, the group that collected 700,000 signatures on petitions to force the upcoming province-wide referendum on the HST.
He and Chris Delaney repeated how the B.C. Liberal government said before the last election the HST was “not on the radar,” then days after the vote it was announced the HST would be introduced.
Delaney said voting for the tax in the upcoming referendum would simply tell the government it can lie to the public and out-wait them in order to get its way.
But pro-HST Smart Tax Alliance representative Peter Leitch waved off the question of trust, noting Vander Zalm’s opening remarks were very emotional and that emotion needs to be taken out of the picture. That drew applause from some in the audience.
“This is not about the rate or what is or is not covered (by the tax),” said local orchardist Christine Dendy, another member of the pro-HST contingent.
“This referendum is about keeping the HST collection system.”
She called the HST a “cost-effective and fair system that will help create thousands of jobs, be easier for business to deal with, cost the government less to collect while helping B.C.’s economy grow.”
It replaced an “archaic and nonsensical” PST system, she added.
But Delaney countered her argument, saying the estimated 24,000 new jobs the tax is expected to create over the next 10 years will come at a staggering $2.8 billion cost to taxpayers, $850 million more than originally forecast.
Last week the B.C. government announced it will drop the 12 per cent HST rate to 10 per cent in two moves over the next three years if voters keep the tax in the upcoming referendum and vote the Liberals back into office in the next provincial election.
The government also plans to issue one-time $175 rebate cheques to some families to offset the higher HST rate before the first reduction kicks in next year.
But Delaney said because the HST covers so many more goods and services than the old provincial sales tax and the federal GST, the reduction would have to go to eight per cent to have the same impact as returning to the old system.
While Leitch, Dendy and accountant Heather Webber repeatedly said the HST will help B.C.’s economy by making it more attractive to do business here and allow companies to create more jobs, thus increasing tax revenues for big ticket items like health and education, Vander Zalm and Delaney pointed to other countries, particularly those in Western Europe, that have similar value-added taxes and the problems many of their economies have.
Delaney said there is no guarantee a future government will not raise the HST, again pointing to Europe where he said the average value added tax is now 21 per cent.
But while the points made by Vander Zalm and Delaney drew the most applause, some in the crowd were not convinced.
“(The debate) reinforced what I was thinking, that generally the HST is a good tax,” said J.P. Poirier, of Kelowna.
Another man, who claimed to be a friend of Vander Zalm’s, was more blunt in his feelings about what he heard from the former premier.
“I’ve never heard so much bull shit in my life,” said Walt Weibe, talking about Vander Zalm’s performance, adding he is in favour of the HST.
“It’s a fair tax,” said Weibe.
Others, however, did not agree.
Tisha Kalmanovitch, an NDP candidate for the Kelowna-Lake Country riding in the recent federal election, said the HST hits the poor particularly hard, especially in Kelowna where affordable housing is an issue. She suggested more people are finding it hard to get by.
Asked by another audience member if there was any evidence in other jurisdictions where there is an HST that prices have gone down as a result of businesses getting a tax break from the HST, Webber said in the Maritimes prices did drop significantly in the first two years.
But Delaney said because the government is giving HST rebates to some middle and low income families, that is an admission that prices are not dropping.
He and Vander Zalm accused the Liberal government of “bribing” the public with the HST rebates.
The Kelowna debate, moderated by Okanagan College president Jim Hamilton, was the fourth of 11 planned across B.C. prior to the referendum.
The debates are being recorded and can be seen on YouTube at www.youtube.com/HSTPublicForums. For more information and to follow future HST debates live on the Internet, go to www.hstpublicforums.ca.