The lesson in the HST vote: don’t take us for granted

Bill Vander Zalm never seemed to really get the hang of governing during his ill-fated tenure as British Columbia premier.

Bill Vander Zalm never seemed to really get the hang of governing during his ill-fated tenure as British Columbia premier.

At best, he was characterized as exuberant and controversial. At worst, he could be called incompetent, ultimately resigning in scandal.

But two decades later, he has taught a valuable lesson to governments across the country.

A populist in the truest sense, Vander Zalm led the anti-HST forces in B.C., culminating in a referendum in which the province’s voters forced the government to scrap the tax and sent Premier Christy Clark and her Liberals scrambling.

Although the referendum process is unique to a province steeped in a history of populism, the message to governments was clear: Voters cannot be taken for granted.

And those who get lazy in power, campaigning in one direction, then governing in another, will pay a price with voters.

The HST revolt may also be another sign of a volatile electorate, one that gave us the New Democrat surge in Quebec, threw the sovereignty movement into turmoil there, punished the federal Liberals, put Rob Ford in the mayor’s office in Toronto and could be ready to spring more surprises in provincial elections set for this autumn.

Or it could be a slap at a bad government.

Former premier Gordon Campbell — now headed to his reward as Canada’s ambassador to the United Kingdom — infamously announced the HST in July 2009, two months after winning a provincial election in which he said he wasn’t considering a harmonized tax.

Even as opposition to the new tax grew, Campbell and his government would not budge, dismissing Vander Zalm’s efforts and forging ahead.

Then, fatally, Campbell announced he would accept a 50 per cent plus one majority in the referendum — a threshold lower than that enshrined in legislation — before resigning last November.

Vander Zalm rightly declared last Friday a historic day for British Columbia and Canada.

“It sent a message to politicians throughout our country especially that they can’t simply do things because it’s the will of a premier or the party, that they have to, in fact, on an issue as big as we see it here, consult the people,” Vander Zalm said.

It would be easy to characterize the B.C. uprising as a West Coast Tea Party rebellion, but it is not so much a revolt over taxes as it was a repudiation of a premier who has provided a textbook example of how not to implement public policy.

It is a lesson Stephen Harper has so far heeded with his majority, giving no signals he will diverge from the deficit-slashing, tough-on-crime agenda on which he campaigned.

Closer to home, should Dalton McGuinty somehow win another majority, he will also have to remember the third-term Campbell snub of the voters.

But there are ramifications for the Harper government.

It had sought a seamless tax policy across the country and has now lost the third largest province.

“This referendum was a great victory for British Columbians who believe that honesty is important in politics,” said NDP deputy leader Libby Davies.

“They have clearly said they want to reverse the Harper government’s cynical move to force the HST on the people of our province. Conservatives better listen.”

The Conservatives will ignore calls from federal New Democrats to write off the $1.6 billion in HST funding it had sent to the West Coast and will get the money back under terms of a deal in which British Columbia had agreed to keep the HST in place until 2015.

That’s part of what the government estimates will be a $3 billion price tag on dismantling the HST, but $3 billion is really the cost of taking voters for granted.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer for the Toronto Star.