B.C. judge rules anti-HST petition can proceed
Published Friday, August 20, 2010 7:43PM EDT
VANCOUVER - A petition signed by more than 700,000 British Columbians angry over the harmonized sales tax is valid, says a judge who urged the province's chief electoral officer to send the matter to the legislature as soon as possible.
Chief Justice Robert Bauman of the B.C. Supreme Court said Friday that he wasn't persuaded by objections raised by a coalition of business groups, who argued, among other things, that the province no longer has jurisdiction over the HST because it's a federal tax.
"Weighing the balance of convenience and the fact that Mr. Vander Zalm has been successful in the initiative petition and its defence in the court I would respectfully ask the chief electoral officer to perform his remaining duties under the Recall and Initiative Act forthwith," Bauman said in his written ruling.
The petition was spearheaded by former premier Bill Vander Zalm, who is the province's most vocal critic of the HST and has also launched his own court challenge of the constitutionality of the tax.
"Today is a great day for the province, a great day for democracy," he told reporters as he left the Vancouver law courts. "This should end it, it should now go to the legislature. There's no question about it."
A coalition of business groups took the matter to court for a judicial review of the petition.
Under provincial law, the petition will head to an all-party legislative committee that has the option of either sending the issue to the legislature for a vote or holding a non-binding referendum next year.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen said now that the court has ruled the petition as valid the legislative committee has 30 days in which to meet and another 90 days after that to decide on a vote in the legislature or a referendum in September 2011.
"We've said all along that we want to make sure that the provisions of the Recall and Initiative Act are followed to the letter of the law," Hansen said. "In terms of what has to happen next, it's very clear in that legislation, and we are anxious that that process get under way."
Chief electoral officer Craig James concluded the petitioners collected enough valid signatures but refused to pass the document to the legislature while its validity was before the court.
Vander Zalm said the court decision shows the provincial government there's nothing to stop politicians from voting on the HST in the legislature and cancelling the HST.
"They can deal with it now, they can send it to Ottawa," he said. "I'm sure Ottawa will agree and we'll be rid of the HST. It's a great day for B.C."
But New Democrat Leader Carole James is concerned that Premier Gordon Campbell's government won't even recall the legislature in September.
She said if the government doesn't bring the petition to a vote in the legislature soon that shows it doesn't care about democracy.
"I'm glad that the judge brought the ruling down so clearly," James said. "The public voice is clear -- lets get rid of the HST."
She said if the committee decides on a referendum, a vote would be a year away and it would be costly.
Bauman even quoted Campbell in his ruling, noting the premier called the successful initiative petition "a victory for democracy."
The association of business groups that launched the court case issued a statement saying the decision does not provide the clarity or certainty it was seeking about the future of the HST, but it will abide by the decision and not file an appeal.
"Representing the small, medium, and large companies who employ tens of thousands of the people working across British Columbia, we wanted clarity on whether or not the HST would remain in effect," said the business groups that included the B.C. Chamber of Commerce and Council of Forest Industries.
"Today's decision leaves open the question that required certainty -- whether the bill will actually extinguish the HST," the association said in a statement.
The Liberal government has come under heavy criticism after announcing its plans to adopt the HST last summer within weeks of a provincial election campaign in which the party said it wasn't contemplating a tax switch.
The HST blends the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax and the five-per-cent GST, creating a blended 12-per-cent tax that applies to a range of items that had previously been exempt from the provincial sales tax.
The six business groups that filed the court challenge have already said they will not appeal the ruling.
Vander Zalm, who was a Social Credit premier from 1986 to 1991, also plans to launch recall campaigns if the province doesn't reverse course on the HST.
On Friday, Statistics Canada said consumer prices rose in July in the three provinces hit by changes to their sales taxes, including British Columbia.
The agency said the HST accounted for about 1.3 per cent of Ontario's 2.9 per cent year-over-year increase, 1.2 per cent of British Columbia's two per cent increase and 0.8 per cent of Nova Scotia's 1.7 per cent increase.
B.C. and Ontario introduced new harmonized sales taxes in July. Nova Scotia also bumped up its HST by two percentage points.