Some 24,000 people in the Fraser Valley, from Langley to Hope, took part in a telephone town hall event about the HST on Tuesday night, with Finance Minister Kevin Falcon fielding questions.
Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen was one of those on the line, and was impressed by the technology.
“Twenty-four thousand people can listen directly to the minister of finance, and listen to real live people asking questions, and get answers straight from him,” he said. “It’s a great system.”
There were numerous questions about the impacts of the tax on different groups, from seniors, to those on low income and middle class families. A mother asked about children’s clothing, and people had questions about the tax’s impacts on their business – from the film industry, to construction to funeral homes.
Callers were generally on “listen only” status, but could use their keypad to have their questions vetted through moderators. They could also leave voicemail questions to be answered at a later date.
“I believe it was very helpful, and very effective,” said van Dongen.
“Kevin (Falcon) was really on his game. He knows his stuff, and he was very up-front.”
Falcon took questions for about 90 minutes.
Van Dongen said the public needs to be educated about the topic. He acknowledges there are pros and cons to the HST, and people should know them before voting in a mail-in ballot that begins in June.
“The government is making it very clear – it will respect whatever decision the public makes,” said van Dongen.
He said the tax will cost the average family an additional $350 per year. It will simplify taxation for business and government, generate 24,000 jobs and create government revenue to pay for services.
Van Dongen said that if the HST is eliminated, the government will repay $1.6 billion in incentives already provided by the federal government. That, combined with loss of two years worth of additional revenue from the tax, would cost the province almost $3 billion over the next two years, he said.
However, he said the public has been given the right to say no to the tax, and tell the government to “figure out its own finances.”
“It’s an important vote for everyone,” he said. “If people vote to go back to the PST, it’s a massive reorganization.”
Political pundits, including Black Press columnist Tom Fletcher, predict the government will drop the tax another percentage point, to 11 per cent.
Van Dongen noted other provinces are at 13 per cent, and Nova Scotia is at 15 per cent.
Dropping from 12 to 11 per cent would cost $850 million.
“That is a huge amount of money … $850 million goes out the window, and it has to come from somewhere, or we have to reduce services.”
Ben Besler said the telephone town hall reaffirmed his conviction to vote against the tax.
Besler was the regional representative for Fight HST, before leaving the group because it became partisan.
He said the phone event was a great exercise in democracy, but the process generally favoured the point of view of the organizing government.
“It reaffirmed what we all know – that there are no present benefits. It’s simply a tax grab,” said the Chilliwack resident.
For more information about the HST, and to see the report of the Independent Panel on the HST, see the website hstinbc.ca.