For a party whose decision to plow ahead with the harmonized sales tax could relegate it to opposition status after the next election, the BC Liberals don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes.
“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” seems to be the motto, despite new Premier Christy Clark’s insistence that she is not cut from the same cloth as her predecessor.
Smart meters. No doubt when BC Hydro announced that it would be installing meters that will allow both the customer and the corporation to accurately track electrical energy use (and eliminate the need for meter readers), it thought the notion was a no-brainer. Raise awareness of how much electricity actually costs, promote reduction in use, save labour costs. Who’s to argue?
Well, it turns out, there are plenty to argue, including 55 per cent of the voters at last week’s Union of BC Municipalities conference, who voted to press the government to put a moratorium on the smart meter plans. Among the arguments that led to the vote are that the devices could emit levels of radiation that have not been accurately measured. More to the point, though, is the $1 billion cost of making the transition.
It is hard not to make the comparison between the smart meter debate and the public anger after the newly re-elected Liberals announced they had cut a deal with the federal government to merge the B.C. provincial sales tax with the still unpopular federal goods and services tax. That decision, too, seemed like a no-brainer. B.C. could dump its own tax-collecting service and get a couple billion dollars as an incentive to jump on board.
Unfortunately for then-premier Gordon Campbell, the public didn’t share his government’s enthusiasm for the plan. During the last election campaign, the Liberals had been asked if they were considering harmonizing the BC sales tax with the GST. Nope, they said. It’s not even on the radar. But shortly after the election, if you are to believe the governing party, the federal government made an irresistible offer, largely because it would save costs by rolling both BC and Ontario into a new tax regime at the same time.
This will be smooth sailing, the Campbell government no doubt assumed. Explain to the public that the offer was too good to refuse, that a $2 billion-plus incentive would be especially appreciated in difficult economic times. In hindsight, could it have convinced a majority of British Columbians to support the change? Probably. But Campbell had already passed his “best before” date and his government benefited from a proportion of the electorate who voted for it more because they didn’t trust the New Democrats, and less because they were in love with the Campbell Liberals.
When Campbell was shoved into retirement, the Liberal party leadership hopefuls knew they faced a tough battle in a referendum forced by the anti-HST crowd. Christy Clark learned a lesson quickly — she wanted to go to election to earn a personal mandate, but advisors were eventually able to convince her of the inherent risks. Polls that showed growing dissatisfaction with the Liberals also no doubt contributed to her decision to adhere to the fixed election date that her predecessor had put into law.
Now, without having much opportunity to make her mark as premier, Clark appears for all the world to be another Gordon Campbell in waiting. She and her government are giving short shrift to the growing opposition to smart meters, much of it, no doubt, a result of what the public perceives as a lack of consultation.
Poor economies fuel unrest and governments are easy targets. The guy who isn’t making decisions, good or bad, always looks better than the gal in charge. Clark got that message last week from the province’s municipal leaders, who tend to have their ears closer to the ground than senior government leaders. She would do well to start paying attention.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.