If you’re looking for a case-study for all that’s wrong with modern politics in this country, one issue that is a microcosm of all the practices, methods and tends contributing to the degradation of political debate in Canada, then you can’t do any better than the “debate” around the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST).
At the federal level, you’ve got the Conservatives who have sent billions of dollars to Ontario and B.C. to sweeten the deal encouraging them to harmonize, while their backbenchers insist no, that’s a provincial thing, nothing to do with us, we think it sucks. You’ve got the Liberals who pushed harmonization in government and don’t want to piss-off their cousins in Ontario but, at the same time, would dearly love to capitalize on the populist anti-HST feeling, result: a muddied position that pleases few. Luckily the NDP aren’t troubled by ideological consistency, the party that never met a tax it didn’t like will oppose this one in Ontario and B.C. for pure politics, while ignoring that the Nova Scotia NDP government just jacked-up their HST to the highest level in Canada. And the BQ say we’re cool with the HST, just as long as you give a few billion to Quebec because they made changes to their tax system that aren’t really the same but, hey, give us money.
Then there’s the provincial level. In Ontario, you’ve got the McGuinty Liberals only seeming to start to get serious about selling this thing to the public and counter-acting some of the hysteria out there. You’ve got Tim Hudak’s Conservatives breaking with their federal cousins to oppose the HST, even though they can’t seem to articulate why it’s bad policy and won’t even promise to repeal it if elected. And then there’s the Ontario NDP, blind in their opposition and happy to distort and misinform.
Out in BC, Gordon Campbell’s Conservaliberals are facing more public outcry because they seemed to rule out harmonization during the last election, then announced they were harmonizing mere days after the ballots were cast. They thought they could ride-out the storm but are now waking-up to some serious trouble. Former Socred Bill Vander Zalm, of all people, who left the premiership in disgrace, is leading a popular revolt against the tax, with the support of the BC NDP (strange bedfellows) that could lead to a referendum to repeal the HST there. But Vander Zalm and the BC NDP (unlike their Ontario cousins, they could actually form government so they need to face a few more serious questions) don’t seem willing to address how this would happen: how would you revert the tax system back, and how about the billion dollars in harmonization funding the feds will want back. Which hospitals will you close to find that money? They just want you angry, they don't want you thinking.
Instead of a debate of facts around the HST, we’ve been treated to mass hysteria. It’s like the ugly baby with no parents. The federal government doesn’t want it. Ontario has been low-key about selling it; B.C. even more so. And the opposition parties have all been more interested in stoking populist fervor to paint this as a tax hike instead of opposing on policy grounds, and proposing reforms or alternatives, or just what they'd do differently. Or even how they'd repeal it, and what that would mean.
Myself, I think the timing was bad (and in BC, it was handled stupidly) but sales tax harmonization is good policy. It’s more efficient, and will save government and business money. Value-added taxes are just more efficient than taxes on production, or on income. Some items will cost more for consumers in the short-term, but it will net-out in the long-run as savings are passed on, investments are made and new jobs are created. This has been the case in every other jurisdiction in Canada where the HST has been implemented. I think there is room for tinkering and adjustment, but overall it’s good policy that should be supported.
There’s plenty of room to debate that, I just wish the debate would be on the facts and on the policy, not on hysteria. To that end, I found this list from the Ontario government on specific items and how their tax treatment will change (or not) to be interesting. They’ve also put out information on how it will impact people, and impact businesses.