BC Chamber Op-Ed: B.C. still has a voice on tax system, so use it

In the News, Op-eds & Commentary

The following op-ed was published June 13, 2013, in the Vancouver Sun.

By John Winter, president and CEO, BC Chamber of Commerce.

There is a jaded, world-weary view out there that British Columbians do not have a voice in their own sales tax system.

Not right now anyway. Not, some pundits are contending, for another 20 years.

The story goes that, having participated in an HST referendum, British Columbians have expressed their views on our sales tax system (for 20 years).

The story goes that, even though HST is widely believed to have died on its politically disastrous introduction, British Columbians have been consulted on the tax issue itself (for 20 years).

The story goes that, even though British Columbians were never offered the chance to discuss and build a sales tax system tailored toward British Columbia’s priorities, they’ve had their say (for 20 years).

And while some media heavyweights are backing this view, including The Vancouver Sun’s Don Cayo in his June 7 column, we must respectfully disagree.

When the BC Chamber of Commerce last week called on British Columbians and our new government not to settle for B.C.’s deeply flawed PST system, we proposed a new path forward for our province.

We are calling for broad public dialogues to explore and build consensus around moving B.C. toward a better sales tax system than the PST. Our pitch will be for a value-added tax (VAT); however, we’d encourage British Columbians with alternative suggestions to put those forward as well for B.C.’s consideration.

A VAT would boost prosperity and job growth in B.C. by encouraging businesses to invest in new technologies so that they can innovate and grow quality jobs for British Columbians. As well, a VAT would position B.C. to attract new companies to town, further growing jobs and building our prosperity.

(Our abysmal PST system, on the other hand, telegraphs to entrepreneurs and business owners: “Don’t start your business here and don’t invest in new technologies to keep you at the top of your field. B.C. doesn’t need top performers and jobs; try Alberta or Ontario.”)

To be clear, the BC Chamber is not, as some appear to believe, arguing to resurrect the HST. As business leaders, we are acutely aware of what B.C. lost in voting down the HST. But we also recognize that, with its political past, HST is a non-starter in this province.

What we are proposing is a way to leave our HST angst behind and move B.C. forward into tax dialogues.

If there’s public will for a VAT, such a tax would allow B.C. to scrap the muddled mess of the PST and build a clean, new, more administratively friendly tax. (And yes, Mr. Cayo, we know the HST structure would have been cleaner and better, but we also recognize that that’s a dead issue). Significantly, by not taxing business inputs, a VAT would allow B.C. to grow its prosperity by encouraging entrepreneurs, innovators and job creators.

Pivotally, by engaging British Columbians in a tax-building process, we’d create a tax — VAT or otherwise — with broad buy-in that reflects British Columbians’ priorities for 2013 and beyond.

Why propose this now? Because there’s no time to lose. The PST is an actively harmful tax. As British Columbians, we can’t settle for it.

Moreover, we believe that this tax issue needs to be — and politically can be — tackled now. Premier Christy Clark’s new BC Liberal government has just won an impressive election victory based on a platform of economic growth, prosperity and job creation. Improving B.C.’s tax system aligns directly with those voter-backed goals.

Moreover, if B.C. wants to talk tax without politics — unlike the last go-round — this is the time to do so. Launching public dialogues now would allow them to progress free of the politicking that tends to appear later in a mandate as an election nears.

At the BC Chamber, we feel that the appetite is out there. Nearly half this province (45 per cent) voted for the HST, despite its tainted introduction; how many more might have voted for a PST alternative had the vote been about policy alone? Most recently, since our call to action, besides media interest, we’ve seen emails come in and lively debates on our social media channels. This issue is not dead.

So we’d ask British Columbians to push away the world-weary voices that say sales tax conversations are over in this province for 20 years and ask yourselves, do you agree? Do you agree that you’ve truly had your say? That the HST referendum allowed you to vote on a tax issue rather than its political baggage?

And if you think you haven’t had that say and question B.C.’s future under PST, then join us and call for public dialogues on sales tax. And don’t believe you need to wait 20 years on so-called politics. This is your province: Help drive its future.