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Bad day for government in B.C. when Ontario looks good

Illustration by David Parkins for The Globe and Mail

Rare is the British Columbian who looks enviously to life in Ontario. But Gordon Campbell might be excused for wondering if Dalton McGuinty, his counterpart in Canada's most populous province, doesn't have it pretty good right about now.

Certainly, Mr. McGuinty has his share of problems - a ravaged economy, a soaring deficit and a recent spate of expense-related controversies at provincial agencies among them. But nearly six months after his government's announcement that it would harmonize its provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax, the Ontario Premier has yet to suffer anything approaching the brutal backlash that Mr. Campbell has faced for introducing the same reform over the summer.

In Ontario, unlike in B.C., the HST has not been that big a deal. The last public opinion polls, taken over the summer, showed Mr. McGuinty's Liberals maintaining a comfortable lead - a far cry from the dramatic plunge Mr. Campbell has taken. Canvassers for a provincial by-election held yesterday, wrongly billed by some corners as an "HST referendum," reported that many voters seemed only passingly aware of the new tax's existence.

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Senior Liberals in Ontario are quick to acknowledge that the reaction may be much stronger next summer, when the HST starts being applied. But it won't be collected in B.C. until next summer either, and few people seem to be putting their outrage on hold.

Ontarians' relative indifference toward provincial politics - this is a place where the federal scene attracts the most attention, despite its lesser impact on day-to-day lives - probably plays a role in that. So, too, does the fact that British Columbians were already feeling the strain from their province's carbon tax, whereas Ontarians have not faced a controversial new levy since the health-care "premium" introduced more than five years ago. In fact, by announcing the HST in a budget in which it also cut personal and businesses taxes - not to mention allotting its $4.3-billion in federal compensation toward one-off rebates to Ontarians - Mr. McGuinty's government was able to blunt accusations that it was making a tax grab.

There are other variables as well, notably that while Ontario's HST will cause provincial tax to be applied to various items that were previously exempt, restaurant meals (which are already subject to PST) are not among them. But more than anything else, the different reactions in the two provinces are likely attributable to the manner in which the reform was rolled out.

British Columbians do not need an Ontarian to explain to them why the timing of their government's announcement was infuriating. But unveiling the HST immediately after an election campaign did more than just open Mr. Campbell up to charges of blatant dishonesty, which Mr. McGuinty - who undertook the reform partway through his second term - has not had to contend with. It also impeded the Premier, along with his Finance Minister and other members of his cabinet, from framing the issue properly.

By the time Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced the HST, the government had already done considerable work to sell its merits, or at least to brace the province for its arrival. Publicly, Mr. McGuinty gave a series of interviews in which he emphasized the province's dire fiscal outlook, and the need for change. Privately, the government lined up advocates, mostly from the business community, to sing the HST's praises once it was announced. It also hinted to the media that the reform was coming, and explained why it was worth considering, so various editorials and commentaries urging its implementation had already cropped up before it was even announced.

The B.C. Liberals, who evidently believed they could ill afford to breathe a word about the HST during the campaign, had no such opportunity to set the stage. Finance Minister Colin Hansen has argued that pressure from the federal government forced B.C. to announce its plans before it could do the necessary preparations. Whether the plan was arrived at suddenly, or kept under the Liberals' hats, it was dropped on the province in just about the least strategic way possible - out of the blue, with no advance case for its merits, and concurrent with bad news about a deficit much larger than previously acknowledged and an array of spending cuts or freezes.

It's too late for Mr. Campbell's government to learn much from the way Mr. McGuinty's announced the HST. But the manner in which it has followed up may still offer some room for study.

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As they brace for the tax's implementation, the Ontario Liberals have begun to actively promote it - going so far as to appoint a minister, John Wilkinson, to a new revenue portfolio in which his main responsibility is to serve as the HST's pitchman. Since the legislature's return last week, they have seemed more eager to discuss the topic than the Conservative opposition.

It would no doubt be difficult for B.C.'s government to try to seize control of the issue in the same way, since its opponents have gotten such a head start on steering public opinion. But if the Liberals don't start making a more aggressive case for it, they may never get off the defensive - and Ontario may look more inviting to Mr. Campbell by the day.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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