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Minister Colin Hansen tabling the provincial budget at the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday March 2, 2010.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Finance Minister Colin Hansen has offered up an apology for the way his government sprung the harmonized sales tax on unsuspecting British Columbians. But the way the tax was imposed, he said, should not influence the referendum that is to come on whether or not the HST should stay.

With that, Mr. Hansen has sketched out the B.C. Liberal government's newest campaign to earn the public's support for the measure.

For the past 14 months since the HST was announced, Mr. Hansen's government has been fumbling for a grip on the growing backlash over the tax. This week, the government embraced direct democracy as its route to bringing the public, belatedly, on side.

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On Monday, a legislature committee agreed to conduct a plebiscite on whether the tax should be extinguished, but Premier Gordon Campbell went a step farther, promising to be bound by a simple majority - a genuine referendum.

Mr. Campbell's surprise pledge was still churning through the news cycle when Mr. Hansen walked into an economic briefing for the media Tuesday morning. Mr. Hansen immediately acknowledged that he expected to be grilled "on issues other than the specifics of the quarterly report."

Once his perfunctory fiscal briefing was out of the way, Mr. Hansen spent most of his time outlining the referendum campaign as he hopes it will unfold.

The debate will be shaped by the question on the ballot. And although the non-partisan agency, Elections BC, maintains it should write that question, the cabinet has the final say.

"The referendum is not about whether we did a good job of the rolling out the harmonized sales tax. I think the jury is in on that one and we know the answer," Mr. Hansen said. "The referendum is an opportunity to get past that and to say to British Columbians, let's focus in on the merits of harmonizing our sales tax."

The government hopes to make sure the consequences of saying "no" will be a big part of the debate. There would be an obligation to repay Ottawa for the $1.6-billion in transfers that came with harmonization, he said, while rebate cheques would stop flowing to one million low-income earners. Ontario, meanwhile, will reap the benefits of a more attractive investment climate.

There's the question, as framed by government. As for the terms, those are evolving too.

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Elections BC has been directed by a legislature committee to conduct a plebiscite based on the anti-HST initiative petition successfully organized by former premier Bill Vander Zalm. That non-binding vote will be held on Sept. 24, 2011. If the almost-impossible-to-reach thresholds are not met, Mr. Vander Zalm's initiative fails.

However there is also the unofficial threshold - a simple majority of ballots cast - binding Mr. Campbell to the public's will on the tax. Mr. Hansen explained that if only that lower threshold is met, the government will be free to dispose of the tax in its own way.

However, Mr. Campbell maintains he isn't going to lose this campaign.

"I have great confidence in the public," he said in an interview Tuesday. "When they are given the opportunity and the information, I think they'll make the choice that says we are better served with a competitive economy."

The government never quite managed to launch its pro-HST advertising campaign during the Vander Zalm petition drive in the spring. Then, it shredded a household mailer that was meant to arrive in the summer. Now, Mr. Campbell signalled, that HST ad blitz is finally coming.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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