Why I’m voting ‘No’ in the HST Referendum…


I’m voting ‘No’ in the Referendum so that we can keep the HST in BC.

That will not shock anybody. I’ve been a vocal proponent for the HST since its introduction last year.

So vocal, in fact, that I was asked to co-chair the Smart Tax Alliance, which is the official ‘No’ side for the referendum. Acting as a co-chair has meant dozens & dozens of media interviews, more than a few radio debates and appearing in a television commercial.

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I was also quoted in the HST Referendum Voters Guide that was sent to every British Columbia household by the Government.

As a result, I’ve had hundreds of people contact me over the past few months… lots of people letting me know they agree with me, lots of people saying they don’t, and plenty of undecided people with questions about what they had heard me say in the media. All in all, it’s been an interesting experience.

Now that we’re at the very end of the road on this issue, with the mail-in vote deadline of August 5th, 2011, I thought I’d answer the most common questions I have been asked about the HST and my involvement.

The most common questions that I’ve been asked are:

    1. Why was the PST+GST system so bad for Provident? 

    2. Why did I go public to try and drum up support for a tax? How did I get involved with the Smart Tax Alliance?

    3. How has the HST helped improve Provident’s customer service (like I say in the commercial)?

    4. How has the HST allowed Provident to create new jobs?

    5. Has Provident lowered prices as a result of the HST savings?

    6. What’s the deal with Bill VanderZalm?

7. What was it like being one of the public faces of the HST debate? How much hate mail did you receive?

Why was the PST + GST system so bad for Provident?

Under the old PST system, the government rules about how and when to apply the PST to alarm systems were incredibly complicated. In fact, they were so complicated that the government had a 15 page bulletin that attempted to explain how PST was to be applied to alarm system installation.

Being complicated isn’t a good thing, but it would be manageable. The real problem with the PST rules was that they were often contradictory… leaving huge decisions, with major financial implications, open to a wide range of opinion & application.

Over the course of the past 9 years, we had three PST audits. During each of those audits, the Auditors themselves disagreed with what the PST rules meant and how they were to be applied.

As a result, we went through lengthy appeals processes in each case in an effort to be treated fairly. Our last appeal ended up taking 5 1/2 years to work its way through the process. The net result was that we ended up spending the equivalent cost of having a full-time position in our accounting department that did nothing but work on government tax compliance issues… every single installation had to be reviewed to confirm what taxes got applied to which parts and in what circumstances labour would require PST (because even though PST was not supposed to be on labour, if labour was involved in installing a product that it was determined to be “PST-able” then it got taxed as well).

The other major costs involved in this were the fees we incurred with our external accountants to try and get clarity about what the PST rules were.

Beyond the hard cost, the PST confusion created a significant distraction in our company. We were forced to dedicate time, labour and money to fighting through the government bureaucracy in an effort to just get a straight answer as to how the PST should be applied.

By contrast, when the HST was implemented, we experienced an almost overnight change. There are far fewer exceptions and exemptions with the HST and we were able to take a process that used to take many hours each week to a process that now takes a few minutes each quarter.

I’ve since heard from many other small business owners who have had the same experience. Unfortunately, some are still having the same fight even though the PST has been gone for a year now.


Why did I (and Provident) go public to try and drum up support for a tax? How did I get involved with the Smart Tax Alliance?

Last year, I got inspired to do something after listening to Bill Vanderzalm, all over the media, telling people that the HST was only good for big businesses and that everyone else would suffer. In particular, he talked a lot about how the HST hurt small business.

That concerned me a lot because, as a small business owner, I had seen first hand how unfair and expensive the PST system was. I had seen how the PST added significant hidden costs within our business and wasted valuable resources that our clients received no value from. I knew that going back to the PST/GST system would be a costly nightmare that would hurt our company, our employees and our customers. I had seen how the HST served to eliminate waste and allow us to focus more of our time, money and resources on our clients.

It was clear that the Government had done a terrible job implementing the HST, and Mr. Vanderzalm was taking full advantage of that. I thought what was missing were real stories, from real people, about how the HST was helping, not hurting, small business.

The only person talking about the HST was Mr. Vanderzalm and I knew that what he was saying about small business was not true.

I knew from speaking with many of my friends who owned their own businesses, that my experience was not unique.

I set up a website, www.SupportHST.ca … the idea was to create a page where small business owners could upload a quick video to tell their own story of how the HST had helped them. I filmed my own first…

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A few friends of mine who run businesses in other industries filmed their own clips as well… Ken Sim from Nurse Next Door – a home healthcare company, Dwayne Stewart of Pacific Rim Services – a general contractor, Dave Notte from Wolfgang Commercial Painters and Chris Mobius from Garibaldi Glass Industries – a glass manufacturer, were amongst the first. Andy Latchford, COO of Cactus Club Restaurants submitted his video and was one of the first restauranteurs to go public saying that the HST was a good thing for our Province.

Although the original intent of the site was to highlight the stories of small business owners, I was contacted by other people that had also felt offended by Mr. VanderZalm’s HST rants and wanted their voices heard.

Chrystal Ocean, a low-income senior living on Vancouver Island, submitted a video sharing her experience of how the HST has helped put more money in her pocket. Click below to watch her story:

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Similarly, Don Wilson, a retiree who has never owned a business, submitted a video explaining why he supports the HST as a consumer.

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Shortly after launching the site, we had 21 videos posted. The site got a little bit of media attention, and myself, Dwayne Stewart and Ken Sim were guests on the Bill Good Show a couple of times to talk about what we were doing. 

In February or March, I was contacted by the Smart Tax Alliance who let me know that they were trying to get the same message across as I was, and had already brought about 40 major business & trade groups together (such as the Vancouver Board of Trade, Tourism BC, etc.) who represented more than 1 million BC employees/members.

It seemed to make a lot of sense to get involved with the Smart Tax Alliance and pool our efforts. I was asked to become a Co-Chair and act as one of a few media spokespeople.

How has the HST improved Provident’s customer service (like I say in the commercial)?

Once the HST came into effect, we were able to take the money we had been spending on PST administration and, instead, spend it on our customer service team. Immediately, we were able to add another full-time customer service position without any additional cost to the company.

As a small business that relies exclusively on word of mouth referrals, providing a better client experience has led to more referrals and more business. We’ve reduced our on-hold times and have been able to tackle pro-active customer service projects that we had not been able to get to in the past.

Under the old PST system, a portion of all of our clients fees that they were paying for security services had to cover our tax compliance costs. With the elimination of the need to administer the PST (which was by far the most complicated and time-consuming administration task) our clients are now getting more value for the same fees.

The HST has allowed us to focus more effort on customer service without increasing our costs or prices.

How has the HST allowed Provident to create new jobs?

Under the PST system, any PST we paid for a computer, printer, box of paper, vehicle or tool was a cost that got worked into our pricing as overhead. Since the HST was implemented, we now get all of that money back (as an Input Tax Credit against what we have charged).

Our most important service is our ability to provide an immediate response to client alarms. So, we decided that the best thing to do with those savings was to purchase a new vehicle (which was also cheaper for us with the HST) and add a full-time driver to join our alarm response team.

The impact of adding that one position on the road, as well as the additional person on our customer service team, (both of which added no new additional ‘cost’ to us) resulted in quicker response times and happier clients. We’ve seen an increase in the number of referrals we get each month and added a second new vehicle (and full-time driver) to accommodate the new business.

We are currently recruiting for two new sales people to join our team to help keep up with demand.

Without question, the HST helped put us in a position where we could grow so quickly. The old PST system added a significant cost to our business that did not offer value to us, our clients or even the government. By contrast, we are now growing much faster (resulting in more tax revenue for the government) and we are able to focus much more on service delivery (resulting in much better value for our customers).

With the pending rate reductions on the HST (to 10% by 2014), the impact to consumers has been reduced and I firmly believe that we (business, government and consumers) are all better off with the HST rather than going back to the PST.

The impact of reverting to us would be that we would be forced to choose to either 1) reduce service levels, or 2) raise our prices in order to maintain the same cost structure.

The PST hurt our business and wasted our clients’ money.

Has Provident lowered prices as a result of the HST savings?

With a few exceptions, we have not reduced our prices since HST implementation. Based on our understanding of our clients & our service delivery model, we decided that the best use of the savings we realized as a result of the HST was by investing in new trucks and new jobs. Our business is all about speed, efficiency and service… we elected to spend the money on things that would improve all three.

That was a business decision and one that our clients will judge us on. If a price break is more important, they will tell us &/or simply cancel their service. If we do not keep our clients happy, we will not be in business.

The specifics of how we applied the savings is all about our particular situation. If I was leading a different business, in a different market, where price was the primary differentiator, I would likely make a different choice.

The HST helps BC businesses save money (and waste far less of it). As a result, those businesses are free to choose where those savings are best spent. The decision to add jobs, raise wages, cut prices or anything else with the money is theirs to make.

Ultimately though, it is the consumers who will make the final call as to whether or not a company has made the right choice. Business is far too competitive. If consumers feel they get better value for a better price somewhere else, they will go there. They will vote with their dollars. Businesses who choose poorly will be left behind… quickly.

What’s the deal with Bill VanderZalm?

In all honesty, this is one of the questions that I get asked most often. The truth is that I have no idea.

Listening to him speak, I am often amazed that anyone – anywhere – could (or could have ever) taken him seriously. He’s certainly not one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

But to be fair to Mr. VanderZalm, Chris Delaney & Bill Tieleman (the other 2/3 of FightHST) have been equally outrageous in their statements, accusations and pronouncements.

Some of the best critiques of FightHST have been made by Chris Thompson, a UBC Economics grad and current UBC Law student who created two great videos that sum up the absurdity of FightHST.

Here’s the first, titled ‘FightFightHST: A Letter to Bill VanderZalm…’ focused mostly on dispelling some of the misrepresentations made by Mr. VanderZalm…

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His follow-up video, FightFightHST 2: Fighting the Man, who was “The Man”, who is “Fighting the Man”, included all three FightHST leaders…

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The reality is that Mr. VanderZalm accomplished something incredible. He spearheaded the first successful petition under the Recall & Initiative Act. He and his group got more than a half million people to sign the petition and force the referendum.

If it hadn’t been for that, there is no way that we would have seen the Government offer a two point reduction in the HST (to 10% by 2014) which, when implemented, will tie British Columbia with Saskatchewan as having the lowest sales tax in Canada (Alberta is excluded because they’ve got oil instead of a sales tax).

The fact that Mr. VanderZalm has not already declared victory and dropped the FightHST argument suggests to me that this is much more of a political & personal battle for them than an honest debate about an economic policy.

The fact that the BC NDP have joined in the fray and are also pushing for a ‘Yes’ vote alongside Mr. VanderZalm, irrespective of what it costs our Province, is also telling.

The BC NDP and Mr. VanderZalm certainly make strange bed-fellows. More interesting, however, is the fact that politically, nobody else appears to agree with them.

It is not just the BC Liberals who support the HST. The BC Conservatives want to keep it. Jane Sterk, the Leader of the BC Green Party has indicated she will vote ‘No’. British Columbia’s two Independent MLA’s, former NDP’er Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington voted in favour of the recent amendments to the HST that will see it drop to 10% by 2014. Even one of the BC NDP’s long standing Economists has come out in support of the HST.

The NDP governments in Nova Scotia and Ontario support the HST. Even Jim Stanford, the Chief Economist of the Canadian Auto Workers, Canada’s largest trade union, has warned members against getting involved in anti-HST efforts.

In Mr. Stanford’s 2009 letter to CAW members, he commented on the political opposition to the HST:

“Political opposition to the HST does not reflect a well considered call for a fairer tax system. It’s more about electoral gamesmanship by opposition parties eager to damage the current government. When the anti-HST coalition tries to tap into knee-jerk anti-tax sentiments to win more votes, it also encourages a regressive, potentially dangerous attitude to government and the public services those taxes support. We’ll pay dearly for that kind of attitude in coming years.”

Over the past year, we have seen support for the HST rise with every poll. From an original approval rating of only 12%, support for the HST has been steadily climbing. In every single poll conducted,support for the HST has increased while the number of people who want to go back to the old system has gone down. The latest polls, at the outset of the voting period, indicate its going to be a very close race.

As a small business owner who has seen how HST helps make us more competitive, eliminates government waste as well as helps us to create more jobs, I am frustrated by the FightHST misrepresentations that serve to push our entire province backwards for the perceived political gain of a few.

But it’s not just small business owners.

People like Chrystal Ocean need voters to understand how the HST has put her and the rest of British Columbia’s most vulnerable citizens ahead financially.

School Districts need voters to understand how the HST is capable of putting $500,000.00 back into their budget… allowing them to get more done, with less tax dollars.

Economists like Kevin Milligan and Tax Lawyers like David Robertson who have both spent their entire professional lives studying issues like the HST want voters to understand how the HST helps BC and that the lies told by FightHST have been discredited by virtually every single Economist in our Country.

The Certified General Accountants Association of BC wants voters to understand that the HST is a much fairer tax than the old PST system.

Krishna Pendakur, an SFU Economist, and self-proclaimed ‘lefty’ wants voters to understand ‘why the Left should love the HST’.

The trick isn’t to try and find credible experts who support the HST, it would be to find a single one that does not.

The bottom line for me is that this HST argument is a lot like having some sort of medical condition where you get an opportunity to hear from every doctor in the country who specializes in that condition and they ALL agree on both the cause and the cure.

You also ask your brother’s basement tenant what he thinks. He mentions that he once  knew a guy, who saw a show on TV that clearly proved all doctors were idiots (and that they were also conspiring to destroy the world).

It’s a dilemma. Do you listen to the advice of the experts who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of the issue, and who unanimously agree on what will solve the problem, or the guy in the tinfoil hat?

What was it like being one of the public faces of the HST debate? How much hate mail did you receive?

One of the many lessons I learned is that there is no shortage of conspiracy theorists who are capable of weaving incredible stories together based on a loose collection of random thoughts, an occasional fact, opinions & outright lunacy. From my experience so far, this talent seems to be concentrated on a few people with a lot of time on their hands… and an internet connection.

To say that I’ve received some interesting emails would be a gross understatement.

One of my favorites accused me of somehow masterminding the Canada Post strike to coincide with the mail-in referendum. Another, that I was only trying to get the HST to stay, in order to increase crime levels, in order to benefit personally (those were, apparently, the only steps involved).

More than a few people took to their own blogs and created their own reasons to explain why I would be in favour of the HST. Here’s a quick excerpt from one such blog that gives a flavour of the content…

The reference to ‘what he’s read’ is to another blog that read through the press clippings on our own website, found an article from Profit Magazine where I am quoted explaining our PST fight, and a quote from Premier Gordon Campbell thanking us for providing great service during a security incident several years ago in his constituency office. Two and two were put together, and the “obvious” answer of thirty-seven was arrived at.

For what it was worth, I asked the writer to amend his blog post to at least tone down the libel a bit… He sent me back an email telling me to beat it (not using that exact phrasing), but at least added the words ‘in my own personal opinion’…

Sadly, Provident paid every single penny of our PST debt referenced in the Profit article (more on that below). We were ‘forgiven’ nothing. That PST incident was, however, my inspiration for getting involved in this whole HST argument to start with.

I was even accused of not being a real person. I decided to take it as a compliment that I had to respond to accusations of being a ‘paid actor’.

I’ve also learned how easily & quickly the politics of an argument like this overshadow the argument itself and keep people from considering any viewpoint other than the one they started with. Many people seem completely focused on wanting to ‘send a message to the BC Liberals‘ at any cost … and in most cases, without having any real idea of what that cost actually is (no, the $1.6B transfer payment will not be ‘forgiven’).

Trying to debate the specific merits of the HST with someone whose only answer to any argument is “The Liberals lied” is a pointless endeavour with no upside for anyone. Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to speak to enough other people, willing to have a real discussion, to not destroy my faith in humanity.

Our Operations Centre team at Provident (our team who answer all incoming telephone calls) have done a great job putting up with the increased volume of callers wanting to get in touch with me to tell me that I’m an idiot or, in quite a few cases, simply wanting to ask some thoughtful and reasonable questions about the HST.

With the exception of the people who called/emailed just to say I’m stupid, I called or emailed every person back. I offered my explanations about how the HST has benefitted our company, how it has created jobs and why the PST was such a complicated and expensive mess for us (and our customers).

My frustration (although tempered with some great entertainment value) with the wingnuts, was overshadowed by the vast majority of people who contacted me with good questions or to have a real discussion on the issue.





9 Responses to “Why I’m voting ‘No’ in the HST Referendum…”

Ron Werner Says:

Just had a min to scan this, will read more in depth later. But wrt PST audits, will you not get auditted with HST as well? Could the govt have gotten its act together and actually made the PST more user friendly for you and others?

You, selling a product, see a benefit. Me, selling a service as an owner operator, see no benefit at all. While I “may” see more profit via HST Credits, “ME” as a person has to spend more on what I buy or use. So I have no net profit/benefit. I’m paying 7% more on certain things that I didn’t before.

PLus, IF it is not costing people more, WHY is the govt sending out bribery cheqs of $120??? If we were not spending more, ONE, there would be no money for the govt to send out the cheqs (duh), and TWO, the people wouldn’t NEED THEM!!! (another duh)

Or am I totally clueless? The money has to come from somewhere and they keep talking about how to “make up for the SHORTFALL if the HST is repealed. Where is ALL THIS EXTRA MONEY coming from???

Thanks for your time. SupportHST referred me to you since they did so poorly at giving me any reason to support HST.

Ron Werner, Happy Carpet Cleaners

mjagger Says:


The issue isn’t that we will not get audited… we will. The issue is that the HST is so much simpler to administer. Under the PST, there were loopholes and exemptions for all sorts of things. The result was the even the PST Auditors could not agree on how the rules were to be applied. Under HST, that risk is eliminated. There is no confusion regarding how we apply HST. It’s completely straight-forward… just like our GST audits were in the past.

I understand what you are saying about being a service provider. We are in the same position with our Guard business… we are selling labour and do not have many items to claim ITC’s back on.

re: the cheques… my understanding is that the Government passed a law allowing for the provincial portion of the HST to be dropped at the first possible date… which is next July based on the original agreement they had with the federal government. To address that timing issue for people now, they offered the $175 transition cheques for seniors and children. That money was designed to bridge the gap between what the savings would have been had they been able to drop the rate immediately to 11%.

Bruce Says:

How many cars, computers and paper do you buy? A car, $50,000, computer $5,000, paper $5,000 = $7,200 that you get back. Hire a minimum wage driver for the car = $8/hr * 2000 hrs = $16,000 – $7200 savings = loss of $8,800 PER YEAR. Your price to service your clients must by necessity go up to cover this expense. I call shenanigans on your ability to hire people with HST.

mjagger Says:


Although the input tax credits from the vehicles, computers and paper helps, the real savings come from the credits we now get on all of the components and equipment we purchase on a daily basis that become alarms, camera systems or access control systems. It’s significantly more than $7,200.00

In addition, we get savings from eliminating the need/risk associated with PST admin … in the past four years, we ended up having to spend $300k on PST related costs to argue our case with the auditors. We do not need to do that anymore.

We’ve been able to add one additional full-time customer service position and two drivers, none of whom make minimum wage, without additional cost to us. Not only did we get the ITC’s on the vehicles, we were able to purchase them much sooner as well.

The HST has definitely made it possible to hire people without raising our costs.

Bruce Says:

I feel for you having 15 pages of PST legislation to wade through, then having different auditors not knowing the code themselves. But in a simpler situation, PST was not charged on business inputs when they were used for direct resale (that must be one of your major complaints) and $75k per year to argue with them must have had you pulling your hair out. No doubt HST is much easier for you: pay it out, claim it all back, remit the difference. And an HST audit will be a breeze in comparison.

So if you save $75k/year and hire 3 employees, that means they get just over $12/hr with no cost increase. The wage would be less the cost of the car over time, and you probably spent less than $50k.

While I agree that technically you came out ahead under HST, I cannot reconcile all the lies and bullshit I’ve been fed about it. Nothing the govt says has been true, and the fear mongering they are resorting to is disgusting. Too bad they didn’t have the guts to debate it before the election, and they were sure able to do a complete re-work of the most important aspect of our province in a very short time, indeed. It usually takes them longer to decide on lunch than a whole new tax regime. I’m waffling, but more inclined, at this moment, to vote yes.

I appreciate your taking the time to write this column and respond to the comments. Thanks.

mjagger Says:


Please keep in mind that I’m not a politician. I’ve volunteered to promote the HST because I’ve seen how it has helped our business and our employees. That’s it.

Short of showing you our financials, you will have to take my word on our ability to add new jobs without increased overhead.

I do agree with you about the implementation of the HST. Had the time been taken to introduce it properly, we would not be in the position we are in now. There is no question the Liberals could not have done a worse job on it.

That being said, I do believe their explanation about how they were able to do such a quick about-face on the topic. They were presented with an option by the Federal government to say that Ontario had finally negotiated a deal with them for HST. BC had a short opportunity to accept the same deal (or very, very close to it) or wait a couple years.

I have no inside track on what actually happened, but given the uproar about the HST, that explanation is the only one that makes sense to me that explains how such a big change could be made, so quickly without a single document that proves otherwise.

In either case, the way it got brought in, and whether my opinion turns out to be correct on how it got done so fast is correct or not, does not impact which way I’ll vote.

I agree with you that the implementation was terrible. I agree with you that there is no shortage of bad/false information out there.

I’ve only offered my opinion and experience as a small business owner. The HST has been a great improvement for us.

In terms of wading through all of the bullshit that does exist on the topic, I think that the letter signed by 91 economists today in the Sun was quite powerful. It’s a very diverse group of experts who rarely agree on anything. I think that you’ll find, even if you discount everything the politicians say (on both sides) completely, there is still a ton of completely independent experts of all stripes who support the HST as the better option.

Mark Says:

“Has Provident lowered prices as a result of the HST savings?
With a few exceptions, we have not reduced our prices since HST implementation.”

So you have raised your cost to the customer by 7%. Just like restaurants, accountants, real estate services, haircuts, hundreds of others mostly in the service sector. Companies who formerly had low input costs have been forced to raise the cost to the consumer.

Why do these economists never mention the basic principle that as prices rise, demand will fall?

I am eating out less in the past year. I am not the only one. I have to charge 7% more for my services (property manager). My boss has little input cost savings to pass along to the customer.

BC is a resource based economy. It’s customers are world wide and it’s prices in most cases are set by world demand. So a gold mining company that pays less and less in taxes, can certainly create jobs, but the tax revenue is lost forever and shifted onto the backs of the rest of us.

The simple fact is that customers pay more tax under the HST. The cost to the consumer to hire skilled labour in BC has overnight risen by 7%. After 2014 it will have risen by 5%. You can spin the numbers any way you like but people see it every day. Compared to last year I pay 10% more at restaurants. Compared to last year, I pay 10% more to have my taxes done. I pay more to get a haircut. Have prices come down in the past year or gone up?

It is simply amazing to suggest that 10% is less than 12% when the 10% applies to so many formerly pst exempt items and services.

mjagger Says:


If you read my complete answer to the question about lowering prices, you’ll see that we made a deliberate decision to apply HST savings to providing better/more service rather than offering a price cut. For us, that has been the right decision. Our clients have told us that quality is more important than price and that they would prefer to get better value for the money they are spending rather than simply paying a little less.

The fact is that the HST affects every business in an industry evenly. Every individual business can choose how to use the savings they receive. Consumers will get the last and most important vote by deciding which business offers the best value.

re: Restaurants… you may be eating out less given the extra cost (although right now it’s only 7% more, not 10%… and by 2014 it will be 5% more than it was before HST). However, alcohol has decreased by 2 points… so to the extent that you have a couple beers or glasses of wine with your meal, the actual net increase in HST cost is less.

I’m not spinning any numbers. I’m simply offering my own experience to show how the change to HST has had a positive impact on our business, employees and customers. Provident is just one of the 98% of small businesses in BC.

There is no question that the HST applies to more items than the PST… but that is also one of the reasons why the PST was such a mess… there were far too many exemptions. Why should a unicycle have PST, but not a bicycle? Someone could write a book on the absurd rules that allowed for PST in some cases, but not others – except in special circumstances.

Carlos Says:

Best cross the CAW economist, Jim Standford, off your list in favor of the HST. His long commentary, and clarification of his HST policy briefs, is in context of the HST in Ontario, not BC.


Overall, I sympathize with your frustrations with the old PST system. Both you and Jim make valid arguments and I can see how HST maybe beneficial to all involved. But I have no sympathies for the BC Liberals and the machinations they’ve put on the citizens of BC. No matter what happens with the HST, they should rounded turfed out of office in the next election, solely for the way they brought this about.