Liberals look for loopholes to beat anti-HST petition

How can the Gordon Campbell government get out of Bill Vander Zalm’s crosshairs and escape the wrath of citizens flocking to sign his anti-HST petition?

How about by declaring the entire petition – already signed by more than half a million voters – to be "invalid"?

That was the astonishing suggestion made Wednesday by the head of the Liberal-dominated committee at the legislature that will decide the fate of the harmonized sales tax petition, should it succeed.

"The committee could look at that initiative and say that it’s invalid," said Kamloops MLA Terry Lake.

"I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t know about the constitutionality of the wording of the petition, for example. The committee has the authority to call witnesses to clarify that sort of thing."

The rookie Liberal backbencher said the committee might rely on experts to determine whether Vander Zalm’s petition – and its accompanying HST extinguishment bill – is actually enforceable under B.C. law.

The "constitutionality" of the petition could include whether the province has the jurisdictional authority to overturn a federally administered tax.

"That’s an important part of the committee’s work – to understand the petition itself, and how it fits into our legislative framework," Lake said.

Lake’s comments immediately sent off rockets on the other side of the house, where the Opposition New Democrats hold a minority on the HST petition committee.

"When I hear statements like, ‘Well, I’m not sure this is constitutional,’ that starts ringing alarm bills that the government is trying to weasel out," fumed NDP house leader Mike Farnworth, a member of the committee and one of Vander Zalm’s official petition canvassers.

"If they want to call witnesses, if that makes them happy, be my guest," Farnworth said.

"But if they’re thinking they can get around the will of the people, they’re fooling themselves. The public is very clear about what they want. They’re signing that petition to kill the HST."

Under the B.C. initiative law, Vander Zalm has 90 days to sign up 10 per cent of all registered voters in every riding to either force an HST repeal bill into the legislature or trigger a provincewide referendum.

Petition organizers say they have exceeded that threshold in 84 of 85 ridings, with six weeks still to go in the sign-up period.

Despite the overwhelming numbers, Lake said, it’s still uncertain whether the petition will succeed.

"Obviously, a lot of people have signed it, but whether or not all of them are authenticated as eligible to sign will be determined by Elections B.C.," said Lake, who represents Kamloops-North Thompson, where nearly 30 per cent of voters have already signed the petition.

Lake said he was expressing his own views about the possible validity of the petition and has not been told by the premier’s office how to approach the issue.

"No one has come up to me and said, ‘Hey, Terry, this is how it’s going to go,’" he said, though Farnworth scoffed at that: "He will be given his marching orders, and so will every Liberal member of that committee."

Lake said he respects the petition process because "it gives people a voice and an opportunity to speak to government directly."

But he added: "I’m not a big fan of direct democracy. What we have is a representative democracy, and I think we should work within that tradition."

But I’d say if he wants to continue representing the people of Kamloops in the legislature, Lake and the rest of the Liberals should drop all notions of using a legal loophole to declare the petition invalid. To do so would invite an even bigger backlash, spelled R-E-C-A-L-L.

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