Warning to Liberal finance brain trust: awkward acronyms ahead

We can accept, with regret, that last week’s provincial budget was not goody-filled. That budget comes next year in an election campaign; some things in politics never change.

We can understand, with resignation, that the province feels neither capable nor inclined to surgically insinuate itself in the hyperactive housing market. Its fiddling around the edges – tepid property transfer tax adjustments, yet more ownership study – will neither subdue the craziness nor demoralize equity-juiced homeowners. Mission accomplished.

What remains beguiling about the opportunity afforded Finance Minister Mike de Jong and the Clark government is how little they chomped on the bit. Here they are, enviably: a four-years-running surplus, an economy that leads the country, reduced revenue dependence on resources – and no evident new plan to outflank the political opposition.

Their in-house slogan appears to be: What? We worry?

If they intend to run on their record next May, might they be reminded of the last fellow who tried that last October? Well, let’s just tap on the door here and mention a couple of acronyms that are sleeper cells in the war on incumbency.

The first is the PST, the provincial sales tax, replaced by the tax that still dares not speak its name. The (cover your ears) HST was a surprise to everyone but Gordon Campbell, and if we were going to pay a price, then by golly so was he. Before the tax was replaced, he was, and the referendum to squelch the tax only gave victors hubris that it was buried.

As if a character in a B.C.-

produced zombie film, it is back. To be renamed, euphemized but not euthanized. A panel will fix the ancient, inconsistent, incoherent PST, introduced before we had television, and the only recommendation to which de Jong seems unalterably opposed is one that would call it the HST.

The review and recommendation process in this case, though, is bound to yield less shock and awe. In the right hands, an updated tax might even be credibly structured and explained. Businesses, forfeiting 7% on most inputs, can’t wait.

But an equally troubling acronym for the BC Liberals involves their head tax, a.k.a. the MSP. It is a premium unique to B.C., thankfully for those elsewhere.

Rather like the addict who says he can handle it, or even the addict who says he can’t shake it, the government finds itself judged and disbelieved for its self-delusion that MSP premiums are neither harmful nor treatable.

And rather like the housing file, the government last week threw a few bones and hoped to keep the petitioning dogs at bay. It eliminated premiums for children and thus eased the particular squeeze on the single parent. It staged a progressive premium on those earning less than $42,000.

But it then made others pay more – not progressively at the higher incomes, not according to age with easement on the elderly, not any longer as an economy for couples, not even along the line of inflation.

Making more than $45K as a couple? That’ll be $240 more a year.

Making more than $51K as a seniors couple? $240, please and thank you.

This taketh-what-we-giveth approach is rationalized as some sort of fairness principle.

It’s really about making numbers, not making good policy, and it’s certainly not about making good sound bites.

Step forward, the aide who suggested de Jong assuage housing-angry Vancouverites by asserting Liberals aren’t simply about governing a “few neighbourhoods.”

Step forward, too, the aide who proposed the note that the MSP reminds us that health care “isn’t free” and that it’s “in our jurisdiction” – on those matters, I doubt voters will have amnesia.

The more difficult Liberal self-understanding might be to acknowledge the MSP is a creeping, menacing mess that deserves the same process as the PST to get us out of the weeds.

We can sympathize with a dependence on nearly $2.5 billion in MSP revenue, but not in the absence of a 12-step program to clean our bill of health.

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.