Federal NDP sees HST as a populist cause
TORONTO - They parlayed anger on the HST to a byelection victory in British Columbia. Now, the federal NDP wants to take that tax protest across the country.
Over the next 15 weeks, NDP politicians plan to infiltrate the minds of shoppers as they prepare for the holidays. They'll be reminding them that unless they take action, their bills will be higher a year from now because of the harmonized sales tax.
And after Christmas, New Democrats will be going door to door, especially in weak Tory ridings, to make their case.
"Our goal is to offer a voice to those who are tired. They work hard to make ends meet, and they're being slapped in the face," said national director Brad Lavigne.
The aim is to whip up enough opposition to the tax to either keep it off the federal legislation agenda, or fight an election over it.
But analysts question whether anger over a higher consumer tax in two provinces is enough to translate into actual support for the NDP.
Party strategists say the issue worked well for them in the recent byelection in the Vancouver-area riding of New Westminster-Coquitlam.
And they believe it will resonate elsewhere, not just in British Columbia and Ontario, where provincial governments are in the process of bringing in the tax, but also in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where provincial NDP governments have resisted federal pleas to adopt it.
In particular, they are targeting weak Conservative ridings in rural British Columbia as well as some Vancouver-area communities where they believe their message resonates and where the Liberals are not a viable alternative, said Lavigne.
"Rest assured, we're going to be taking this to Tory-held ridings."
In Ontario, where the NDP already has a strong foothold in the North, the party will be targeting Conservative-held Kenora, which the NDP lost by a whisker in the last election.
They'll also take their HST campaign to Toronto-area ridings such as Oshawa, where the recession has hit hard and a new tax is bound to be unpopular, Lavigne said.
And they'll be hitting southwestern Ontario ridings such as Elgin-Middlesex-London and Essex, where Conservatives hold the seats but the electorate has been hit hard by layoffs and may be inclined to favour the NDP in the next election.
The HST "is going to have an impact on their budget. Things are tight, and it's going to be a hardship for them," said Fin Donnelly, the New Democrat MP who just won the B.C. byelection and was sworn into Parliament on Wednesday.
Both the federal Conservatives and the federal Liberals seem to be avoiding talk about the tax.
While the Conservatives at one point championed the HST as a smarter, more efficient way to tax, Tories at the Ontario level have opposed it. Now, the federal Conservatives are backing away from their campaign, saying it is a provincial matter.
The Liberals initially supported the tax, then suggested they didn't, and now don't want to contradict their provincial colleagues in Ontario by opposing it.
But analysts doubt the NDP will be able to capitalize on the campaign.
While everyone loves to hate a new tax, the issue is not national, and only plays in two provinces, says Anthony Salloum, program director at the Rideau Institute think-tank and a former staffer for Alexa McDonough when she led the NDP.
"It's part of the package of issues, but it's definitely very regional in nature," he said.
With the Tories and the Liberals reluctant to take strong positions on the HST, it's a natural for the NDP to try to exploit, said pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Harris Decima Research.
But the wave of anger about the tax is weak, he said, and probably won't help the party in the polls.
"There's no evidence right now that there's a hue and cry over the HST," he said.
Even if anger mounts as the provinces implement the tax next year, "I"ve never seen a tax revolt that manifested itself into voting behaviour," he added.
Economists argue that now is the best time to introduce the HST. The effect is to lower taxes on businesses, and transfer the tax burden to consumers. That way, goods and services are not taxed repeatedly at different stages along the production line.
The theory is, provinces struggling to remain globally competitive can use their lower corporate tax levels to retain and attract much-needed investment. And since retailers don't have much power to raise prices during a recession, consumers won't feel the heat too much.
Indeed, when the Ontario government first proposed the HST in its last budget, economists and the federal Tories praised the move as brave and wise. And British Columbia signed up partly because of concerns that the new tax regime would make Ontario more competitive than B.C.
However, both provinces only signed on after receiving promises for hefty compensation from the federal government to help pay for the transition to the new tax. And the provincial governments have been offering exemptions from the tax in order to make it more palatable.