Bill Vander Zalm interview by Joseph Roberts
Joseph Roberts: How did you get involved in the HST issue?
Bill Vander Zalm: I was watching television one evening with Lillian and it was announced on the news, as a matter of fact, that the HST was going to happen and they briefly explained it. I said, “They’re not really telling us what it’s all about or how much it’s going to cost. They’re simply announcing the government’s news release on television. Obviously, there’s something wrong, something’s amiss here.” The next morning, I turn on the television to see what more they have to say and there’s not a mention. “This is crazy,” I said to Lillian. “Either the big media is covering up for the government or they just don’t understand the impact of all of this, particularly on the people who can least afford it.”
When I heard nothing for the rest of the morning, by afternoon I was so frustrated Lillian suggested I write a letter to the newspapers explaining what this is all about and the impact of it and see what response I would get. I sat down and immediately sent an email to all the big newspapers and the Province called me immediately and asked to meet me in Richmond to do an interview. I met them that same afternoon and the interviewer had a camera and cleverly photographed me beside a Stop sign. The following morning, that picture made the front page of the paper. That was enough to set off the anti-HST campaign.
It’s a lot of work and I realized it would be, but fortunately I have a good friend named Chris Delaney who’s quite familiar with politics. I didn’t really have to explain it to him because he well understood and said he would volunteer 24/7 and pay his own costs until we got this thing done. From that little nucleus of two people, we sought out others. Bill Tieleman, who’s influential and good at getting a message out, joined us. And a good number of other people joined the campaign.
The neat part is we’ve had people from every political persuasion – the NDP, the Conservatives, the Refederation Party and former Liberals – people right across the political spectrum. That made our job easy and it will be the success of the campaign. If I were campaigning from a particular party, it would be very difficult because people would be either aligning or opposing. But with people from across the whole spectrum, the message is getting out and we’re getting lots of support.
In my estimation, we will not only win the HST fight, but we will follow-up on the need for the political system in this province and country to change. Too much is decided upon political philosophy rather than what’s right or what’s wrong. I think we’ll have an even bigger challenge after the HST to try and change that.
JR: “No taxation without representation” was the rallying cry in New England that preceded the Boston Tea Party during America’s revolution of independence from England. Is this HST really a form of taxation without representation?
BVZ: No question about that. First of all, people had no say in it. Not only were individuals not warned, but quite the contrary. During an election campaign only a few months earlier, they were told by Gordon Campbell, the leader of the Liberal Party, that he was opposed to the HST and it would not be considered. So we were provided false information. After the election, there was no announcement that people could respond to, nor did government take it to the legislature where people would have had an opportunity to speak out through their elected representatives. It could have been as simple as a provincial minister talking to a federal minister who offered a $1.6 billion bribe. It’s just taking it out of one pocket and putting it in the other.
The whole thing is in fact, unconstitutional. If it wouldn’t cost $1 million to challenge it legally, that would be the easiest route to go. So it’s not only taxation without representation, it’s fraudulent taxation. The provincial government is giving up a provincial jurisdiction without consulting the people and giving it to the feds. The feds would then determine whether there’s an increase or a reduction for that particular tax in this province.
JR: They could change it from seven to 10 percent, if they wish.
BVZ: They’ve got control. Politically, they probably wouldn’t do that, at least not very soon after. It’s very wrong.
JR: Why do you think the federal government is pushing for this?
BVZ: I would like to believe the politicians in Ottawa are smart enough to try and figure out what’s happening here, but maybe not, so perhaps it’s coming from within the bureaucracy and probably motivated or encouraged by big business. There’s something beyond all of this that isn’t too obvious, that is moving this. They will argue that VAT – Value Added Tax, another word for HST – is working well in other countries. Well, it isn’t working that well. Number one, most European countries have an underground economy that is as big as the real economy. More and more people here will also be doing things without charging the HST and they’ll have an advantage over the legitimate businessperson. Not only will they not collect and not pay the HST, but also they won’t pay income tax because if they paid income tax, it will reveal what they’re doing with the HST. It’s a whole underground economy that will cost us mega-billions of dollars.
Why is the federal government doing this? I imagine in part because they perhaps believe we need to do this universally, as part of this whole globalization movement, and secondly there may be favours from some industries.
JR: How does it shift the tax burden?
BVZ: It’s the consumer who will be paying this tax, of course, and hardest hit will be those least able to pay because it will be a big percentage of their available monies – and I’m talking about seniors or people on fixed incomes or low to mid-incomes. The average senior couple will pay $1000 a year in HST. It’s the consumer who gets hit. The big beneficiaries are the big companies, the big industries.
JR: When did BC’s referendum and recall legislation, which contextualizes the HST referendum, come into being?
BVZ: It was introduced by myself and the big support came from then Attorney-General Bud Smith. We were both, as were the cabinet and the caucus, supportive of the legislation being introduced. Unfortunately, because I resigned in 1991, the rules were drafted by Mr. Harcourt’s government and they made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, although I don’t think anything’s impossible so what we’re trying to do now with the initiative petition is probably the more doable aspect of the legislation. Ten percent is doable, particularly in circumstances such as we have now, where we’ve got people from various political parties supporting it.
JR: What was your intention for putting forward that legislation originally?
BVZ: I have long been a believer in the need for change and the democratization of the political system. My greatest opposition came from within the bureaucracy. Again, politicians don’t like change, but the bureaucrats like it even less. I didn’t have that many friends amongst the bureaucrats who made it happen, in part because when I first became premier, I took the position that a deputy that had been in a particular ministry for 25 years or more was probably too entrenched and had too many friends and possibly couldn’t do the job as objectively as it should be done. So I moved the deputies around, saying that if someone is a good deputy in one ministry they should be able to take on a position in another ministry because the number one requirement is to be a good manager. That caused a lot of frustration for me and made my life a lot more difficult in the position I was in.
However, the motivation really came from the fact that I believed then, and even more so today, that we need to democratize government in every province and in Canada. What we do now is every four or five years, we elect a dictatorship. That’s what it is. The premier has all the say, regardless of the politics. The premier has the say, just as the prime minister decides everything at the federal level. We don’t have a democracy.
JR: Has your perspective changed since then?
BVZ: There’s been a learning process. I’ve now witnessed governments under Social Credit, NDP and Liberals so I realize as much as the people do that the basics don’t change regardless of who it is that you elect and that tells me there’s something wrong. So I’ve seen it and learned from the process and I guess perhaps things like the HST just encourage me all the more.
JR: What would ‘more democratic’ look like to you?
BVZ: I think the best example for us to work from is the Swiss system. That’s not to say we could adopt that system and have it work. It would need a lot of changing and adjusting. But I think it forms the basis of a much more democratic system. We often hear it said by politicians and others that the best government is that which is closest to the people and the one closest to us here is local government. That’s where you have the greatest amount of democracy. I was the mayor of Surrey for six years and a councillor there for four years so I’ve seen it. Of all my 25 years in politics, that’s where I felt best at the local level. That’s where you really get to the people and you don’t ask about their politics; you just do what’s right.
JR: Did the Liberal Party of BC come out of the Social Credit with the Conservatives joining in, much the same way that Harper’s party morphed out of the Reform movement and the PCs?
BVZ: Yes, the BC Liberals were born out of Social Credit, there’s no doubt about that. The majority of people holding positions of influence within the Liberal party were there and I knew them well in Social Credit. That includes people like Bill Bennett and Grace McCarthy – all those people who were influential in SC, some of whom led to its defeat, have been and are now very influential within the Liberal Party. That’s why people will often say the BC Liberal Party is too conservative. I think it’s both a Conservative and Liberal mix. No doubt, it’s a bit of a coalition.
JR: Common Ground magazine’s office is located in the Vancouver Kingsway federal riding where David Emerson won the NDP stronghold as a Liberal because many NDP held their noses and voted for him to oppose Harper’s Conservatives. Then much to their dismay they saw Emerson switching party allegiances even before parliament sat. Is that an example of the dictatorship mentality’s arrogance and disregard for voters of you’re talking about?
BVZ: I think you’ve figured out that it’s all a matter of power and once whomever it is achieves power, they feel they can do whatever they want and constituents don’t really count in any of this. We also saw Dosanjh, an NDP premier, join the federal Liberals because he thought he might be in a position of power there. With the NDP, he’d be just another MP, whereas, with the Liberals, he could become a minister. So the whole thing’s about power and, no doubt, recognition.
The differences between the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP have narrowed so much that, for anyone coming in from the outside without having political affiliations, the differences are difficult to tell because they’ll say whatever it is they believe to be popular to get elected. It’s very sad and it’s a further indication that we need to continue working to change the system. The system is bad. It’s corrupt. It’s no good.
JR: Voters need to hold these politicians to account so what you’re doing with the anti-HST is saying, “Wait a minute, you said you weren’t going to bring in the HST, or sell BC Rail or BC Gas, and we’re going to draw a line in the sand here to say that people count.”
BVZ: Very well put.
JR: In your estimation, was there an agenda by the Liberals to take you and Social Credit down so they could take power for specific reasons?
BVZ: I think the agenda really came from the federal Conservatives. That’s where I believe they and Mr. Mulroney, at the time, were most instrumental in taking first myself and then the party itself out of the picture. For a federal government, given the system we have, a rogue party in some province creates a problem.
JR: Or an independent party.
BVZ: A rogue, independent party. If you’re part of the established parties, perhaps they can deal with that.
JR: When the two prior referendums for electoral reform in BC ran into stiff opposition from the entrenched parties who pretended to be neutral, when if fact they were dead against changing the voting system. Even the opposition party did not want things to change because they thought, “Well, we’ll lose two elections but we’ll get the next one and with that power then we’ll make all the changes we want.”
BVZ: Unfortunately, we’re never going to change this until we improve the whole basic system.
JR: This morning I told someone I was going to talk to someone who’s working very hard to stop the HST and she replied that she didn’t want it, but she felt they would do it no matter what. I’ve heard that time and time again from people. What will it take for people to realize they can fight back? If people believe they can’t do anything, we’re in a terrible situation.
BVZ: It makes me so mad when I read articles in papers stating that Bill Vander Zalm must have an agenda of his own, questioning why he would be working on something he can’t win. It’s unbelievable.
Our system is bad. The American system isn’t good either, but it’s better in one aspect because you can actually get a Republican and a Democrat to agree on some issues. Therefore, they have an edge on us, which is also shown by them being a little quicker to protest and object and their media has very liberal and conservative positions and they’re quite open about it. Here in Canada, we have a people that have become very docile and have simply given up. What I hear more often than anything is that it makes no difference, it doesn’t matter who it is, they’re going to do what they want to do anyhow.
JR: Even if the referendum and wins the government may say, “Thank you for the information, we’ll consider it.”
BVZ: Even with the initiative legislation, the government could ignore us, but I don’t think they would this time because it would defeat them politically for a long, long time if they did.
Bill Vander Zalm has worked in the plant and flower business all his life. He made time to become a councillor, mayor, Minister for Human Resources, Municipal Affairs, Transit, and Education, then Premier of BC. For info on HST: www.fightHST.com, info@fightHST.com, or mail Fight HST, 370 East Broadway, PO Box 95023, BC, V5V 4T8.
photos by Joseph Roberts