Liberal legislative log jam is shameful

The Liberals have had eight months to draft legislation to rescind the HST and facilitate the return to the PST/GST...

After being slapped down last August, the Liberals have had eight months to draft legislation to rescind the HST and facilitate the return to the PST/GST, and they’re managing to screw it up.

After the political grief that the HST fiasco has caused, you’d think the Liberals would want to get the burial ceremony right.

But, with just a handful of debating days remaining before the spring session of the legislature wraps up, the government has exposed itself to legitimate suspicion that meaningful debate on this complex and vital piece of tax law will be stifled by closure measures. As of my deadline this week, the legislation had not been introduced.

The Liberals are no strangers to the ploy of limiting debate in the dying hours of a session. Getting their sorry butts out of the limelight in Victoria has often trumped thorough debate with the opposition and the corresponding glare of media scrutiny.

This spring, with the May 31 adjournment looming, the legislative log jam is nothing short of shameful. There are more than 20 pieces of legislation still sitting on the order paper waiting to be debated. Some are housekeeping matters that can pass quickly, but others need fulsome debate.

On Monday, the government introduced six pieces of legislation. It was a staggering eleventh hour legislative dump. All of the bills are substantive, including: Bill 51, which deals with TransLink accountability; Bill 44, which establishes a new civil dispute tribunal to unburden the courts; and Bill 52, which streamlines the resolution of lingering traffic fine disputes.

This log jam is not the consequence of mere stupidity and bad scheduling. It is worse. It is contrived mismanagement of the public policy agenda in a bid to get these bills passed into law with the least amount of accountability possible.

Last August, 1.6 million people cast ballots on the HST question and 55 per cent voted to return to the PST status quo. The government had argued that the 12 per cent pro-business HST streamlined the tax system. Opponents argued it was a $2-billion shift from business to consumers.

After the vote, Premier Christy Clark vowed the PST/GST system would be restored in March 2013 “with the exemptions that existed prior to the HST.”

Now the opposition isn’t so sure.

NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston says the legislation will be “massive” and will be dropped in the opposition’s lap without regard to the time needed to adequately examine its complexity.

The problem is the old PST system dates back to 1948. Through the years, exemptions have been tacked on and idiosyncrasies have piled up. As well, through the years, committees struck to examine the PST have travelled the province and produced volumes of recommendations aimed at restoring the tax to a semblance of consistency and fairness.

Of necessity, the enabling legislation will embrace these much needed updates. However, the NDP knows that it will be in that fine print that the detail devils are lurking. Ralston and company do not trust the Liberals and they need time to dissect the bill with precision.

I believe it is fair to observe that cramming due diligence on the HST bill into two weeks of debate alongside 20 other pieces of legislation will be a breach of parliamentary stewardship on the part of the scrutiny-shy Liberals. M

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