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COMMENTARY · 12th November 2010
Paul Willcocks
I thought the budget consultation process hit bottom in 2004.

But Gordon Campbell took things to a new low with his TV announcement of an arbitrary 15 per cent tax cut, a desperate, doomed move to hang on to his job at the expense of the Liberal party and the democratic process.

The legislature finance committee - six Liberal MLAs, four New Democrats - travels the province each fall to hear suggestions for the February budget.

Itís a big deal for many people. Business groups propose tax shifts, advocates make the case for spending on schools or health care. People send e-mails or briefs on what they think should be priorities. Many presentations are thoughtful and well-researched.

And the committee writes a report that, theoretically - though rarely practically - shapes the budget.

This year, the government noted that an improving economy offered opportunities.

There was an extra $2 billion over the next three years available for initiatives.
"What would you do with additional resources?,Ē it asked. ďWould you fund new programs and services, would you reduce the debt, or would you cut personal income taxes?"

So chambers of commerce and arts groups and non-profits and individuals prepared their submissions. People already working 10 hours a day worked longer to offer their ideas.

Then Campbell went on TV and announced a 15-per-cent tax cut that wiped out that $2 billion, before the committee even started preparing its report.

It was a grand insult. The committee had travelled to 14 communities and done video conferences with people and organizations in another nine. A lot of effort had gone into hundreds of submissions.

And Campbell gave the finger to them. He decided on a tax cut before he even heard from all those people across the province. The consultation was a sham.

There was no reason for haste. The tax cut doesnít take effect until Jan. 1. The committee was to report by Nov. 15.

If Campbell had delayed his TV address three weeks, he could have read the committee report and learned what British Columbians believed the budget priorities should be. That would have been polite.

He didnít, which speaks of a certain contempt for all those people and groups working on their budget submissions.

The New Democrat MLAs withdrew from the committee in protest.

The loyal Liberals defended the premierís tax cut announcement. You would think, after listening to all those presentations and reading all the submissions, they would have urged the premier to wait a few weeks for the report.

If, as Campbell maintains, all decisions are backed by caucus, surely the Liberal committee members - John Les, Norm Letnick, Don MacRae, John Rustad, Jane Thornthwaite and John van Dongen - would have suggested the tax cut announcement could wait until the public was heard.

But either they werenít consulted, they were silent or they were ignored. Iím keen to know which.

The previous low point in budget consultation came in 2004, when the government sent out a pre-election campaign flyer/budget consultation document to every household in the province. About 26,000 people responded with budget suggestions. But the flyer went out late, time was tight and the government threw 23,500 of the responses in the garbage and looked at 2,550 - one in 10.

Campbell, seeking political salvation, went farther and ignored every single submission.
Liberal supporters should be the angriest.

If Campbell hadnít bet $2 billion on a doomed effort to rebuild his personal popularity, the new Liberal leader would have had the chance to announce tax cuts or measures to reduce surgical waits or investments in economic growth.

This isnít a partisan, or left-right issue, whatever that means.

Itís about bad behaviour, contempt for citizens, docile elected representatives, abuse of power and the reckless spending of $650 million a year.
And it brings shame on the government, and all those who went along with the abuse.

Footnote: First Call, an advocacy group for children and youth, probably speaks for a lot of the organizations - business groups, non-profits, community organizations - who presented to the committee. First Call encourages members to engage in the democratic process, the group noted. But it asked why people should spend time preparing recommendations if the government is going to do whatever it wants anyway. Campbellís answer should be interesting.

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