Mike Smyth: What happened to David Eby, the guy who never backed down from a fight?

David Eby is not the type of guy who backs away from a political fight or cowers at the idea of confrontation.

In fact, he wrote the book on such things. Literally.

Back in 2010, Eby wrote a training manual for “legal observers” at the Winter Olympics held that year in Vancouver.

The purpose was to ensure the Olympics did not become an event “where the homeless are displaced, free speech interfered with and citizen rights trampled,” the manual said.

The training manual encouraged observers to carry swim goggles or a scuba mask, an air-filter mask and “a damp bandana,” all to guard against police tear gas and pepper spray. It also recommended carrying a water bottle for “cleaning eyes or wounds.”

“Are you ready to join us on the front lines preserving rights and freedoms during the 2010 Olympics?” Eby asked in the manual.

Of course, that was back when Eby was the head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. He could be regularly found at the head of protest rallies as he challenged the powers of the police and the government.

But now that Eby is the attorney general and the guy in charge, he’s not as enthusiastic about those pesky protesters.

On Tuesday, Eby cancelled a town-hall meeting in his Vancouver-Point Grey riding after it became apparent protesters were planning to crash the event at the encouragement of the opposition Liberals.

In a Facebook posting, Eby postponed the meeting “until we can ensure we can hold it safely.”

The meeting was expected to focus on the NDP’s new real-estate taxes, including the new “school tax” on homes valued at more than $3 million.

The tax (which is not a school tax, as the money goes into general revenues of government) is unpopular among homeowners in Eby’s well-to-do riding.

So was the cancellation of this meeting really about “safety”? Hardly. A large portion of the protesters would have been senior citizens.

In fact, until now, the New Democrats appear to have enjoyed the political optics of this fight. The NDP’s base of supporters love taxes on the rich, and the Liberals are playing right along by siding with wealthy homeowners.

But I suspect Eby is worried about the local politics of this one, as the tax disproportionally hits voters in his own riding.

Now he has fallen short of the standard of accountability that he himself demanded back when he was B.C.’s most vocal political agitator.

“His own constituents are concerned and worried and he doesn’t want to meet with them,” said Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.

“So he’s trying to isolate himself from voters.”

I suspect the protesters will be back, especially now that they’ve successfully rattled one of the NDP’s steadiest performers.

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Statement from Andrew Wilkinson on David Eby’s cancelled townhall

Instead of listening to the concerns of his own constituents, Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby cancelled his public townhall yesterday – for the second time.

He’s a career activist with a long history of supporting demonstrations, protests and uprisings, yet according to him seniors, pensioners and families are “security risks.”

British Columbians deserve representation and accountability. They deserve to have their voice heard by their MLA.

The NDP have introduced a so-called school tax – but it’s really a tax on homeowners.

I have heard from Point Grey families who bought their home decades ago when the assessed value was a fraction of the current number. Families who worked hard and lived frugally in order to afford their home only to have the BC NDP swipe their earnings away with their new homeowner tax.

I have heard from Point Grey seniors – who rely on their lifetime of savings in retirement – watch their nest egg evaporate by the new NDP homeowner tax grab.

I encouraged David Eby’s constituents to have their voices heard at a public town hall and will continue to do so because I believe in leadership for all of BC.

I am calling upon David to reschedule his townhall meeting at one of the many large public venues available in the next ten days.

Andrew Wilkinson, Leader of the BC Liberal Party

Mike Smyth: Breaking down where your gas money goes

It’s always cringe-inducing to hear Premier John Horgan plead with the federal government to do something about soaring Metro Vancouver gas prices, the highest in North America.

Horgan was at it again Monday, blaming the feds for a lack of fuel-refining capacity in B.C.

“Let’s make more (refined gasoline) here, creating more jobs here and relieving the enormous pressure on the travelling public,” he said.

Say what? He’s worried about pressure on drivers? At the same time he jacks up the carbon tax on every litre of gas sold in B.C.?

Unbelievable.

The Horgan government increased the carbon tax on April 1, and it now stands at 7.78 cents per litre. On a typical 50-litre fill-up at a gas station, you’re now paying nearly four bucks in B.C. carbon tax alone.

The carbon tax used to be “revenue neutral” meaning the government was legally required to lower other taxes to offset it.

The NDP changed the law, and now the entire carbon tax flows directly into the coffers of government with no neutral offset required.

The provincial bite at the gas pump doesn’t end with the carbon tax.

There’s also the B.C. Transportation Financing Authority fuel tax of 6.75 cents a litre. And the general B.C. Motor Fuel Tax of 1.75 cents a litre.

Then in Metro Vancouver, you have the whopping TransLink fuel tax: another 17 cents a litre, or $8.50 per fill-up.

And now Horgan wants the federal government to ease your pain? Good grief.

Of course, the federal taxman has to get his piece of the action. So you also pay the federal fuel excise tax of 10 cents a litre.

The sour cherry on top is the five-per-cent federal GST, which is charged on top of your total gas purchase, including all the other taxes.

That’s right: You pay tax on your gas taxes.

Would refining more fuel in B.C. ease prices? Sure, but publishing tycoon David Black has been trying for six years now to get his refinery project off the ground with no success.

Now Horgan says he’s in talks with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee about expanding refinery capacity south of the border.

Yes, this is the same Washington state that refines million of barrels of diluted bitumen pumped through British Columbia from Alberta via the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

No wonder Horgan says he would continue to allow 22 million tonnes of bitumen to flow through B.C. a year, at the same time he says the stuff is dangerous to the environment and human health as he fights the pipeline’s expansion.

The hypocrisy — like the price at the pump — is breathtaking.

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http://theprovince.com/news/bc-politics/mike-smyth-breaking-down-where-your-gas-money-goes

Mike Smyth: Pipeline reality check — there’s bitumen flowing through it right now

As Premier John Horgan turns to B.C.’s highest court in his battle against the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, his government is taking aim at the toxic stuff that flows through the pipe: Diluted bitumen.

Bitumen is the thick, heavy crude extracted from Alberta’s oilsands that the B.C. government says poses a dire threat to the public.

“Diluted bitumen, when released into the environment, would endanger human health, the environment and communities,” the government said in a statement Thursday. That’s why the government now proposes strict new regulations on bitumen shipments and is asking the B.C. Court of Appeal to confirm its jurisdiction to do so.

But the government says the new permitting process would only apply to “incremental volume” of bitumen from Alberta, and not to bitumen already flowing through B.C. on a daily basis.

Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain project is actually an expansion of an existing pipeline that’s been operating in B.C. for 65 years. The pipeline currently pumps an average of 60,000 barrels of bitumen a day through B.C.

I asked Horgan if there’s a possibility of a catastrophic bitumen spill happening in B.C. right now.

“Potentially, yeah,” he said.

So if the stuff is so dangerous, why is his government not taking steps to regulate all of it?

“It’s a question of fairness,” Horgan told me. “We wanted this to be forward-looking in the interest of fairness to those who are already conducting business on a regime that existed when they began their business activity.”

So “fairness” to the fossil-fuel industry is more important to Horgan than taking steps to prevent a spill that threatens human health?

Here’s another rationale for this hypocrisy: Choking off existing bitumen shipments could inflate the price of gasoline in B.C. and spark a possible trade war with the Americans. Most of the bitumen currently shipped through B.C. is sent south of the border to refineries in Washington state. Much of that refined product is then sold back to B.C. as fuel.

“Could you imagine what a conniption Gov. Jay Inslee would have if 10 per cent of his state’s oil feedstock disappeared?” asked industry analyst Dan McTeague.

Inslee is the Washington state governor who has forged a close relationship with Horgan and is touted as a possible Democratic nominee for president. We wouldn’t want to annoy him, would we? And I’m sure Horgan doesn’t want to be blamed for even higher gas prices or worse.

“They likely don’t want a NAFTA challenge,” McTeague said. “It could also cause the Loonie to drop.”

All very unpleasant consequences, so much better to focus on “incremental” bitumen shipments, and accept the current risk of a spill.

So is this fight really about protecting the environment, B.C. communities and human health? Or is it about appeasing environmental activists inside the NDP and Horgan’s governing partners in the B.C. Green party?

The strategy is clearly “death by delay” — tie the project up in court and hope Kinder Morgan gives up and cancels the whole project. The company has set a May 31 deadline to resolve the impasse with B.C., though the court case is certain to drag out beyond that date. That could trigger action by the federal government and Alberta. Both are considering putting taxpayers’ money into the pipeline to save it.

No matter what happens, it appears Alberta’s current bitumen shipments will continue to flow through B.C.

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http://theprovince.com/news/bc-politics/mike-smyth-pipeline-reality-check-theres-bitumen-flowing-through-it-right-now

Vaughn Palmer: NDP stacking the deck in favour of proportional representation

When the New Democrats recruited four academics to vet the public consultations on electoral reform, they asked them to take a vow of silence about the government’s methods, process and findings.

“You are one of four academics invited to provide advice and would be privy to confidential information, including draft materials and related commentary,” read the formal invitation from the Ministry of the Attorney-General.

“As a condition of your participation, we ask that you agree to abstain from public comment or academic research related to the B.C. government’s survey methodology, survey results or consultation process.”

The letter went out last Nov. 3 to four political scientists with expertise in electoral reform: Maxwell Cameron from the University of B.C., Genevieve Fuji Johnson, Simon Fraser University, Jonathan Rose, Queen’s University and Peter Loewen of the University of Toronto.

The first three have spoken favourably about the need for electoral change. Only Loewen has much good to say about the status quo first-past-the-post system.

But from the outset, the quartet was presented with a bit of a fait accompli — a questionnaire about public attitudes on electoral reform drafted in advance by the government, with a tight time frame to offer comments and shape the final version.

All four wrote back over the next week or so, doing their best to shorten, clarify, correct and add balance to the initial draft. Not all of the advice was taken.

“Are you planning a citizens’ assembly?” asked Prof. Johnson, suggesting an assembly or some other form of public review would be critical to build support and understanding. “Voters have to become very familiar with the alternatives to our political system and the reasons why they are stronger. This can’t be rushed.”

Despite the caution against rushing, the New Democrats had already put the process on the fast track.

“We do not have time to do a citizens’ assembly process,” returned Neil Reimer, director of strategic initiatives in the A-G’s ministry and the lead public servant on electoral reform process. “We have been given fairly tight timelines.”

I’ll say. The date of that email — obtained by the B.C. Liberals under an access to information filing, like other documents quoted here — was Nov. 13. Two days later, Reimer got back to Johnson and her colleagues with a revised questionnaire and solicited a second round of feedback, with responses due by noon on Nov. 17.

The following week the New Democrats launched the public engagement process and the final version of the questionnaire. Included on the How We Vote website, was a carefully crafted nod to the limited role played by its four external academic advisers.

“They reviewed the questionnaire and voting system information presented on this site. They are not responsible for the website’s design or content.”

Next morning, all four received a cautionary email from Kevin Atcheson, the senior policy and legislation analyst in the Justice Services Branch.

“We understand you may receive media requests on the topic of electoral reform and your role in the review of the government’s educational material and questionnaire,” it began before acknowledging that they were, of course, free to comment on the wider referendum process and voting systems in general.

But then came a reminder of the terms on which they entered into the exercise in the first place: “As indicated in the letter requesting your participation, please refrain from commenting on the specific advice you provided and whether that advice was followed.”

Particularly the latter. Much as the New Democrats were happy to cite the four as validators, the last thing they wanted were mouthy academics critiquing the process, the questionnaire and the possible results.

Besides, as one of the quartet disclosed, “I provided some feedback on the survey, but that’s about it.” The more important role in shaping the final text of the survey was the one hinted at in another of Reimer’s emails: “Our minister’s office has also had input.”

Last week, Attorney-General David Eby ducked questions from the B.C. Liberals about the role played by the political staff in his office. Tuesday he admitted all.

“My office did guide the questionnaire,” said Eby, suggesting that his staff had no choice but to take charge because “some of the (academic) experts provided contradictory recommendations.”

Instead of letting the academics speak out publicly about where they disagreed with the NDP questionnaire and why, Eby’s ministry reminded them of the obligation to say nothing on that score. Then Eby and his staff handled the finishing touches themselves.

“So decisions have to be made in politics,” he told the house. “One of the decisions that my office made, and that I stand here accountable for, was to release the survey in the form it was released to the public for completion. I believe the survey struck the right balance.”

I’m sure he does think it struck the right balance. For in many readings of the survey, it was found to be skewed in favour of proportional representation — the outcome sought by both Eby and Premier John Horgan, who appointed Eby as the “neutral arbiter” on this process.

I further expect that when the New Democrats finally get around to setting the question or questions for the referendum, and deciding the other arbitrary rules and procedures, neutral arbiter Eby will say those strike the right balance as well.

All part of an NDP-led deck-stacking exercise that began last fall and continues to this day.

http://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/vaughn-palmer-4

Stephen Bigsby: The NDP’s ‘speculation tax’ vs. the ‘unfair’ status quo a false choice

In an April 5 opinion piece published in this paper, SFU assistant professor Josh Gordon argued that the NDP government’s revised Speculation Tax was “essential for housing affordability” in B.C.’s main urban centres.

He went on to write: “If critics of the Speculation Tax want to keep up their opposition, they must now defend the status quo. And the status quo is hard to defend.”

According to Gordon, the changes made by the government on March 26 to the original proposal cleared up what critics saw as its only two flaws. Vacation areas such as the Gulf Islands and Parksville were now excluded and B.C. owners of second homes who were undergoing medical care would be exempt from the tax.

With these changes (plus a $2,000 credit for low-income B.C. owners of second homes), the new improved tax was “fixed”, in Gordon’s expert opinion.

Gordon then went on to proclaim that only this amended version of the NDP government’s Speculation Tax could prevent Vancouver and Victoria from becoming clones of Monte Carlo, resort playgrounds for the “global elites.”

For Gordon, at least, the choice on this issue is pretty stark: Either you stand with the global “elites” and their developer/real estate agent cronies or you stand with defenders of the NDP Speculation Tax. There is no middle ground. There are no better alternatives. End of debate.

This is totally illogical and a bit insulting. If graduate student Gordon had used this kind of argument to defend his PhD thesis a few years ago at the University of Toronto, he wouldn’t be teaching today at Simon Fraser University. Gordon knows perfectly well that he is trying to force readers to choose between two options and close the debate without allowing British Columbians to consider better alternatives.

I call this the “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” choice between two bad alternatives. Either you surrender to the status quo posse tracking you down (probably Albertans) or you jump with Professor Gordon off the cliff into “Speculation Tax Creek”.

So why is the amended Speculation Tax still bad policy?

Gordon focuses his article exclusively on foreign owners of property in Vancouver and Victoria who pay no income taxes in Canada. He adds that only one per cent of B.C. resident owners in the designated areas will now have to pay any Speculation Tax.

Nowhere in his sales pitch does Gordon mention that 100 per cent of out-of-province Canadians, thousands of families, have been caught in the Speculation Tax net. These people pay plenty of federal and provincial tax in Canada for which they will receive no credit. Many of these part-time residents of B.C. purchased properties years and even decades ago. They use these houses and condos regularly. They spend a lot of time and money in their communities.

It’s difficult to qualify these owners as parasites. These Canadians pay full municipal taxes in B.C. Since they are not resident in B.C., they get no reduction for the Homeowners Grant. They pay for education, but don’t use the system. They are not able to use Medicare in B.C. They don’t even qualify for B.C. Senior discounts on the ferry system. They pay for roads through their municipal property taxes and gas tax. They pay for policing the same way. They pay plenty of sales tax.

So, exactly what provincial services do these eastern invaders consume for free? Perhaps beautiful views of the Olympic Mountains or Mount Baker? No, those are in Washington State, aren’t they?

Professor Gordon did also mention these Canadians don’t pay for B.C.’s “legal system”. Perhaps they should. Their lawyers will soon be big users of that system if the Speculation Tax goes ahead in its current form.

The biggest flaw in the application of the Speculation Tax to Canadian owners is that it is, in effect, retroactive. The Horgan Government is preparing to say to thousands of owners: “Thank you for buying your property in B.C. years ago when we were looking for buyers. Thank you for spending lots of money in our province over the years. Thank you for maintaining your property so well. Now, give us back the use of your home or condo. If you can’t afford the 200 per cent annual property surtax (the equivalent of one per cent of evaluation), tough luck. You will have to surrender the use of your property. Either you sell, you rent, or you move to B.C. very fast. And please vote for us.”

This is, in effect, expropriation, without any compensation. The tax is retroactive, because it won’t just apply to future buyers. It applies to all owners, whenever they bought. This will be the basis for the multiple legal challenges the Speculation Tax will face. The class action lawyers are already lining up for this business.

So, what are the alternatives to the current proposal?

There are at least four alternatives. All would be better than the NDP’s Proposal:

1) Eliminate the tax for all Canadian residents who pay income tax in a Canadian Jurisdiction. This is by far the cleanest and best alternative.

2) Apply the tax only to properties which are truly vacant (ie: not regularly used). This would require self-reporting and some audits. This is how Canadians declare their income taxes. It seems to work.

3) Apply a 10 per cent refundable tax to purchases made by out-of-province buyers after Jan. 1, 2019 (or a date set by the Legislature). The tax would be 100 per cent refundable (without interest) if the buyer moved to B.C. within three years and refunded on a declining scale reaching zero after six years;

4) Apply a “Provincial Services Surtax” to second properties owned by out-of-province Canadians purchased after Jan. 1, 2019 (or a date set by the Legislature). Similar to a levy used in Prince Edward Island, the surtax would be set at 0.20-0.25 per cent of evaluation. This would increase average property taxes by 30-40 per cent. The surtax would cease if the owners moved to B.C. The tax would be significant but bearable for most owners.

Options 1 and 2 are clearly the best. However, Options 3 and 4 might help cool demand. More important, they are not retroactive, unlike the current NDP proposal.

Gordon and his academic colleagues have a right to their opinions. But, when they go into full salesman mode, they should be honest enough to admit their arguments are aimed at stampeding their audience towards a preferred ideological solution. There are other, better choices.

Stephen Bigsby is a third generation Victorian. He served as Director of Economic Development for Metropolitan Montreal from 1980 to 1995. He is a resident of Toronto. Since 2008, his family has owned a 1,000 sq. ft condo in Esquimalt. Depending on which lawyer or accountant he talks to, he may or may not be a “speculator.”

http://vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/stephen-bigsby-the-ndps-speculation-tax-vs-the-unfair-status-quo-a-false-choice