Tax this, Brian! (Not you, Zinchuk)

Corey Atkinson

People are protesting a controversial tax, while Albertans and people from the rest of Western Canada are frothing at the mouths.

Is it like today? Kinda, sorta.

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“It’s too much! No one should be taxed like this!” they say. People from coast to coast to coast were up in arms over it.

The goods and services tax, when it was conceived as a measure against the rising debt, was never a popular measure and in some ways was the ultimate killer of the Progressive Conservative party federally.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and finance minister Michael Wilson introduced the tax in 1990, even though they weren’t there in Parliament when the bill was voted on for a third time, amid heckling of the rest of the Tories.  

Mulroney originally floated out the idea of a nine per cent sales tax. And as Canadians, we were all told the tax would be revenue neutral, just replacing a couple of manufacturers and telecommunications taxes at the retail level. The amount we’d pay for things wouldn’t really change, we were told. And I’m sure almost all of us rolled our collective eyes at that.

A total of 1.7 million people filled out protest cards and some members held them up as they voted. It was said at the time in Parliament that 85 per cent of people opposed the GST.

Alex Kindy and David Kilgour were the only PCs who voted against it. Kindy and Kilgour were bounced from the Tories but Kilgour was re-elected repeatedly as a Liberal.

But there was a problem – Mulroney hadn’t effectively stacked the upper chamber enough to pass the tax past the Senate so he temporarily added eight more senators. One of those was Saskatchewan’s Eric Berntson, originally from Oxbow. Mulroney said he was just defending the ideal of responsible government.

Mulroney’s gambit worked magnificently, if his only bright idea for his second mandate (given in the 1988 general election) was to introduce this tax. The senators voted the way he wanted. Through retirements, Berntson was able to stay on until he resigned to serve a one-year jail term in 2001 as his sentence for defrauding Saskatchewan taxpayers for $41,000 when he was this province’s deputy premier.

The final vote took place in December and on Jan. 1, 1991 we all started paying the general sales tax.

Cue Jean Chrétien on his white horse. Riding a wave of popularity from a convention, he spent the better part of 1992 and the lead up into 1993 crusading effectively against the tax.

But economists will tell you that consumption taxes are good for the economy. They make people work longer hours, increasing productivity and output. No word from those most affected by it, although maybe one of the old GST protest cards would be an interesting thing to have on your wall.

Taxes and the opposition to these taxes are almost always political. If people see a purpose to a tax, or an ideal (read: virtue signal), they’re more likely to swallow their pride a bit and roll with it.

Chrétien wanted the GST replaced but it was a much different tune once he was in office. It seemed that every truck was issued a ‘Tax This, Brian’ bumper sticker, with a middle finger aimed directly at Mulroney. If your name was Brian or you know someone named Brian, it seemed a bit more personal but I always thought it was aimed at Mulroney.

The GST issue helped the Reform Party immeasurably federally and by the time the 1993 election was over, the PCs were down to two seats and separatist Bloc Quebecois was the opposition.

Voters (and soon to be voters) weren’t only upset at Mulroney for the GST, but it’s fair to say that it was the key issue that divided all of the parties’ respective platforms.

I don’t remember much of a price difference from one year to the next when it came to consumer durables, or to anything so much as a bag of Skittles. Costs went directly to the consumer and they really haven’t stopped the escalation since. Although one of the things the GST was supposed to be was a measure against inflation, we still talk of 1980s costs as if they’re another currency.

So we as a country protested a tax far more effectively in 1990 than at any other time past or present, and it’s still there. While most, if not all of us, would prefer to not pay it, it’s a fact of life and unless our government changes to a complete libertarian style, it’s probably not coming back down to zero anytime soon.


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