Wednesday, October 07, 2009

On movement politics

NDP MP Denise Savoie's op-ed is worth a read in describing the wide range of B.C. citizens protesting the HST. But it's worth taking a closer look as to why it is that the coalitions developing around the HST are different from those which normally turn up on the political scene - and what they mean for the chances of successfully opposing the measure.

To start with, it's worth noting that the groups normally in the middle of the media narrative attacking taxes are sitting this one out or actively promoting the HST in principle (even while trying to harness some stray outrage over timing and implementation). And at least a few right-wing HST supporters have sneered at the prospect that the NDP and progressive groups might be able to rally opposition to an unpopular tax, rather than leaving that to the usual self-described "tax fighters".

But I'd argue that the effort to fight the HST is probably better off for having a diverse group of citizens involved. While a group like the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation may be effective in spreading a general anti-tax message, the reality that it would be no less aghast over a small surtax on found money to save the lives of starving orphans than even the most regressive and harmful of taxes leaves it practically unable to highlight any particular issue as justifying special public outrage. Simply put, "CTF shrieks about lower taxes" isn't news, and any tax protest movement with the CTF leading the charge is likely to be easily tuned out as politics as usual.

In contrast, a tax issue where the CTF actually wants to see individuals' taxes raised while progressive groups want to see them stay lower is bound to register with the public at large as something out of the ordinary, and probably make people more likely to get involved. Which means that the protest movement figures to include many more people than the usual anti-tax crowd - while a good portion of those actually inclined to support the CTF on most issues also figure to join the movement against increased taxes on themselves.

Moreover, it's also natural that the ultimate impact of the HST will break off at least a few chunks of the business lobby onto the side of the public. During Grant Devine's ill-fated attempt at tax harmonization in Saskatchewan it was restauranteurs in particular who helped turn the tide, while the current round has seen the likes of B.C. small businesses and Ontario mutual fund managers among those joining the anti-HST movement.

Mind you, there are bound to be strong voices in favour of a corporate-friendly measure like harmonization as well. But while that ensures that the protest movement won't dominate the airwaves, it also ensures that there's going to be a lively public debate about the issue - encouraging yet more people to get involved on one side or the other. And since most of those who stand to benefit from the HST are already well aware of the issue and fully behind it, the long-term effect is largely to bring more awareness to those who will ultimately join the protesting coalition.

In sum, then, the anti-HST protest figures to be a significantly more effective force for change than many efforts at activism due primarily to the fact that the HST cuts deeply across ideological lines and business interests in a way that few other issues do. And while it remains to be seen whether the push-back will be able to stop the tax in B.C. and Ontario, anybody who assumes that the protest movement should be taken less seriously due to that diversity figures to be in for a rude awakening.

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