Vaughn Palmer: Unprepared BC finance minister roasted by reporter

Vaughn Palmer: Unprepared BC finance minister roasted by reporter

Opinion: Despite saying she consulted on extending vacancy tax, several mayors say no one asked them

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VICTORIA — Finance Minister Katrine Conroy was caught unprepared last week when announcing that the New Democrats were expanding the speculation and vacancy tax to another dozen or so municipalities.

The newly captured municipalities included five on Vancouver Island and eight in the Interior, mostly in the Okanagan. They will join about four dozen others where the tax is levied on empty second homes, unless their owners choose to rent them out.

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Conroy tried to give the impression during a news conference last Wednesday that she’d consulted all 13 municipalities in advance, and most were happy to be included in the reach of the tax.

Her claim unravelled as she was pressed regarding Parksville and Qualicum on Vancouver Island. When the New Democrats imposed the tax on selected municipalities back in 2018, those two were excluded out of a concern about the impact on the seasonal tourist trade.

“Times have changed, and housing has become more unaffordable, and communities are asking for it,” said Conroy by way of explanation for the change.

Had Parksville and Qualicum approached the government and asked to be included this time?

“The majority of people that we’ve included are very happy with it,” replied Conroy. “Some people expressed concerns, a couple, but the majority were very happy when I spoke to them — all of them yesterday.”

All of them? Did Parksville and Qualicum specifically ask to be included?

“They are very happy with the decision,” claimed Conroy.

“But did they ask for it?” returned the reporter.

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“We’ve had a number of communities that have asked,” continued the finance minister, increasingly unsure of herself.

“I guess the answer is ‘no,’ then,” replied the reporter.

By then — four questions in — it was apparent that the reporter — Rob Shaw of CHEK TV and columnist for Business in Vancouver — would not let the finance minister off the hook.

You can also see why government media managers try to limit reporters to one question and one followup.

By then, Conroy was scrambling to cover that she didn’t know what she was talking about regarding the consultations on a major tax change.

“I’ll just double check because I have a list here,” she fumbled. “I just have to go back and double check them. OK. I’ll double check for you.”

After all those evasions, the reporter himself checked and established the truth regarding the finance minister’s consultations so far as Parksville was concerned.

“The City of Parksville did not ask to be part of the speculation tax process,” Mayor Doug O’Brien told Shaw. “We were not asked in any way, shape or form. However, upon receiving notice that we were being included in the speculation tax, I was not surprised. I was surprised it hadn’t happened earlier.”

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Still, the Parksville mayor cut the finance minister some slack.

“I do not have issue with it or the intent of the speculation tax, recognizing what the tax actually goes to,” O’Brien told Shaw.

More damning was the blast that went out that same day, Wednesday, from Penticton Mayor Julius Bloomfield.

“It is extremely disappointing that this action has been taken with zero consultation,” he said in a statement.

In the absence of proper consultation, the city was at a loss to understand why it had been included in the tax when other tourism-based communities like Whistler, Tofino and the Gulf Islands were still excluded.

“While this council shares the province’s goals of addressing the need for affordable housing as demonstrated by the work of our housing task force, we question the province’s lack of recognition of Penticton’s unique needs.”

The New Democrats whacked Penticton with the speculation tax when the municipality was still trying to get answers about the recent government crackdown on short-term rentals of the Airbnb variety.

“That this unilateral decision to expand the speculation tax to our community has come at the same time we’re still trying to understand the consequences of the changes to the short-term regulations is especially concerning,” said the mayor.

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“We are very worried about the unintended consequences for our local economy by these actions.”

As regards the exclusion of Whistler, Tofino and the Gulf Islands, Conroy said “we’ve been advised not to bring it into those very resort-based communities. … We’ll continue to look at options throughout the province but right now we’re not looking at the resort-based communities.”

Why not just impose the tax across the entire province?

“Well, we’re just not ready to do that yet,” said Conroy, not dispelling the impression that the exclusions and inclusions to date have been arbitrary.

Still, the tax has obvious value for the New Democrats. It has raised more than $300 million in revenue, according to Conroy.

Not long after she wrapped up her news conference last week, the NDP caucus research department put out a news release accusing the B.C. United Opposition of siding with “wealthy investors” in criticizing the application of the tax.

With the tax serving its purpose as a partisan cash cow, the New Democrats showed no embarrassment that their finance minister had botched the consultations on major tax change.

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