Car dealers zoom away with Liberal fuel

Capt. Renault: Oh no, Emil, please. A bottle of your best champagne, and put it on my bill.

Emil: Very well, sir.

Victor Laszlo: Captain, please”¦

Capt. Renault: Oh, please, monsieur. It is a little game we play. They put it on the bill, I tear up the bill. It is very convenient.

-Casablanca, 1942

In the world of British Columbia politics, the annual budget lockup in Victoria is the equivalent of a visit to Rick's Café in Casablanca.

Finance Minister Colin Hansen plays the Humphrey Bogart role as a slightly shady proprietor overseeing a gathering of assorted characters who are alternately either desperate or delighted with the results of Hansen's budget-making.

Instead of a collection of European refugees, Vichy French collaborators, Gestapo agents, Free French underground members, sleazy bar?flies, and a corrupt Casablanca constabulary, the lockup features labour leaders, business-organization representatives, well-heeled lob?byists, B.C. Liberal political staff, Finance Ministry employees, and, of course, hordes of media.

After entering the lockup at about 9 a.m., you are cut off from the rest of the world until Hansen rises in the legislature to deliver his budget speech at approximately 2:30 p.m. This enforced confinement to one large room creates an artificial bonhomie that is both amusing and instructional.

Like at Rick's Café, in the lockup you see adversaries who would ordinarily be on opposite sides of a picket line or protest instead talking amiably. There you will see B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair chatting with B.C. Business Council president Jerry Lampert.

And where else would you spot former journalists-turned-business lobbyists like Brian Kieran, the one-time Province legislative columnist now attending for client the Certified General Accountants of British Columbia, or ex-CBC TV anchor Kevin Evans, now chair of the right-wing Coalition of B.C. Businesses and a vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada?

But although everyone is ostensibly equal at the budget lockup, some stakeholders are there to be served by the accommodating Liberal government while others are there to find out how badly they will be shafted.

For example, several representatives from the New Car Dealers Association of B.C. were in attendance, and Colin Hansen gave them good reason to smile: his 2005-06 budget increased the vehicle-surtax threshold for passenger cars to $49,000 from $47,000.

Doesn't sound that momentous, does it? But it will cost B.C. taxpayers an estimated $5 million per year so that people who buy expensive Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Cadillacs, and Ferraris pay a lower sales tax than before. And that's on top of a 2001 increase of the threshold that took an extra $40 million a year out of government coffers. Zoom, zoom, zoom, you say?

What's more, the lobbying of the car dealers paid off again in the budget. The Liberals announced increased incentives for purchasing "hybrid" passenger vehicles: cars that use gas plus electricity for cleaner emissions. That will cost taxpayers another $3 million over the next two years and give new hybrid buyers a $2,000-per-car tax reduction.

So how come the New Car Dealers Association is so lucky? Perhaps it's because substantial contributions to the B.C. Liberal party helped close the deal.

In the first 10 months of 2004, the car dealers had already contributed $57,303 to the Liberals. That followed a donation of $54,967 in 2003, the second-highest amount of all contributors.

Perhaps more importantly, the car dealers hired a Ralph Klein Conservative government bureaucrat from Alberta named Paul Taylor as their CEO before the 2001 provincial election. After warming the dealers' bench for a while, Taylor became deputy minister of finance under Premier Gordon Campbell.

Last year, Taylor took over as CEO of ICBC, replacing Nick Geer, who was fired for reportedly opposing Liberal plans to privatize the public auto-insurance corporation. Taylor was also present in the lockup, though he was not seen high-fiving with the car dealers.

Smiling even more widely were B.C. retailers, even though they got their reward in October. That's when then-Finance Minister Gary Collins reduced the sales tax by half a percent back down to the seven-percent rate it had been until he raised it in 2002.

The annual cost of that tax reduction is a whopping $270 million to the provincial treasury, and although Kevin Evans and colleague Mark Startup of Retail B.C. would like to see a further cut, they are also patient with the Liberals.

"It's got it all," Evans said in a laudatory news release titled "Retailers Applaud Bargain Budget". It concludes optimistically: "We'll be pressing for further PST reductions as B.C.'s economic momentum continues to build in the years ahead."

Back at the lockup, for the first year since I began attending budgets in 1992, there was a noticeable absence of any representatives from antipoverty, disability, or social-justice groups.

But given that the Liberals have cut $881 million in funding for the three so-called misery ministries of Human Resources, Children and Family Development, and Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services between 2001-02 and 2004-05, why would they bother coming to Victoria for more bad news?

After all, their members don't buy new luxury cars or make six-figure donations to the Liberal party, do they?

It would be like coming to Casablanca when you already know that the Liberals will be rounding up the usual suspects for punishment.

Sparks will fly Thursday (February 24), at a special town-hall debate titled "Redesigning Democracy: STV and How We Elect our MLAs" at UBC Robson Square from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. I will be joined by civic Green party school trustee Andrea Reimer debating Citizens' Assembly members David Wills and Shoni Field. Admission is free, but please preregister at or call 604-822-5675.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at