As he approaches his ninth election campaign, Scarborough-Rouge River Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Bas Balkissoon finds himself spending a lot of time explaining the benefits of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to inquiring and confused constituents.
Introduced in the province on July 1, 2010, the HST combines the eight per cent provincial sales tax and the five per cent federal goods and services tax (GST). The blended 13 per cent tax on hundreds of items that had previously only been subjected to the five per cent GST translates into a price increase on a number items, including taxi fares, gasoline, heating fuel and magazines.
With British Columbians voting to kill the HST in a province-wide referendum last month, there is concern that the controversial tax could become a political lightning rod in Ontario just under a month before the October 6 elections.
“I could understand people’s concerns because it’s a complex and comprehensive tax reform,” says Balkissoon who has represented the riding since November 2005. “If you talk to most business people, they will tell you they have been waiting on something like this for a long time because it means one set of rules and policies for them.
“For those people who are reasonable and need an explanation, I tell them even though they pay the tax daily, they get almost all of it back when they do their tax returns. You are entitled to claim almost $1180 in tax grants and credits as a senior with low income. A big chunk of the tax goes back to citizens. You feel it when you pay at the cash register, but most people don’t know what they are getting back. In fact, many people are coming out ahead and they don’t even know it.
“The other parties are selling a catch-phrase when it comes to denouncing the HST. I am presenting the facts and I am hoping that, at the end of the day, voters will look at who is spending more time talking to them about the benefits of it. We see this tax as the way of the future because it could create employment and economic growth. It’s about building stability for business in an unstable global environment.”
Scarborough-Rouge River riding includes Malvern which has a high population of visible minorities and young people. Once a troubled neighbourhood, crime has decreased significantly following the dismantling of the Malvern Crew gang seven years ago and the implementation of provincial programs that have benefitted the youth.
“When I was first elected in 2005, the Premier (Dalton McGuinty) promised that the government would work with me to deal with issues in the neighbourhood,” said Balkissoon who secured 65.2 per of the votes in the last election. “That promise was fulfilled in a major way with the installation of two video surveillance cameras for about eight months, the Youth in Policing Initiative that provides summer employment for young people in the area and an increased police presence through the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) program that has proved very effective in this neighbourhood.”
The Toronto Police and the provincial government established TAVIS in 2005 in response to an increase in deadly gun violence in the city.
Balkissoon won a by-election six years ago when former Cabinet Minister Alvin Curling gave up the seat he held for two decades to take up a diplomatic assignment in the Dominican Republic.
Migrating to Canada in 1970 from Trinidad & Tobago, Balkissoon worked for nearly 20 years with Bell Canada before pursuing a political career. Elected in 1988 as a councilor with the former City of Scarborough, he demonstrated his experience in municipal finance while serving as Budget Committee chair where he was instrumental in ensuring Scarborough’s debt-free status at the time of amalgamation.
As chair of the City of Toronto Audit Committee responsible for exercising financial reporting, corporate governance and corporate control, Balkissoon and former mayor, David Miller, who was a councillor at the time, are credited for uncovering the controversial computer leasing deal between the city and MFP Financial Service that led to the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry.
Balkissoon spent 17 years at City Hall before entering Queen’s Park where he played a pivotal role during public consultations on the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act, 2006, and the Mandatory Blood Testing Act, 2006. These new laws brought in major improvements for police, fire and ambulance workers in Ontario.
The departure of 14 Liberal MPPs has raised speculation that some of the party faithful are not confident of an election win next month.
Balkissoon dismissed this as conjecture.
“Some of those not running again have reached the age of retirement while others have played their part and are moving in other directions,” he said. “Their replacements in the various ridings are very capable and will serve this party well.”
Balkissoon said he has enjoyed his time as an MPP because the Liberal government is setting long-term goals.
“When I was at City Hall, we never looked beyond the next elections,” said Balkissoon who is the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Community and Social Services. “I really see a difference here because there is a view that we should look towards the future. That has been exciting for me.”
Created in 1999, Scarborough-Rouge River has close to 85,000 eligible voters.