Mike Smyth: For Weaver, time for less talk and more action on speculation tax

It's time Green party Leader Andrew Weaver backed up his tough talk against the NDP's speculation tax. He will need the Liberals' help to do it.

When talking about B.C.’s speculation tax on real estate, it’s best to get the definitions straight first.

The main thing to understand: It’s not a “speculation tax.” In the large majority of cases it’s a wealth tax on people — including British Columbians and Canadians from other provinces — fortunate enough to own a second home.

The tax applies in designated cities to homes not used as the owner’s primary residence and not rented out for at least six months a year. So it would hit greedy offshore speculators using our real-estate market like their own personal Monopoly game.

But it also hits local people who have purchased a holiday home or a future retirement home. And it hits them hard.

“It’s not a speculation tax,” Langford Mayor Stew Young told me, noting 70 per cent of properties targeted by the tax are Canadian. “If it was really a speculation tax, you would actually be taxing speculators — going after people buying a home, not even living in it, and then just flipping it for a profit. That’s what a speculator is. But that’s not how this tax works.”
Instead, the tax hits people in Langford who have bought a home at a popular golf resort and retirement community in the Victoria suburb.

“These are people from Alberta,” Young said. “They come out here. They golf. Their family uses it. They may plan to retire here. They have owned the home for 10 or 12 or 15 years. They’re Canadians. They invested in our community. Now they have been designated ‘speculators.’ ”

But there’s not a lot of sympathy out there for people who own multiple homes. The governing New Democrats know it, and NDP supporters seem largely in favour of this tax-on-the-rich with a sneaky name.

Young said the tax is driving real investment out of his city — including, ironically, investment in affordable homes.

“There is no new housing being built in Langford because of this tax,” Young said. “Investors are going away. If we’re in an affordable-housing crisis, why don’t we just build affordable housing?”

A growing municipal backlash is cranking up pressure on a government that gives no indication of backing down on the tax, which must be approved in the legislature this fall.

But what if Green party Leader Andrew Weaver decides to back his tough anti-tax talk with some real action for a change?

“It’s not a speculation tax,” Weaver said. “I don’t believe we should be punishing British Columbians or Canadians that happen to have a second place.”

Weaver and the Greens hold the balance of power in the minority legislature. If he really wanted to, Weaver could team up with the opposition Liberals to vote down the tax, or amend it so it applies only to foreign, offshore buyers.

But that would require the Liberals and Greens to work together, something they show zero interest in doing. For one thing, a Green-Liberal collaboration would send a message to voters that minority parliaments can actually produce co-operative, cross-party results.

That, in turn, might encourage voters to support a proportional-representation voting system in this fall’s referendum, something the Liberals oppose because a pro-rep system would help the NDP-Greens stay in power.

The looming legislative session will be a fascinating test of whether the Greens and the Liberals can work together for a common cause they both claim to support.