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Gary Mason (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Gary Mason (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)

Gary Mason

A tax revolt, an absent Premier Add to ...

Did you hear the one about the little B.C. town that was offered $2.6-million of free money and turned it down?

True story. The town of Peachland - population 5,000 - in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, was all set to receive economic stimulus funding from the federal and provincial governments that was to go toward construction of a new curling rink.

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The cost of the rink was $3.9-million, so the stimulus money was contingent on the town coming up with the balance. Town council looked at its empty coffers and realized the only way it was going to do it was through a $34 property-tax increase. It decided to put the matter to a referendum.

Earlier this month, the town overwhelmingly rejected the tax increase and so local politicians had to kiss the $2.6-million gift it had been drooling over goodbye.

But this is a much bigger story than first appears.

The Peachland vote is symbolic of a wider tax revolt in B.C., which has the potential to dramatically alter the province's political map.

You may have heard that British Columbians aren't particularly enamoured with the harmonized sales tax that will be brought in July 1. There is a massive grassroots rebellion under way to have it repealed, evidence of which is found in the signatures of hundreds of thousands of people throughout the province on petitions urging the government to back off.

The backlash has produced the greatest crisis of Premier Gordon Campbell's nine-year spell in office - although you might not guess it, judging by the Liberal leader's response to the protest.

Beyond complaining about the misinformation being spread by HST opponents, Mr. Campbell has mostly left his beleaguered Finance Minister, Colin Hansen, to fight this battle. Mr. Hansen hasn't stood a chance.

But this really shouldn't be the minister's fight - at least not his alone. Given what's at stake, given that he continues to insist this tax is the right thing to do, Mr. Campbell should be on a barnstorming tour of his own selling the tax's merits. He's hinting that he may do this later. But he should be out there now, in every town and city that the anti-HST campaign visits, correcting the so-called lies about the tax he says his adversaries are disseminating.

He should possibly consider taking to the prime-time airwaves to make his case.

Instead, Mr. Campbell has mostly tried to change the conversation, spectacularly unsuccessfully one would add. Trips to China and elsewhere have helped him escape the increasing heat being thrown his way by his political enemies. But it certainly hasn't made him look very premier-like. Rather, it's made him look like someone who can't defend what his government is doing, or who doesn't have the energy to mount a challenge to his challengers.

It could signal a couple of things.

Perhaps, in the back of his mind, Mr. Campbell knows his days in office are numbered. He has sent mixed messages lately about his plans. But someone who is vowing to fight another day doesn't ignore a citizen uprising like this one. It demonstrates the height of arrogance, an unflattering characteristic that people are often quick to ascribe to the Premier.

It could be that Mr. Campbell realizes his ability to fight his enemies is undermined by the fact the government promised during the last election it wouldn't introduce the HST, only to change its mind after declaring victory. How do you make your voice heard above the outcry over that perceived deceit?

Or he could be counting on the protest to fade away after people get used to the unpopular tax - as happened after the introduction of the federal GST.

Those are dangerous options. Mr. Campbell has never looked worse in the polls, which recently have indicated a thirst by British Columbians for a new, centre-right option.

It's hard to imagine that the Premier doesn't have some strategy he has yet to unveil. Which may be no grander than announcing he's had enough.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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