B.C. Liberals have welcomed maverick MLA Blair Lekstrom back to their ranks after he famously quit cabinet and caucus over the HST, and some hope he can help sell the controversial tax in advance of a referendum on its fate this year.
"Absolutely. I think he has a lot of credibility obviously on the issue," Kevin Falcon, a former health minister and leadership contender, told reporters Wednesday after the first Liberal caucus meeting since Christy Clark was elected as the governing party's new leader.
"Having him back will be great for, not just selling the HST, but talking about it candidly and honestly both the good and bad and trying to bring the public on board to what, at the end of the day, is good public policy."
Solicitor-General Rich Coleman agreed, adding that the development shows the new premier-to-be is a welcoming leader. "Blair coming back shows that Christy has opened the tent," he said after the meeting.
The return of the Peace River South MLA to the B.C. Liberal fold was the big surprise for reporters awaiting developments at the caucus meeting, which was held behind closed doors.
The former energy minister, who quit last June criticizing the lack of consultation with the public on implementing the tax and has since sat as an Independent, somehow got by a number of reporters staking out the meeting.
He first appeared walking alongside the premier-designate when she met with the media during a break in the three-hour meeting.
Participants would not confirm it, but it appears Mr. Lekstrom's presence may have explained enthusiastic cheers heard from participants attending the closed-door meeting at a downtown hotel.
"I am delighted he is back. I think it is a great change in our caucus to have him back again. I am really excited about it," said Ms. Clark of Mr. Lekstrom, who is well regarded by members of the caucus. "He makes a huge contribution."
Mr. Lekstrom said he was happy to be back. He said the possibility of returning to the caucus had been opened by confirmation of the referendum this year on the tax.
Ms. Clark has said she would like to see the vote held in June instead of the planned September. She noted on Wednesday that caucus has not discussed the issue.
Mr. Lekstrom also said Ms. Clark had inclusive qualities as a leader that "sit well with me," and that the party had new opportunities. "I don't say this with any disrespect for Premier Campbell," he said.
Mr. Lekstrom told reporters there was no quid pro quo such as a cabinet post for his return.
Chatting with reporters after the meeting, Mr. Lekstrom was wary about saying whether he thought the government could win the referendum, suggesting the fate of the tax would be decided by voters.
"I'll do the best of my ability to answer questions that people bring forward," he said.
While Mr. Lekstrom is back inside, Bill Bennett remains on the outside after being booted from cabinet and then caucus for criticizing the timetable of departing Premier Gordon Campbell and for describing the Premier as abusive, bullying and "not a nice man." He has since said he regrets the comments.
Mr. Bennett said he isn't taking his return for granted, but hopes the party will allow him back because he believes in the political coalition on the centre right of B.C. politics that the party represents. In an interview Wednesday night, he noted that he has previously and consistently apologized for his remarks and would be glad to do so again to the Liberal caucus.
Mr. Falcon said Mr. Bennett, now sitting as an Independent, was a more complicated issue than Mr. Lekstrom. "He said a lot of things that were pretty hurtful, and a lot of things that weren't fair to [Mr. Campbell]so I think he has got a lot of work to do in getting himself to a place where we can all welcome him back, but I am certainly a believer in reconciliation."
Caucus chairman Ron Cantelon said Mr. Bennett and he had a conversation, and the Kootenay East MLA sent an e-mail, and the matter would be discussed at the next caucus meeting. Mr. Lekstrom, he said, approached caucus earlier about his return.
Mr. Cantelon said the conversation with Mr. Bennett was a "pleasant" one. "He's a very civil man," he told reporters after the meeting.
Ms. Clark was welcomed to the caucus meeting with a standing ovation and sustained applause - ironic as only one member of caucus supported her leadership bid. Reporters, photographers and TV cameramen were allowed into the room to record the welcome, which went on for several minutes, then ushered out.
Ms. Clark later said she has met individually with about 20 to 25 members of the 48-member caucus since becoming leader last weekend. "For me, what's important with the caucus is making sure everybody has a chance to be heard," she said. "It's important to know what everybody wants to do and help them do it."