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B.C. Premier Christy Clark and B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jong during a press conference in Vancouver June 29, 2016. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Premier Christy Clark and B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jong during a press conference in Vancouver June 29, 2016. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

GARY MASON

With an election approaching, Christy Clark suddenly cares a lot more about housing Add to ...

A story last weekend about fraud and tax evasion being carried out by shady speculators operating in B.C.’s frenzied real estate market was mere hours old when the province’s finance minister issued a news release extraordinary for the swiftness with which it was issued.

Mike de Jong’s statement in response to the disturbing disclosures contained in a Globe and Mail investigation might as well have been titled: Don’t blame us, blame them.

“Like all taxpayers I am concerned about allegations that some are not paying their fair share of taxes,” the Finance Minister said. “For Canadians to have confidence in the tax system, the CRA [Canada Revenue Agency] must diligently enforce the law.”

Read more: Vancouver real estate speculators taking advantage of loopholes and lax oversight

Read more: B.C. urges federal government crackdown on real estate tax cheats

Read more: Canadian banks’ mortgage guidelines favour foreign home buyers

He added that he was going to communicate “this expectation” to his federal counterpart, Bill Morneau. It was a wonder Mr. de Jong didn’t experience whiplash from the furious, head-shaking tone of his missive.

A day later, B.C.’s NDP critic on the real estate file, David Eby, was holding his own news conference intended to make the point that all of the controversies that have been revealed about the Wild West nature of the real estate market in B.C. were the fault of the provincial government, and no one else. It was a lack of proper oversight that had allowed practices like shadow flipping to flourish. And now fraud and tax evasion could be added to the list, too. Days later, both political parties were responding to fresh revelations in The Globe that banks were giving preferential treatment to foreign clients wanting to invest their (possibly dirty) money in the Canadian real estate market.

All of this is to say, there is not an issue more important to either of the two main political parties in the province than housing. It could be the defining question of the provincial election next May. It clearly is the file that Premier Christy Clark is most worried about as she begins to put her battle plan in place for re-election.

While Ms. Clark has taken measures to mitigate some of the public outrage over escalating house prices, she knows they may not be enough to satisfy the braying mob.

An opinion survey this week by Insights West shows that while most British Columbians support the 15-per-cent tax the provincial government imposed in August on foreign buyers, two-thirds of those polled also believe it will have little impact in terms of helping people get into the market.

The government is aware of that skepticism, too.

Luckily for it, it has scads of money to throw at housing initiatives between now and the election. Mr. de Jong announced on Thursday that thanks largely to that sizzling real estate market, the provincial budget surplus for 2016-17 is now expected to be $1.9-billion – more than $1.6-billion over the original estimate.

The additional revenue has come largely from the property-transfer tax that exists on real estate transactions. He said the government will next week reveal $500-million worth of new imperatives aimed at housing affordability. I’m told that won’t be the end of the announcements either. They will go on for weeks, and perhaps even into next year.

Few would have guessed that more than three years after Ms. Clark had secured a surprise election victory on the back of outlandish promises of liquefied natural gas riches, housing might emerge as the predominant issue of the next campaign. It was widely felt that the Premier would have to deliver at least one of the big LNG projects she promised if she hoped to get re-elected.

Now, it would seem that the failure of Ms. Clark to meet her LNG election pledge may not be as costly as the perception her government fiddled while the Greater Vancouver real estate market burned.

At the rate things have been going, there will be many more developments and scandalous revelations on that front before British Columbians go to the polls.

Meantime, you can be assured the B.C. government will treat any threat to its election chances with an urgency we haven’t seen before.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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