Christy Clark, B.C’s former deputy premier, says years as a radio talk show host have given her a perspective outside the “cocoon of Victoria”. Ms. Clark entered the provincial Liberal leadership race Wednesday promising to put the issue of the harmonized sales tax to a free vote in the legislature if she wins.
Ms. Clark, who is seeking to succeed Gordon Campbell as B.C. premier, said that possibility would “efficiently and democratically” turn the page on an issue that helped drive down public support for the Liberals and led to Mr. Campbell’s resignation after nine years as premier and 17 years as leader of the B.C. Liberals.
The Liberals ruled out the HST before the 2009 election in which they won a third term, but adopted the policy afterwards, generating enough public anger to spur a petition drive that has prompted a referendum next September under provincial imitative legislation.
“Like most British Columbians I feel the HST process was fatally flawed from the start,” Ms. Clark told about 250 supporters during a slickly choreographed campaign-launch rally held in downtown Vancouver
Ms. Clark acknowledged the tax is doomed in the referendum, and the vote would allow the resolution of the issue sooner.
Ms. Clark is the fifth candidate in the race, and the first outsider to seek the job. The others - George Abbott, Mike de Jong, Kevin Falcon and Moira Stilwell - all quit posts around the cabinet table to focus on the leadership race.
Mr. Abbott and Mr. Falcon both rejected the idea of a legislature free vote.
“We've had three votes in the legislature on the HST and the premier made it very clear to our members that it was a free vote,” Mr. Abbott told reporters in Victoria.
“I frankly don't understand Christy's position on this. I do think we have made a commitment to the people of British Columbia to provide the opportunity for them to make the decision about whether we will have the HST continue or return to the provincial sales tax. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving them the right to determine this themselves.”
He noted that, if there were another vote, Ms. Clark would not have a seat in the legislature to take part.
Mr. Falcon said in an interview that he wanted all British Columbians, beyond those who signed petitions, to have a voice on the HST.
“I don’t think it is appropriate to deprive the public of that right,” he said. “They want it, and deserve it.”
Ms. Clark said if the tax is voted down, B.C. would notify Ottawa that they intended to withdraw from the agreement that led to the 12 per cent hybrid of the provincial sales tax and goods and services tax.
“This means going back to the PST and GST. But then I would close this file for at least five years. British Columbia needs certainty,” Ms. Clark said.
The HST stand was the most sharply defined of Ms. Clark’s policies as she entered the race. She otherwise promised to put families first in her platform, but said details of that commitment would be coming. She also promised to talk about a strong economy, health care and the resource sector, but provided no details. Like other candidates, she said she supported a carefully planned increase in the minimum wage.
Ms. Clark left politics five years ago to spend more time with her young son. She subsequently became host of the Christy Clark Show, broadcast across British Columbia on CKNW radio. Asked whether it was too soon to be returning to politics given her son is still a child, she noted that other politicians such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper manage to juggle family and political responsibilities. Mr. Falcon, the father of a 10-month-old daughter, also grappled with the issue of family responsibilities as he entered the race, suggesting in his launch that he and his wife discussed the issue and he determined that the premier’s job was a valid sacrifice because it would allow him to better the B.C. his daughter will grow up in.
She touted her outsider credentials Wednesday.
“I stepped out of the legislature and I got a fresh perspective on what's going on in the province,” said Ms. Clark.
Asked about the absence of caucus members on hand to visibly support her launch, she said the race is not about “elites” but rather making the case for support to the rank and file of the Liberal party who will choose a new leader on Feb. 26. Mr. Falcon entered the race with the support of 10 MLAs and Mr. Abbott now has 11 on his side.
Mr. Falcon declined comment on the issue of the absence of caucus support, but said of the outsider edge that “Christy Clark is doing what any good candidate does. You try to speak to perceived strengths and that’s what she is doing.”
Mr. Falcon, who was health minister before resigning to seek the leadership, as well as Mr. Abbott, a former education minister, had challenged Ms. Clark to commit to a return to provincial politics by promising to seek a seat in the legislature, win or lose.
In a news conference, Ms. Clark rejected that possibility. She noted she was the only candidate in the race without an MLA’s paycheque to fall back on should she lose. As a result, she said she is on leave from the radio station during the campaign.
Mr. Falcon said the Liberals could find a seat - possibly the Vancouver-Point Grey Mr. Campbell may resign from - in which Ms. Clark could run if she accepted his challenge to commit, win or lose, to provincial politics.
“I can tell you there’s lots of opportunities we can create for Christy being a candidate for the party and to make sure we look after the financial issue for her. I think that members, at least, to me are saying they want to see there is a long term commitment.”
Unique among the candidates who have so far entered the race, Ms. Clark launched a sustained tough attack on the opposition New Democrats now in their own leadership race following the resignation of leader Carole James.
“The NDP likes to say that they have cornered the market on the working man and woman. That only they stand for the average citizen. The NDP doesn’t stand for families in our province. They stand for themselves. They protect their own elite,” she told supporters.
“And they cannot be given the chance to wreck our province again,” she said, alluding to the Liberal interpretation of the result of 10 years of NDP government that ended when Mr. Campbell was elected premier in 2001.
“We won't let them hide their love of the money in your wallet.”
She also was more effusive about praising Mr. Campbell than the other candidates, touting his 25-year commitment to public life. “Gordon Campbell deserves our most sincere gratitude for the incredible effort he made for all of us.
“He built the coalition I am committed to strengthening,” referring to the challenge of uniting the federal Conservatives and federal Liberals, who are the key groups within the coalition that is the B.C. Liberals.