The main art in his legislature office is a hockey stick signed by Hall of Famer Johnny Bucyk. With that as a backdrop, Blair Lekstrom oozed “casual” in his tattered Boston Bruins' hoodie when he met with reporters this week to comment on Premier Gordon Campbell’s decision to resign.
But the crafty Mr. Lekstrom, with just a few well-chosen words, defined some of the key terms for the leadership contest to come.
The MLA for Peace River South was the only B.C. Liberal who walked away from cabinet over the harmonized sales tax. He hasn’t said yet whether he would like to be B.C.’s next premier. But he has ensured that the future of the HST will be a crucial part of the debate.
“The discussion that is going to take place for whoever is going to entertain the leadership is, do we wait until next September for this initiative vote or do we actually pull the pin on this and do what the vast majority of British Columbians are asking to be done – and that is cancel it.”
Whether he runs or not, any leadership hopeful who remains in the cabinet will be in an awkward spot.
Mr. Campbell declared on Thursday he will remain Premier and party leader until his replacement is found. Aside from the HST, he has committed his government to major policy directions that, he promised, will keep him busy in the months to come.
Contenders in the current cabinet are locked into implementing Mr. Campbell’s HST referendum, his tax cut, his budget, his restructuring of government.
Mr. Campbell was unsympathetic to the notion that he is boxing in potential successors.
“If all of that just came out of the blue, that would be one thing. But the fact of the matter is these were decisions we made as a government, cabinet and caucus,” he said.
(Never mind that members of caucus were presented with the HST barely ahead of the public, that the Premier’s decision to turn the HST plebiscite into a binding referendum came as a surprise to them. They didn’t object at the time, now they get to wear it.)
Mr. Lekstrom wondered aloud, after hearing the Premier’s remarks on Thursday, whether setting up an interim leader might simplify matters.
“I am very surprised he is going to stay on until the next leader is chosen. It’s going to be difficult for him, and for the people who sit in cabinet today.”
Candidates need to define themselves without showing disrespect to their Premier – a fine line to walk.
Even tougher is choosing a stand on the HST, which proved toxic to Mr. Campbell’s political career.
There are those hoping someone will fashion a campaign defending the indefensible.
“There is growing concern in the business community about what this [resignation] means for the tax,” noted Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of B.C. “It’s still the right policy – even though it’s an unpopular one. Certainly what would be a disaster would be to go back to the old tax system.”
Mr. Campbell had more than a year to make the case for harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the federal goods and services tax. The business community has been trying to figure out how to help him build support, as it became increasingly clear that he couldn’t bring the public along with him.
Next week, the mining industry was planning to start its campaign by replacing the government’s top-down messaging around the tax with on-the-ground examples of how it is helping create real jobs in real communities.
The Mt. Milligan Copper-Gold Project, 155 kilometres northwest of Prince George, just won federal approval to proceed this week. It means $900-million worth of capital investment in central B.C., with 400 or more direct jobs. The HST reduces Terrane Metals’ costs by roughly $10-million.
The message is that backing down on the tax would spook future investments. But their champion, Mr. Campbell, is walking away from the fight.
He leaves behind a fractured party. The coalition of the right he so carefully held together for 17 years is frayed, and candidates will be concentrating on what would rebuild the party and regain voter confidence. Save the HST? It’s hard to see that as a rallying cry on the leadership convention floor.