Former BC health minister Kevin Falcon entered the Liberal leadership race to suceed Premier Gordon Campbell Tuesday proposing to cut the HST to make it more acceptable to voters.
Mr. Falcon, who resigned from cabinet Monday night to focus on the campaign, told supporters at the Surrey Museum, he would like "an informed and honest debate" about the 12 per cent tax that would include cutting it to 10 per cent over time.
"Perhaps a 1 per cent reduction in 2011 and a further 1 per cent when provincial revenues are sufficient to accommodate it," he suggested.
He later told reporters he wanted to see if a rate reduction would make the tax more acceptable to voters, who have been so angry they signed petitions in the tens of thousands triggering the referendum under Initiative legislation.
"Would that make an HST, which most people agree is good, sound economic tax policy ...more acceptable to the public?
"That's the discussion I want to have with British Columbians."
John Les, parliamentary secretary to the finance minister for HST information and a supporter of Mr. Falcon, said a discussion about aspects of the tax including the rate would be helpful although he noted there would be "consequences" to any such move, including scrapping the tax.
However, the HST agreement that British Columbia signed with Ottawa in 2009 prevents the province from changing the rate until July, 2012 at the earliest.
Mr. Falcon said he supported the controversial tax, but would accept the outcome of a planned referendum on the tax next year he would like to move up to June from September "to reduce uncertainty."
Mr. Falcon, asked about the likely campaign of former deputy premier Christy Clark, said he would welcome her into the competition.
But he genially noted Ms. Clark, now a high-profie radio talkshow host, has been out of government for six years and challenged her to return to politics even if she loses the leadership race.
"We want her to commit to stay, win or lose," he said.
Mr. Falcon was backed by 10 Liberal MLAs, including caucus chair Ron Cantelon and Labour Minister Iain Black, who introduced Mr. Falcon during an election-style rally.
"It's time for a leader that sticks to three simple rules to guide us into the future: Listen to people; learn from them; and then lead," Mr. Falcon said.
Mr. Falcon, a fixture of B.C. politics with high-profile cabinet roles in transportation and health, enters the campaign by challenging the perception that he is too right-wing to lead the broad centre-right coalition that is the B.C. Liberal Party, said a source close to his campaign.
Mr. Falcon, 47, whose first cabinet post after the Liberals ended a decade of NDP government in 2001 was as minister of state for deregulation. He is expected to propose policies that would make the most out of B.C.'s assets in geography, resources and people, and programs to build healthy families and prepare children for the economy they will face in 10 to 20 years.
That last point has ironic resonance for Mr. Falcon, who has spoken of family concerns when pressed in recent weeks about whether he would seek to become Liberal leader.
Mr. Falcon, who has a 10-month-old daughter, has spoken of the 80-hour weeks required to lead the province.
But the source said that Mr. Falcon appears to have reconciled family and his political ambitions in favour of entering the first leadership fight on the centre-right of B.C. politics in the 17 years, since Mr. Campbell was elected Liberal leader in 1993.
"Becoming a father really changed him, and as he has gone through this process of contemplating his run, he has often looked at his 10-month old daughter and said, what is the province going to look like in 20 years when she's an adult," said the source.
One of Mr. Falcon's key challenges will be wooing the federal Liberal side of the provincial party. The other big constituency in the party is federal Conservatives. But the source said Mr. Falcon will have the support of both sides in the campaign.
"There will be Big L-Liberals working with him and supporting him, and there will big-C Conservatives. There will be rural and urban," said the source.
"The point is, he is about to commence the process of engaging the province in a discussion about the future, and he will make the argument in the course of this campaign that he is the best candidate to hold together and to build the BC Liberal coalition."
The province's voters will give their judgment on party's choice in the 2013 provincial election.
Mr. Falcon is expected to raise the level of competition in the race.
To date, it has been a quiet affair. Two candidates entered last week: cabinet veteran George Abbott - a former health and education minister, who has been a member of the legislature for 14 years, and Moira Stilwell, who has a formidable resume in medicine as a radiologist and nuclear-medicine physician, but limited cabinet experience. She quit her cabinet post as regional economic and skills-development minister to seek the leadership.
Mr. Abbott, who represents a rural riding, has touted his ability to bridge rural and urban B.C., but the urban Mr. Falcon will play his own hand on the point, traveling to Prince George on Tuesday night for a rally. "He feels an obligation to go up and engage those folks in an active involvement in building the future," said the source.
Attorney-General Mike de Jong is expected to enter the competition on Wednesday, setting the stage for a province-wide battle for the Liberal leadership ahead of a Feb. 26 vote by party members.
Prominent radio talk show host Christy Clark, a former deputy premier and education minister who left politics six years ago, signed off last Friday for a week-long break suggesting she was going to focus on making a final decision about running.
Supporters of Ms. Clark on Monday released a poll of 800 B.C. adults between Nov. 19 and 22 that suggests Ms. Clark would be best positioned to lead the Liberals to victory. Among its suggested findings is that Ms. Clark would give the Liberals an 11 point lead over the NDP they could not secure with other prospective candidates.
Ken Boessenkool, a political organizer with ties to the federal Conservative Party and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, said the poll by The Gandalf Group was financed by supporters of Ms. Clark who want her to enter the race.
"There's a bunch of us who would like her to run," he noted.
Although the field is becoming crowded, he said it is not too late for Ms. Clark to get in. "There is always room in a democracy for a lot of candidates."