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British Columbia B.C. Liberal maverick pushes party name change as HST antidote

The B.C. Liberal Party needs to change its name, one of the party's constituency associations says.

"I'm not naive enough to think we can change the relationship of the party with the public simply by changing the name," MLA Bill Bennett, who represents the rural riding of Kootenay East, said Tuesday in an interview. The Liberals have done "lots of things" that British Columbians do not like, starting with the harmonized sales tax, Mr. Bennett said.

However many people in rural ridings refuse to support the B.C. Liberal Party simply because they think the party is the same as the federal Liberals, he said.

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The Liberal Party constituency association in Kootenay East submitted a proposal for a name change earlier this month, Mr. Bennett said. The association would like to see a name change considered at a party convention to be held in May. Neither party executives nor leadership candidates have responded to the proposal, he said.

Mr. Bennett, who has represented the rural riding in southeast BC since 2001, lost his cabinet post as energy minister last month after publicly criticizing former premier Gordon Campbell. The Liberal caucus kicked him out after he was more explicit in his criticism following his dismissal from cabinet.

He remains a Liberal Party member, however. He said he intends to participate in the party convention on Feb. 12 to consider changes to the rules for the leadership vote. He is also eligible to vote in the leadership race on Feb. 26.

He will be looking at his options, including the possibility of running for the leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party, after he see who the new leader is and whether the Liberal Party will change its name, he said.

The B.C. Conservative Party, in an effort to take advantage of discontent among B.C. Liberals, has recently put together a circle of former and current federal, provincial and municipal politicians to offer advice on how to rebuild the party for the next provincial election. The advisory group, headed by veteran federal politician Randy White, includes former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford who moved to B.C. 17 years ago, former B.C. premier Rita Johnston and federal B.C. Tory MP John Cummins.

Mr. Bennett said he has been approached by people in his constituency to find out if he was interested in the leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party.

"I think the public is searching for new options," he said. "If there was a credible alternative on the free-enterprise side, I think we would find people are in a mood to try something new."

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Mr. Bennett said he did not want to say anything about how the political climate in B.C. would change "if someone like me was to seek and obtain the leadership of the B.C. Conservative Party." But voters who do not want to support the NDP should have an alternative that would be acceptable to both federal Liberals and Conservatives, he said.

Former premier William Vander Zalm, who was in the forefront of the anti-HST drive this year, served five years as leader of the B.C. Social Credit Party, an umbrella group that included both federal Liberals and Conservatives.

He said in an interview he keeps getting calls from people who ask him for an alternative to the B.C Liberals. "As we have been travelling the province [on the anti-HST campaign], that is clearly the message," he said.

"I don't think [the B.C. Liberal Party] will form the next government, even with a change of leadership," he said. "The power will go to the NDP unless there is a third-party choice," Mr. Vander Zalm said.

Mr. Vander Zalm did not expect the B.C. Conservative Party could pick up the support of disenchanted anti-HST Liberals. The Conservative Party, similar to all the Liberal leadership candidates and the NDP, have not spoken out against the HST, he said.

Green Party leader Jane Sterk said she is looking to a revitalized B.C. Conservative Party and weakened Liberal and NDP to improve the chances of the Green Party to win a seat in the legislature in the next election. "We need a four-way split [in the vote]," she said.

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"The Green Party plans to target ridings in which we hope there will be a Conservative candidate," she said.

Liberal Party officials did not respond Tuesday to a request for an interview.

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