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Former B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm at his nursery in Ladner, B.C. Vander Zalm is speaking out publicly against the Campbell Liberals' proposed HST. Lyle Stafford for the Globe and Mail

Lyle Staffprd/The Globe and Mail

Bill Vander Zalm battled the NDP hard enough as a Social Credit premier in the 1980s and 1990s to make the admission surprising, but he admits he wouldn't mind an NDP government taking charge of the province and thinks the party's current leader "a very fine lady."

He respects Carole James enough that he invited her to a rally this coming weekend, where they will stand together in opposition to the province's looming harmonized sales tax - a policy irritant that has roused Mr. Vander Zalm from an enforced political retirement that began in 1991 when he left under a cloud of scandal over business dealings.

What if his anti-HST campaign eventually helps elect the NDP?

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"I would hope they do a good job," he said cheerily, noting he would not agree with them philosophically on most issues, but that he doesn't agree with the federal government on most issues.

"Am I worried about electing another party or another government? No, the people choose, not me," Mr. Vander Zalm said yesterday, chatting by a fence on his shrub farm in this rural community as wasps fluttered about.

Years away from the legislature have eased his views of his former NDP foes. "When you're getting hammered [in the house] you want to hammer back. When you're not getting hammered, you can accept things a whole lot more gracefully, so there is a difference."

Indeed, in an afternoon chat there is more warmth emanating from him about the NDP than the provincial Liberals, who basically absorbed his Socred party as part of a centre-right coalition in B.C. politics. Mr. Vander Zalm muses, for example, about some other conservative party replacing the Liberals, suggesting it would not be unhealthy.

He never speaks to Mr. Campbell, he says, and does not believe the Liberal Leader has much use for him. "I don't think he ever particularly had a liking for Bill Vander Zalm. That's okay by me," he says, noting that Mr. Campbell has touched base with Bill Bennett, his Socred predecessor.

The charismatic former premier, who attracted national attention while in power between 1986 and 1991, even took a leading role in the BC Reform Party and ran in a provincial by-election, losing to a Liberal candidate.

The beaming Mr. Vander Zalm is 75 - "I feel half that" - but has come back to pointed post-retirement prominence before, to oppose the plans of the current Liberal government to privatize BC Rail, over their management of BC Hydro, and over a government decision to allow the building of B.C. ferries in Europe.

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"When the issues happened and I felt strongly enough about them, and I felt I could contribute and help change it for what I considered the best for the people, that's when I stepped in," he said.

"If no one says anything, government gets away with whatever it wants to and tends to take advantage of it."

But he says few issues have riled him up more than the HST, which would combine the five per cent GST with the seven per cent provincial sales tax for a 12 per cent applied to a range of good previously exempt from the provincial tax.

Mr. Vander Zalm has, arguably, become the focus of the anti-HST movement, rallying opposition against the embattled Liberal government with media commentary, and rallies, including this Saturday's event with Ms. James.

Voters will never forget, he says, that the Liberals brought the tax in after ruling it out during the recent provincial election. He plans to make sure of that.

"[Voters]will be reminded every time they make a purchase, every time they pay their rent, every time they pay their Strata fees, when somebody gets buried, when they get a haircut, a tooth fixed," he said.

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"They will be reminded every time. They're not going to forget. Frankly, some of us, including me are going to help that process."

He insists all of his efforts are not about redemption after the messy end of his career. Nor does he ever plan to run for office again.

Mr. Vander Zalm is standing out among the ranks of retired B.C. premiers, whether NDP or Social Credit. Most, such as his Socred predecessor Bill Bennett and Socred successor Rita Johnston have vanished into retirement along with New Democrats Dave Barrett, Dan Miller and Glen Clark, who works for billionaire Jimmy Pattison. Mike Harcourt occasionally speaks out on sustainability issues. Ujjal Dosanjh is a vocal exception because he transitioned from being a New Democrat to a Liberal MP.

None of them are leading pointed campaigns against the government in power, which makes Mr. Vander Zalm a political exception.

"There's not much coming from them," he says, noting his advocacy is not a "customary or usual thing" for a retired premier.

Ms. James, who says Mr. Vander Zalm's cutbacks to education helped prompt her to get involved in the school-board politics that led her into provincial politics, agrees it's an anomaly. "I think it's very rare for this to happen."

But she says anger about the HST is creating strange allegiances. "It shows how important this is when you have Bill Vander Zalm and I on the same stage."

David Mitchell, a former Liberal MLA who is now president of the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank, says some premiers and federal leaders have come back into barbed debates, recalling, for example, Pierre Trudeau's campaigns against the Meech Lake Accord. However, this is an exception, he says.

"In Canada, I think we're poorer for the fact that our former political leaders are often conspicuously absent from discussion and debate. They could add to the public's understanding on important issues," he says.

"We often relegate our political leaders to some kind of monkish silence."

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