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HST backlash could prove to be B.C. Liberals' Waterloo

Janet Judd , a small business owner in Williams Lake signs the the petition to repeal the harmonized sales tax for Scott Nelson.

Cheryl Engemoen for The Globe and Mail/cheryl engemoen The Globe and Mail

Scott Nelson has impeccable B.C. Liberal credentials: The former mayor of Williams Lake joined the party in 1993 to help Gordon Campbell win the party leadership. He sat on the provincial council. Last year, he sought a nomination to run in the last election as part of the Gordon Campbell team.

This weekend, Mr. Nelson will be out canvassing for signatures on the petition to repeal the harmonized sales tax - the campaign that threatens to fracture the coalition that has produced Mr. Campbell's three straight electoral victories.

In the span of one year, the BC Liberals have lost more than a third of their committed voters, largely due to the public backlash over the HST. "This is something that could seriously affect the [Liberal]base," said pollster Mario Canseco.

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In B.C.'s political landscape, it doesn't take much to tip the balance of power, and those core supporters must be reclaimed - or the HST may prove to be the Liberals' Waterloo.

"B.C. Liberal members are mad and angry and very disappointed," said Mr. Nelson, who is still a card-carrying party member. His longtime loyalty to the Premier earned him a personal call from Mr. Campbell, seeking to dissuade him from joining the allied forces against the HST. Mr. Nelson didn't budge.

"The government in its arrogance has chosen to ignore the overwhelming wishes of people," he said. "I don't believe people will forgive Gordon Campbell."

This week, Mr. Campbell conceded for the first time that the anti-HST petition is likely to be successful, but insisted it would be wrong to try to back out of the deal with Ottawa. His government may be forced to rethink that soon, however: On Friday, the petition's organizers announced they now have enough signatures - 10 per cent of eligible voters - in all 85 ridings of the province to succeed as a citizen initiative under the B.C. Elections Act.

A posse of Liberal cabinet ministers and backbenchers are meeting behind closed doors with party members in the Interior on Saturday to try to calm the troops. Steve Forseth, an executive member of the party's Cariboo-Chilcotin Riding Association, says the membership needs to hear a solid plan to dig the party out of this mess. "Those who come out and say recall is not a threat, they need to wake up and smell the coffee," he said.

The Premier, however, brushed aside the suggestion that he needs to do any special outreach to the Liberal base. "I think we have to go and talk with all British Columbians," he said. "I certainly intend to go around the province to talk to people about why every British Columbian is going to benefit from this change."

Brenda Locke once served in Mr. Campbell's cabinet, but she didn't rate a personal call from the Premier when she began campaigning against the HST. Her organization, the Massage Therapists Association of BC, was one of several that received assurances from the Liberals during the last election that the HST wasn't in the cards.

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"It definitely was disingenuous," said Ms. Locke, who hasn't renewed her party membership. "It's a challenge for lots of Liberals to understand and feel any kind of comfort level with."

Mr. Canseco, a vice-president with Angus Reid Public Opinion, said the only demographic where the Liberals have not seen a double-digit drop in support since the last election is among voters with yearly household incomes of $100,000 or more, who tend to shun the New Democratic Party.

If a substantial portion of the base doesn't come back, he said, "there will be no rebound."

Mr. Campbell's coalition has long been united by the fear of seeing the NDP return to government. The leader of the anti-HST petition, former Social Credit premier Bill Vander Zalm, now says the prospect of another NDP government isn't looking so scary.

"I don't think they are doing a whole lot better than the NDP did," he said. "Our debt has grown, our deficits are bigger than ever, they haven't been truthful."

The polls aren't the only measure of the Liberals' fortunes. Next month Mr. Campbell will host his annual leader's dinner, and he'll need to show he can still pull in a crowd: The $350-a-plate fundraiser for the party usually draws between 1,000 and 1,200 guests.

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Party spokesman Chad Pederson said ticket sales are proceeding at their usual pace without any sign that the HST controversy has deterred some attendees. He is confident the spectre of a renewed NDP will continue to unite supporters. He noted that the Liberals are the free-enterprise alternative to the NDP in B.C.

"A free-enterprise vote for any party other than our own shows us from history that an NDP government will be the result," he said.

The BC Conservative Party, which does not have any members in the legislature, has seen its party membership double in the last year, with most of the influx coming in the last three months, says Dean Skoreyko, a party spokesman. He declined to provide specific numbers.

Conservative-minded voters, including federal Tories, who have supported the provincial Liberals are taking a new look at the B.C. Conservatives because they are questioning the conservative credentials of the Liberals, Mr. Skoreyko said from his home in Vernon. Mr. Campbell's party has no link to the federal Liberals, and has been seen as a kind of free-enterprise coalition of political interests that includes federal Liberals and former Socreds.

Mr. Skoreyko questions the existence of a solid Liberal base. "I don't think there is a history or a base that they can rely on to stick through in tough times," he said. "If you don't have an ideological pole to dance around, what you have then is factions and nobody has any loyalty."

It's been a year since Finance Minister Colin Hansen persuaded his colleagues in the cabinet that the HST was the way to go. Today, he's still trying to persuade British Columbians he was right, and the polls show a majority don't agree.

"I believe we could have spent millions of dollars on paid advertising and it would have not have made any difference," Mr. Hansen said. "We have to get into implementation so that people are experiencing it and realizing this is not as big an impact on their budget as they had been led to believe."

A timeline of HST in B.C.

May 12, 2009 -Gordon Campbell's Liberal government wins re-election.

May 15 - B.C. finance officials launch formal discussions with Ottawa on possible move to the HST.

May 25 - Finance Minister Colin Hansen lets his federal counterpart know B.C. is thinking of climbing down from its "no HST" position.

July 15 - The last meeting of the B.C. cabinet before the HST announcement - likely the final-decision day.

July 23 - Mr. Campbell and Mr. Hansen announce that B.C. is moving to the harmonized sales tax.

April 6, 2010 - Elections BC approves the launch of a formal petition to repeal the HST.

July 1 - The 12-per-cent HST will come into effect.

July 5 - Petition deadline: Proponents will need 10 per cent of eligible voters signed up in every riding in B.C. to succeed.

Aug. 16 - Deadline for Elections BC to verify signatures on petition.

Nov. 15 - First opportunity to file an application to recall MLAs.

Justine Hunter

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