The harmonized sales tax has created the first barbed disagreement in the race among B.C. Liberals vying to become the province's next premier.
It came Wednesday as former deputy premier Christy Clark took a leave from hosting a CKNW radio talk show to become the fifth candidate seeking to succeed Premier Gordon Campbell, and proposed a free vote on the HST to resolve the issue ahead of a planned referendum next September.
Rivals Kevin Falcon and George Abbott pounced on the proposal by Ms. Clark, the first outsider into the race after four cabinet ministers quit their posts to focus on the leadership contest.
Mr. Falcon, former health minister, said he wants British Columbians, not politicians, to decide the fate of the HST through the referendum, prompted by a tide of public petitions that activated B.C.'s initiative legislation.
Pressed for a response, Ms. Clark issued a statement through a spokesperson: "He wants to delay it. I want to debate it."
Ms. Clark said the HST will likely be defeated in the referendum so MLAs should show leadership. She declined to say if she would hold a referendum if the legislature doesn't vote on the issue, calling that a "hypothetical conversation."
To date, the race prompted by Mr. Campbell's November resignation has been genteel, without exchanges among candidates aimed at each other's positions. Many of those positions mark a retreat from such Liberal convictions as not hiking the minimum wage or tinkering with the timing of the HST referendum.
But the tone changed as Ms. Clark, 45, entered the race with a splashy election-style rally before about 250 supporters that included touting her status as a political outsider, a tough attack on the NDP at odds with the restraint of other candidates, and her proposals on the HST.
George Abbott, former health minister, said he was puzzled by Ms. Clark's position given three previous free HST votes in the legislature.
"We have made a commitment to the people of British Columbia to provide the opportunity for them to make the decision about whether we will have the HST continue or return to the provincial sales tax. There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving them the right to determine this themselves," Mr. Abbott said.
He noted that, if there were another vote, Ms. Clark, who left politics in 2005 to focus on raising her young son, would not have a seat in the legislature to take part.
B.C. Liberals are to choose a new leader on Feb. 26.
Ms. Clark's HST stand was the most sharply defined among the policy areas she discussed Wednesday, though she signalled her support for a carefully considered increase in the minimum wage. She committed to a "families first" agenda of policies, but said details of what that means will come over time.
Ms. Clark positioned herself as "unique in this race" because she offers new perspectives as an outsider to the Victoria "cocoon" since 2005.
Asked about the absence of caucus members on hand to visibly support her launch, Ms. Clark said the race is not about "elites" but rather making the case for support to the rank and file of the B.C. Liberals. Mr. Falcon entered the race with the support of 10 MLAs and Mr. Abbott now has 11 on side.
Mr. Falcon declined comment on the issue of Ms. Clark's caucus support, but said of the outsider stance: "Christy Clark is doing what any good candidate does. You try to speak to perceived strengths and that's what she is doing."
Mr. Falcon as well as Mr. Abbott had challenged Ms. Clark to commit to a return to provincial politics by promising to seek a seat in the legislature, win or lose. Ms. Clark rejected that possibility.
"For me, the only certainty I have of a paycheque after this is all over is a job at CKNW," she said. "If there are other offers that come, I will happily entertain them."
Asked about her position on holding an inquiry into the BC Rail issue, Ms. Clark said the matter was closed by the government's decision not to do so.
Ms. Clark has been linked to the case because the home office of her brother, Bruce Clark, was searched when police raided the legislature in December, 2003. The same day police also visited the home office of Mark Marissen, then married to Ms. Clark, but did not serve a warrant.
With a report from Justine Hunter in Victoria