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B.C. attorney-general Mike de Jong.

Mike de Jong, the fourth provincial cabinet minister to enter the race to become B.C.'s next liberal premier, says the government has already lost the looming referendum on the controversial harmonized sales tax so should focus on dealing with its aftermath.

"The likelihood of people embracing the HST in a referendum vote is pretty remote," he said in an interview. "It's not impossible, but I think it's fairly unlikely, which means we should be realistic and use this opportunity as a chance to discuss some options."

The Abbotsford-West MLA said he had no plans for what would come after the expected demise of the 12-per-cent tax, but was hoping to use the ongoing campaign for a dialogue about how to replace revenue that would have been generated by the HST.

Voters are poised to go to the polls next September for a referendum on the fate of the tax. The HST was introduced earlier this year after the Liberals rejected it as a possibility during the 2009 election campaign, which saw the party win a third consecutive term in government.

From Premier Gordon Campbell on down, the Liberal government has said voters will decide what will become of the tax, but none have been so blunt about the outcome of the referendum.

Mr. de Jong, however, said he had the freedom to express his views because he has stepped down from cabinet to focus on a campaign that will run through to a Feb. 26 vote.

"I am now in a position where I can and intend to express my views on what I am hearing and seeing out there," said the 16-year member of the legislature who has been attorney-general and aboriginal relations minister.

"My view is, and it's not one shared by everyone, [is that]because of how this has played out, because of the mistakes we made in terms of the introduction, and the reaction that it has engendered on the part of people, the more the government tries to sell this, the stronger the negative reaction is."

Mr. de Jong, a lawyer and former school trustee, is a relative latecomer to a campaign where contenders have already staked out positions on a commitment to hike B.C.'s $8 minimum wage after consultation and move up the date of the referendum. He supports both moves.

None have explicitly waved a white flag on the planned vote, forced because tens of thousands of British Columbians signed petitions triggering a referendum under the province's Initiative legislation.

Mr. de Jong said he does not expect to pay a political price for a decision to cover $6-million in legal bills for a pair of former government aides embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the sale of BC Rail. "If the harshest criticism I face over the next three months is that I respected the independent prosecutorial process and didn't interfere politically then I will accept that criticism."

The race has lately heated up with George Abbott, Kevin Falcon and Moira Stilwell giving up their cabinet seats to compete in the first notable leadership contest on the centre right since Mr. Campbell won the top Liberal post in 1993.

Mr. de Jong quit cabinet, too, and was swiftly replaced by Aboriginal Relations Minister Barry Penner, who will hold both jobs. Solicitor-General Rich Coleman will replace Mr. de Jong as Government House Leader.

Mr. Abbott and Mr. Falcon each have 10 caucus members supporting them, but Mr. de Jong - like Ms. Stilwell - has none. He said he expected that would change, but offered no specifics.

Mr. Coleman, a Liberal stalwart with a formidable organization who was widely expected to enter the race, said Wednesday he decided he would not run.

"I had it all committed, more than enough dollars, and I had an airplane and everything else. That was the easiest part, actually," he told reporters in Victoria.

But he said he decided not to subject his family to the exposure that comes with seeking the top job.

"I don't think I'm the guy. You have to be honest with yourself," Mr. Coleman said.

"I just looked at it, sitting there with my grandson on Sunday night, and my wife and my kids, and I thought, 'Man I enjoy this way too much.' "

He said he has not decided who he will support in the contest.

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