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Gary Mason

Sha-Zahm! He's back on the political stage Add to ...

For years now, friends across the country have been asking: What's happened to B.C. politics? It's become so boring.

It was hard to argue. The man in charge is a policy wonk who runs a tight ship. Sure, he was capable of the odd slipup - a drunk-driving conviction that helped turn a mug shot into a political poster - but mostly Premier Gordon Campbell was a centre-right pragmatist whose dull but dependable governing style was a refreshing contrast to the constant tumult of the previous 15 years.

But hold on. Things could be changing.

The Zalm is back.

The Zalm, to the uninitiated, is the one and only Bill Vander Zalm, the former B.C. premier who lived in a castle on the grounds of a fantasy theme park he owned. At one time he was the most popular politician in the country. During the 1986 provincial election in B.C., he was greeted at campaign stops like a rock star. Women touched him and cried. Men looked at him and thought: Wow, what wonderful white teeth.

But while no one could work a room better, The Zalm was a terrible administrator with a blind eye to conflict. He eventually fled office in 1991 amid scandal, brought down by an eccentric, floral-hat-loving real estate agent named Faye Leung.

How the press gallery missed old Bill when he was gone.

And how it loves the fact that he is back.

Mr. Vander Zalm has risen from the political graveyard to become leader of a grassroots rebellion against Mr. Campbell's harmonized sales tax. And there is nothing that Bill Vander Zalm enjoys more than standing in front of an audience, a microphone in one hand … a microphone in the other.

In recent weeks, he's made people forget that 20 years earlier he was the most despised politician in the province. The person who single-handedly destroyed one of the greatest political dynasties in the province's history - the Social Credit Party.

The Zalm, you see, is campaigning against an unpopular tax and an increasingly unpopular government. The Liberals had promised during the May, 2009, provincial election that they had no plans to introduce the HST. And then, a few days after winning another majority, they contacted Ottawa to say: Sign us up.

When the government's duplicity was revealed, the NDP voiced predictable outrage, vowing to fight the tax to the death. But it was only when Mr. Vander Zalm showed up at the party that the anti-tax campaign took off. Now NDP Leader Carole James is merely an opening act for the campaign's headliner, Bill Vander Zalm.

The one-time garden store owner is attempting to get 10 per cent of eligible voters in every constituency to sign a petition asking the government to repeal the legislation making the HST law. He must do this within 90 days. At first, people scoffed at his chances. Now many think he might succeed.

There's only one problem. The law is toothless. Even if The Zalm gets the signatures he needs, the government doesn't have to repeal the legislation. And there is the added problem that the HST is part of a federal-provincial arrangement that even Ms. James concedes can't be changed for five years after the tax is officially implemented on July 1.

So why do it?

For the NDP, it makes perfect political sense to fight. It allows the party to turn the tables on the Liberals, who are normally the ones accusing the NDP of introducing onerous taxes. The campaign also allows the NDP to score points with segments of the business community - not normally friends of New Democrats - who feel betrayed by the Liberals.

And what about The Zalm? What's his motivation? Who knows?

He's 70-plus years old now - maybe he just wants to have a little fun. He's grey, but women still tell him how handsome he is. He has an ego. Who wouldn't like that? And then there is the Gordon Campbell factor. The current Premier must have done something to offend the former one - how else to explain all the overheated rhetoric? During his anti-HST speeches, The Zalm never passes up an opportunity to recite all the ways Mr. Campbell is destroying the province. He even filled a gymnasium in Mr. Campbell's own riding to fume against the Liberal Premier.

This, of course, is in total violation of the unwritten code that says former premiers never criticize sitting ones. The Zalm doesn't care.

He hasn't had this much attention in years. He's revelling in it. In the process, he's brought B.C. politics back from the dead.

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