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Anti-HST petition could change B.C.'s political landscape

The war room of the Fight HST campaign is found at the end of a long asphalt driveway, lined with neatly clipped Portuguese laurels, next to a formal French garden. Inside an old coach house off to the side of the manor, the three senior strategists gather around a massive oak dining table.

Former premier Bill Vander Zalm sits at the head of the table. He is the proponent of the anti-HST petition, the face of the campaign, and the host. He's flanked on his left by Chris Delaney and on his right by Bill Tieleman - a mixed-up seating arrangement, given their personal politics.

There is little here that resembles a traditional political operations room - there are no maps, no ringing phones or discarded pizza boxes. Instead, there is antique furniture, oil paintings of old Holland, a large portrait of Rembrandt in a heavy frame. From this quiet and tidy room in Ladner, B.C., they are plotting a political maelstrom.

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Together they represent the broadest spectrum of right and left politics in B.C., yet the three veteran strategists have been meeting for months to organize the anti-HST petition drive that ends this weekend.

They have built a political machine, with over 6,500 canvassers spread out in every riding of the province. They have an identifiable brand and they expect to have an unprecedented victory when the petition signatures have been counted and verified by Elections BC later this summer.

And as long-time political activists, they are reluctant to disband their troops - dubbed Vander Zalm's army.

"We have got the irresistible force," said Mr. Tieleman in an interview this week. "Is the government the immovable object?"

What this odd alliance may eventually lead to is a new political party that aims to challenge the B.C. Liberal government, now in its third term. But there are forces on the other side, working to ensure that doesn't happen.

On Wednesday, while the B.C. cabinet was meeting in Vancouver to finalize plans for the rollout of a campaign in defence of the HST, another group was assembling in the boardroom of the Business Council of B.C. A dozen business leaders are working out a tandem strategy for defending the tax they asked for, wishing they had acted sooner.

"The business community was as much to blame for the success of the HST opposition as the government," said Philip Hochstein, executive director of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association of B.C. The business coalition will be out in force this summer with a message that the HST is good medicine for the economy - and jobs.

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But Mr. Hochstein says the B.C. Liberals need to worry about the political side. "There appears to have been a fundamental breach of trust between the government and the people. I think it would be a mistake if they don't reach out to their party supporters. If they don't do that, they will lose the next election."

Fanning the flames

Mr. Vander Zalm aims to make a splash next Wednesday when he arrives with a flock of supporters and a cube van stuffed with boxes of petition sheets. They'll deliver the petitions to Elections BC ahead of the deadline so that their protest will be registered the day before the tax takes effect, on July 1.

Once those petitions are in, Elections BC has 42 days to verify that they have met the requirements under the initiative law. If approved, the legislature will either vote on the proposal to repeal the tax or the matter will be sent to a referendum next year.

While the count is taking place, the troops are being asked to stay on the alert for any appearances by Premier Gordon Campbell, who is supposed to tour every region of the province this summer. And to show up in force to let him know what they think of the tax.

If there is no retreat, the Fight HST campaign moves to recall. This week, organizers released a list of 24 Liberal MLAs they think they could fire. They will aim to target no more than three at a time, Mr. Delaney said. "Too many and it will seem like we are re-fighting the election," he said.

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Leaflets, lobbying, lawyers

July 1 is the first day of the HST in B.C., merging the provincial sales taxes with the federal goods and services tax. It's also the first day that supporters of the 12-per-cent tax can start advertising without restrictions.

The government will ship out its leaflets explaining the tax and the Premier embarks on his speaking tour. There is another layer to this campaign, with friendly outreach at Liberal backyard barbecues.

Rich Coleman is the master of that domain. He will be rebuilding the Liberals' support one community festival and charity golf tournament at a time. He'll host his 15th annual barbecue in September at a friend's farm, sending out 10,000 invitations.

"We started building the coalition for this brand, the B.C. Liberals, in 1995," he said. That coalition needs constant minding, but he doesn't see the tax revolt sustaining itself into a recall season that cannot begin until mid-November.

"I'm not as fussed as some people are," he said. "After July 1, people will realize the HST is not the demon people have claimed it to be."

Finance Minster Colin Hansen doesn't advocate dropping the gloves, as some of his fellow Liberal MLAs would like. He plans to spend the summer travelling the province, popping up in coffee shops and at small business gatherings to sell his message that the tax is good for the economy. "It's got to be in face-to-face contact in communities with opinion leaders," he said.

He offers soothing words to colleagues who, unlike him, are likely targets for recall. He doesn't think people who hate the tax necessarily want to throw out his government. "I know of people who signed the petition who are strong supporters of the party."

That theory can be put to the test.

The B.C. Liberals will host their next biennial convention in November and, between now and then, party members have a chance to take part in a leadership-endorsement ballot, with the results of the secret ballot announced at the convention. Anything less than 50-per-cent support would lead to a leadership convention.

The business community, meanwhile, is also operating at different levels. They will advertise and court media attention, but some are preparing to seek a judicial review to have the petition declared invalid - a move that would only happen if Elections BC verifies there are enough signatures to refer it to government.

Beyond recall

The next election is still nearly three years away, but Mr. Delaney, who has, with Mr. Vander Zalm, attempted to revive a right-of-centre alternative to the B.C. Liberals, says he understands better from this experience what voters want.

"People are saying we need a third party, [but]that's got to be a B.C.-first, centrist kind of party," he said. It's one thing to unite people around a single issue and quite another to build a vessel that can hold them. The opportunity is there, however, because the tax issue hasn't simply pushed voters to the opposition B.C. New Democratic Party.

While the NDP has gleefully embraced the petition calling on the government to repeal the HST, the alliance between the NDP and the Vander Zalm forces doesn't bear much weight.

Mr. Delaney, with his roots in the B.C. Conservative Party, notes the opposition party has failed to clearly promise it would cancel the HST, given the opportunity.

"On the NDP, I've tried to be deferential to all involved, but honestly the NDP's difficulty [is that]they probably, at the end of the day, like the tax so they can enlarge the size of government," he said. "That may be why they have been a bit tepid."

All the plans for recall or even a new party could fizzle if, as the Liberals predict, voters come to accept the HST once it is in place. Mr. Tieleman puts no stock in that forecast. "When people start paying the tax," he said, "this will be on fire."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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