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Federal Liberals acknowledge they've been placed in a bind over an HST vote forcing them to choose between political opportunity or avoiding a bitter feud with provincial Liberal cousins.

Liberal MPs said yesterday they will meet behind closed doors before taking a position on next week's Conservative government motion.

"I'll decide in my own sweet time," Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff told reporters in St. John's. "I haven't seen the legislation. I've got to consult with the caucus."

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The Bloc Québécois took some of the pressure off the Liberals yesterday, giving a strong indication that it will support the government motion. The Conservatives, however, want Liberal support so that the measure can pass quickly through the House and the Senate. The legislation would give the provinces the ability to move forward with sales-tax harmonization.

The incoming tax change - which polls show is unpopular with voters - is planned for July 1 in Ontario and British Columbia, where two Liberal premiers have fought hard to sell the move as a necessary step to spur economic growth.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was an early advocate of harmonization as a way to reduce corporate taxes. Ottawa has offered $4.3-billion to Ontario and $1.6-billion to B.C. as incentives to make the switch.

But Conservatives have since distanced themselves from the change, portraying it as a purely provincial issue. Tory MPs will not be allowed a free vote on the issue and have been told not to talk about it. The federal NDP and its provincial affiliates in B.C. and Ontario have campaigned hard against the HST. NDP Leader Jack Layton has said he believes the issue was a factor in his party's recent by-election victory in B.C.

The government leaked talking points to the media Thursday evening that said the Official Opposition Liberals will decide whether the HST lives or dies.

But in separate talking points to MPs yesterday, Conservatives denied they were playing "political football" with provincial rights.

"Our goal is to secure Official Opposition support for the provincial-choice framework, not to score cheap points," states the memo. "To this end, caucus members are urged to say nothing - to national or local media - about the Liberal position on the framework or about the implications for the Liberal Party."

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Liberal MP Bob Rae acknowledged the issue creates "tension" among Liberals. He then made light of the fact that he would not give a clear position on the HST. "I'm not waffling. I'm skating," he joked.

Next week's vote is not a matter of confidence in the government, but the Conservatives have said that if it is defeated, the HST offer is dead and will not be revived.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he's counting on every MP to understand the importance of tax harmonization to his province's economic fortunes. While tax changes are difficult to make, they are essential to help Ontario build a stronger economy, he told reporters in Ottawa yesterday.

"On behalf of 13 million Ontarians, I'm asking members of Parliament to help us secure a bright future for our kids."

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said yesterday he expects the motion will pass.

"If you have an agreement with the federal government, even if it's a minority federal government, you should be able to take that to the bank," he told CTV.

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With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto and Wendy Stueck in Vancouver

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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