Liberal MPs are publicly challenging Michael Ignatieff's new support for the Harmonized Sales Tax, opening yet another fissure for a party that is faltering in the polls.
Mr. Ignatieff has suffered several setbacks in the past few months, from dissension in the party's Quebec wing to an accusatory Facebook rant from former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's wife. Now, he has been bruised by the controversial HST file, wedged as he is between the demands of his caucus and the wishes of provincial Liberal leaders in British Columbia and Ontario.
Mr. Ignatieff has criticized the tax in the past, yet he emerged from a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday saying Liberal MPs would be forced to vote in favour of the legislation because it comes down to an issue of provincial rights.
"This is a request from the provinces because they believe it will improve the competitiveness of their economy and create jobs," Mr. Ignatieff said. "We will support this legislation in Parliament."
But that support appears fragile. Liberal MPs were lining up appointments with the party's whip to express their discomfort with the new position, and several members from B.C. publicly aired their misgivings.
"The HST should not be rammed down the throats of the electorate," fumed B.C. Liberal MP Keith Martin, expressing his surprise upon learning of Mr. Ignatieff's announcement. Dr. Martin had left the morning caucus early after urging his colleagues to oppose the government motion, which is expected to come to a vote soon.
Knowing the issue would be divisive, Liberals had candidly admitted they were "skating" last week as they debated what to do.
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh, who sent out flyers criticizing the HST as the "Harper Sales Tax," also said candidly that at least four of the five Liberal MPs from B.C. wanted Mr. Ignatieff to come out against the tax, which takes effect July 1 in Ontario and B.C. The measure reduces business taxes but will increase the sales tax on a broad range of consumer goods.
"Ultimately, my argument lost out," said Mr. Dosanjh, who is a former NDP premier of B.C. "I still detest the tax. My constituents detest it."
Mr. Dosanjh said he was not alone among B.C. MPs in wanting to oppose the HST.
When asked if the five B.C. Liberal MPs were unanimous in wanting to oppose the HST, he said: "I believe so."
While federal Liberals are at odds over the merits of the HST, they all say the vote was sprung on them by the Conservatives in a bid to exploit those divisions.
The one B.C. Liberal MP that Mr. Dosanjh said he had not spoken with was Sukh Dhaliwal. Mr. Dhaliwal told The Globe and Mail he supports Mr. Ignatieff's position as "responsible" and "visionary."
"We have to look professional ... not opportunist," he said.
Of the remaining two B.C. Liberals, Joyce Murray told The Globe that she "made a strong case for a different outcome," while Hedy Fry was more coy, saying she would have preferred that the HST was not proposed.
The federal government has offered $4.3-billion to Ontario and $1.6-billion to B.C. as incentives to make the switch to harmonization. Liberal premiers Gordon Campbell and Dalton McGuinty have urged all MPs to support the federal legislation.
"I want to commend Michael Ignatieff for a difficult but fundamentally principled decision," Mr. McGuinty told reporters Tuesday.
The HST issue has become the dominant line of attack by the Official Opposition parties in both provinces - the B.C. NDP and the Ontario Progressive Conservatives. The Ontario Tories disrupted the legislature this week with sit-ins in protest of the Ontario Liberals, yet decline to comment on the role of their federal Conservative cousins in bringing in the tax.
Federal Conservatives insist the timing of the legislation was motivated by outside factors, not inside Ottawa politics. They contend that businesses in the two provinces want the issue resolved as soon as possible, as do the provinces.
Bringing in the HST also has significant implications for the public service, as tax jobs will be eliminated at the provincial level and shifted to the Canada Revenue Agency.
With a report from Karen Howlett in Toronto