Justine Hunter and Ian Bailey
Victoria, Vancouver — From Saturday's Globe and Mail Published on Friday, Jun. 11, 2010 12:29PM EDT Last updated on Saturday, Jun. 12, 2010 1:02AM EDT
The HST-driven resignation of one of Premier Gordon Campbell's senior cabinet ministers on Friday is sending ripples of dissent through the governing Liberals, with one minister urging a formal apology over the tax and bankbenchers grumbling that they too were blindsided by the controversial levy.
“I think we should apologize to the people of British Columbia for the way we brought this in,” new Energy Minister Bill Bennett said in an interview. However, he disagreed with former minister Blair Lekstrom's decision to quit, saying the Liberals cannot sustain more fallout over the HST without risking the loss of power.
“This is way bigger than ambitions or personalities,” Mr. Bennett said. “This is about the future of the province and if the BC Liberal Party falls apart like the Socreds did or the NDP did, we will go the same way as those two parties.” (The Social Credit party has been wiped out, while the New Democrats were reduced to two seats in 2001.)
Mr. Lekstrom's departure caught the Premier and his cabinet unaware, with Mr. Campbell saying the entire caucus agreed last July on proceeding with the HST. But that defence from the Premier sparked off-the-record complaints from bankbenchers, who said they had been presented with the new tax policy just two days ahead of the public announcement.
Just minutes before a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Finance Minister Colin Hansen insisted in an interview that “caucus support is very strong.” He then walked into the meeting, where Mr. Lekstrom stood up and asked his colleagues to delay implementation of the tax pending public consultation.
That proposal was rejected and, on Thursday afternoon, as the Premier prepared for a major fundraising event – the $350-a-plate annual BC Liberal Party Premier's dinner – Mr. Lekstrom called to say he would be stepping down.
At the dinner, an uncharacteristically apologetic Mr. Campbell spent most of his speech dealing with the HST, earning sustained applause through much of his comments. “Can you really imagine a worse way of communicating the benefits the HST than we have managed to provide you over the last 10 months?” he said.
He conceded that the government could have done a better job of selling the HST, but suggested he was mindful of his errors and would do better in the months ahead. However, Mr. Campbell insisted the tax was the right policy to adopt for the provincial economy and that it would pay off in terms of jobs.
Mr. Lekstrom did not attend the Premier's dinner event, but caucus members were told that evening to attend an emergency meeting at 8 a.m. Friday, where the nine-year veteran MLA told the group of his decision.
The Premier expressed surprise on Friday that Mr. Lekstrom had resigned, but the well-known maverick, who has voted against government bills in the past, had signalled his discomfort for weeks.
Unlike almost every other member of the government caucus, Mr. Lekstrom avoided the obligatory defence of the HST during legislature debate this spring.
When pressed by The Globe and Mail two weeks ago, Mr. Lekstrom pointedly evaded an endorsement. “My first priority is to represent the people that elect me and I understand their concern,” he said. “It doesn't matter how good your idea is, if you don't bring the public you represent along with that idea.”
On Friday, he said much the same thing to explain his decision to quit. “Everybody made this decision with the best of intentions,” he said. “But we didn't bring the people along.”
During last spring's election campaign, the BC Liberals said their platform did not contemplate the adoption of an HST. Shortly after the Liberals won, however, Mr. Lekstrom and the rest of the cabinet agreed to ink a deal with Ottawa, including a $1.6-billion cash transfer to help reduce the province's burgeoning deficit.
Mr. Campbell told reporters he will not waver on the HST deal with Ottawa. But he agreed his government has done a poor job of explaining the HST and why it came about when it did.
“Candidly, we are running to catch up,” the Premier said. He said Mr. Lekstrom's resignation is a significant blow, but he does not expect more defections. “I'm very confident in the strength of caucus.”