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Clark's next moves crucial, say observers

VANCOUVER - British Columbians have swept the harmonized sales tax out the door, but political observers say it won't be so easy for Premier Christy Clark to wash her hands of the whole mess.

The political mop-up will be just as crucial for the B.C. Liberals and its leader as will be gracefully untangling the year-old system and setting the dual tax regime back in place. With nearly 55 per cent of citizens who voted giving the HST the thumbs down, so too did they signal ongoing discontent and usher in new economic uncertainty. The drubbing has all but stamped out the likelihood of an early election call for this coming fall.

Clark's ability to clear a path and push forward her own agenda will be less impacted by her involvement — and ultimate embrace — of the rejected tax policy than the decisions she makes next, the observers say.

"It's her show now, Gordon Campbell's policy is gone," Prof. Hamish Telford, who heads the political science department at the University of the Fraser Valley, said Saturday referring to the former premier.

Campbell resigned in the depths of unpopularity spurred by public anger over his government's introduction of the tax.

It could be a tough slog. Clark will be hard-pressed to get her economic growth and job-creation plans off the ground because she needs to once again prove she's a reliable business partner, Telford said.

"The business community is going to be ticked with her and I think the federal government is going to be ticked with her," Telford said. "She really did not put her neck on the line for this tax."

Clark needs to go into recovery mode, agreed political economy Prof. Marjorie Griffin Cohen, with Simon Fraser University. But that will also be rough going when consumers will have constant cash-register reminders over the 18-month transition period required to phase out the HST.

The professor credited Clark for suggesting she will conduct public consultations around how to make up the $3 billion shortfall to the provincial budget, which comes with handing back the federal money it received to make the switch. Despite the referendum results, Clark has committed to balancing the budget by 2014.

"What happens next is going to be very important," Griffin Cohen said, noting it appears Clark may ask the public where it prefers to see cuts. "Is she going to listen very narrowly or is she going to listen widely on what people want to see happen around taxes?"

Griffin Cohen said the referendum wasn't so much against taxation, it had to do with people feeling the corporate sector was getting the gold-star treatment at the expense of the everyday citizen.

After the results were announced on Friday, Clark quickly moved to put the vote behind her. She expressed disappointment and acknowledged people were angry with the way the tax was introduced.

While she refused to rule out a fall election, she said the legislature will reconvene in October to deal with her government's plan to create jobs.

The Liberals will be treading a fine line with both business and the public as they attempt to return to a tax system the public concluded was a bad idea for the province, said political science assistant Prof. James Lawson, with the University of Victoria.

The goal will be to implement the old system as well as new policies without appearing "vindictive," he said.

"She has the advantage of not being Gordon Campbell and she can say, 'Well that was then, and this is now. I had to implement a response to a set of tax measures that weren't my idea,'" Lawson said. "That distance will help her, no doubt."

At the same time, he said Clark needs to step up now more than ever before.

"When you're the premier, you can't stand back quite as much, you have to own the policies that are coming out of government."

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