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Is Blair Lekstrom Brave for Quitting?

Will he and indie MLA Vicki Huntington form a new party? Will other Libs defect?

Bill Tieleman 15 Jun

Read more from Bill Tieleman at The Tyee here. Email: [email protected].

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Lekstrom: contradictory statements.

"Aspire rather to be a hero than merely appear one." -- Baltasar Gracian, 1601-1658

Is Blair Lekstrom a hero for quitting both his BC Liberal cabinet job and the party caucus over the government continuing to impose its Harmonized Sales Tax?

Or is Lekstrom a villain, fleeing the scene of his crime after personally voting to impose the 12 per cent HST on all British Columbians before he could be recalled by angry voters?

Is Lekstrom a politician of great integrity for listening to his constituents, who overwhelmingly oppose the HST and told him so?

Or is Lekstrom an unprincipled opportunist -- a "rat," one B.C. Conservative already call him -- who knows the only way he could be re-elected to a $100,000 a year job and collect a gold-plated pension was by admitting the obvious, that the BC Liberals are finished, thanks to the HST?

Deserving of respect

I respect Lekstrom for his bombshell decision Friday. Despite the likely contradictory reasons that caused him to make that decision, the MLA from Peace River South has demonstrated personal courage and integrity in representing the true wishes of the voters who elected him, even if it took awhile.

It is never, ever easy to quit a political party and sit as an independent -- let alone to bail out of a prestigious job like energy minister that's worth an extra $50,000 a year and become a pariah to your former colleagues.

If Premier Gordon Campbell had the same degree of integrity -- or just common sense -- as Lekstrom, he would listen to the vast majority British Columbians who hate the HST, admit his mistake and cancel the tax immediately.

What took ya?

But before Lekstrom is nominated for political sainthood, let's remember a few important facts.

First, the Fight HST citizens initiative petition campaign Ied by former premier Bill Vander Zalm -- that I support -- had already obtained more signatures to stop the HST than the number of people who voted for Lekstrom in the May 2009 election, 4,985 on the petition versus the 4,801 who voted for Lekstrom.

Second, Lekstrom listened to nearly a year of public anger over the HST and months of solid, wide-ranging arguments from New Democrat opposition MLAs before finally deciding to quit just 20 days before the HST is imposed.

Third, Lekstrom stood up on April 29 and voted in favour of the HST, despite already knowing his constituents were overwhelmingly opposed.

"Is there concern in my riding? Most definitely there is," Lekstrom told CBC News in May. But he still defended it -- till Friday.

This doesn't match with that

Even in his resignation letter, contradictions abound.

"I fundamentally disagree with the direction our government is headed on the HST," Lekstrom wrote. "I have reached a point where my beliefs and values no longer align with my government."

And in an interview with Canadian Press about previously voting for the HST, Lekstrom went further: "Had I known what I know today about the HST and some of the ramifications... I wouldn't have made the same decision."

But Lekstrom's carefully prepared statement to the media clearly implies he still supports the HST.

"I recognize and admit that I supported the HST when our government made the decision to move forward with it last summer," Lekstrom said. "This is not about being right or wrong; in fact, I firmly believe that government is making a decision they believe will help the province, but as we have been unable to bring the public along, I acknowledge there is a need to re-evaluate this decision.

"In light of the widespread opposition to the HST, I believe it would be prudent to bring the move toward the HST to a halt and immediately engage British Columbians in a dialogue about our taxation policy.

"This is a major tax policy shift, and it is time to engage British Columbians with a series of discussions about our province's future."

Dialogue? Engage? How about just cancel the tax and be done with it!

But Lekstrom doesn’t say that. And what would he do about the HST in a perfect world?

"If the playing field was level across the province on the implementation of this tax, yes I could support it, but in saying that, I would support it only after I go out and have a good frank dialogue with British Columbians," Lekstrom said. "And at the end of the day, if they say, 'Look, it's not the way they want to go,' then I'm elected to listen to the people as well."

Doesn't that sound like the perfect answer for an aspiring political party leader -- he would support the HST unless people wouldn't let him.

Who will have Lekstrom now?

Will Lekstrom at some point rejoin the BC Liberal Party? Doubtful.

Will Lekstrom run for leader to replace Gordon Campbell? Impossible.

No MLA who quits a political party and cabinet in such dramatic fashion over the most important policy issue in the province has a tinker's damn of a chance to return as leader.

Or will Lekstrom join the BC Conservatives, now rising to seven per cent in recent polls, as an alternative to the centre-right BC Liberals and centre-left NDP?

Not likely, after a prominent member called him a "rat" the day he resigned!

"You can't stand up in the house when 85 per cent of B.C. is against it according to the polls and support it, then stand up a few weeks later and say you're against it," B.C. Conservative Party spokesperson and former candidate Dean Skoreyko told The Tyee's Andrew MacLeod. "A rat is a rat is a rat." Other B.C. Conservative officials later apologized, but clearly there's no consensus about Lekstrom in that party's leadership.

And Fight HST lead organizer Chris Delaney, another former BC Conservative candidate, told The Province's Michael Smyth that Lekstrom's "background is with unions."Just a guess, but the BC Conservative door may be slightly closed to Lekstrom.

Join forces with Huntington?

Lekstrom -- a former Telecommunications Workers Union member who voted against the B.C. Liberals when they legislatively ripped up Hospital Employees Union contracts -- is well-placed to put himself forward as leader of a populist, rural-based, right-wing party.

The most likely option for Lekstrom would be to create his own third party option, possibly joining forces with Vicki Huntington, the Delta South MLA who narrowly became B.C.'s first elected independent in 60 years -- defeating former attorney general Wally Oppal in 2009.

Huntington told Global TV News on Saturday that she is open to the possibility of working with Lekstrom but believes it will be "months" before that becomes clear.

"Yes, there's a lot of talk about the formation of a third option and I think it's going to take a few more months before that starts to jell in anyone's mind," Huntington said. "I think it's a ways off yet."

"Are you ruling that out?" Global's Ron Benzce asked.

"You can't rule anything out in politics," Huntington replied. "But as I've told people during the election and subsequently, I wouldn't make a move like that without discussing it in the riding first."

Never too late to say you're sorry

Lekstrom has lots of credibility now and can say, with honesty, that he puts the views of voters ahead of party politics. Taking a $50,000 pay cut by quitting cabinet certainly shows Lekstrom puts his money where his mouth is.

Lekstrom can also state that if he was elected premier -- compared to Gordon Campbell -- he might make mistakes but will always listen to the public for a final decision.

It would sound a lot like former long-time Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett's famous "second look" policy of reviewing unpopular decisions and sometimes reversing them.

BC Liberals -- like Bill Bennett, Lekstrom's replacement as energy minister, are desperately getting out their message that an alternative to Campbell’s party could end up electing the NDP in 2013 -- or sooner.

Bennett is obviously worried: "To allow the Liberals to disintegrate the way the Social Credits did under Bill Vander Zalm, or the NDP under Glen Clark, would be a crime."

"The NDP trashed the province once in the 1990s, and they would do it again. I need to stay and help the people of this province understand the HST, and why it will be good for this province. I believe that Blair made a mistake," Bennett told the Cranbrook Daily Townsmen.

"Because I'm still there, one chair away from the premier, I can poke him with my elbow and talk to him. With all due respect to my friend Blair, he can't do that any more," Bennett claimed, invoking the unlikely image of the cabinet minister who previously had to resign for rude comments to a constituent actually telling Campbell what to do -- while simultaneously "helping" over 80 per cent of British Columbians who don't want the HST "understand" it.

Stephen Harper's embrace?

Lekstrom has yet another possible future -- to replace federal Conservative Member of Parliament Jay Hill, who has said he won't run in the next election, in his Prince George-Peace River riding. But then how will Lekstrom explain to his constituents that he is joining the government that imposed the HST along with the BC Liberals?

But while Lekstrom weighs his options, who will be the next B.C. Liberal MLA to resign rather than face inevitable recall campaigns starting as early as November 15?

While many MLAs have rushed to tell media it won't be them, for fear of angering an already disturbed Gordon Campbell, the reality is that Lekstrom may have opened the door to future defectors.

And Ida Chong, the Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA and -- thanks to Lekstrom's departure -- now the minister of small business, might be one of them.

Chong went to great lengths in an interview with CFAX Victoria radio's Adam Sterling to avoid saying she would not quit over the HST.

Adam Stirling: "The question on everybody's minds right now is: do you, or do you ever see yourself resigning over opposition to the HST as another BC cabinet member?"

Ida Chong: "You know, I got elected because I was worried about this province and I joined a party that I believe had all the fundamentals to keep our economy strong and moving forward. And as long as we can continue to do that, I will do that, and I realize that at times there will be tough decisions and tough decisions require courage and require leadership and that's what I'm prepared to provide."

Stirling: "So, that's a NO?"

Chong: "It means I'm going to continue to work hard to make sure our constituents get the best economy and the best quality of life that we can."

Stirling: "So is that not a NO?"

Chong: "You know, I think it's really clear that when you talk about standing for office you have to stand on the basis for which you were first elected and those are the principles that I have."

Thanks for the clear answer, Ida.

BC Liberals most at risk

But the most tell-tale sign of who might quit is simple to determine -- here's the Fight HST list of BC Liberal MLAs where more people have signed the citizens Initiative petition than voted for their MLA on May 15, 2009.

Blair Lekstrom / Peace River South: 4,801 votes in 2009; 4,985 petition signatures.

Pat Pimm / Peace River North: 3,992 votes in 2009, 7,791 petition signatures.

John Slater / Boundary-Similkameen: 6,681 votes in 2009; 11,309 petition signatures.

Donna Barnett / Cariboo-Chilcotin: 6,259 votes in 2009; 8,317 petition signatures.

Terry Lake / Kamloops-N.Thompson: 9,830 votes in 2009; 10,532 petition signatures.

Bill Bennett / Kootenay East: 8,404 votes in 2009; 8,729 petition signatures.

George Abbott / Shuswap: 10,764 votes in 2009; 11,806 petition signatures.

And that number of BC Liberal MLAs with fewer votes than anti-HST petition signatures will likely grow in the remaining weeks of the Fight HST drive. Get ready to rumble in B.C. politics!  [Tyee]

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