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Disgruntled Liberals can sendCampbell an ‘eviction notice’

Vaughn Palmer In Victoria During an earlier challenge to Premier Gordon Campbell over his high-handed ways, B.C. Liberal supporter Scott Nelson raised a protest against the carbon tax.

Vaughn Palmer

In Victoria

During an earlier challenge to Premier Gordon Campbell over his high-handed ways, B.C. Liberal supporter Scott Nelson raised a protest against the carbon tax.

"Who doesn't believe that we should have a cleaner, greener world?" declared the then-mayor of Williams Lake as carbon-tax-implementation day approached in mid-2008. "But we shouldn't do it on the backs of rural British Columbians."

Nelson styled himself as a party loyalist, even as he took on Campbell's new-found enthusiasm for fighting climate change.

"I have worked on the premier's campaign, I am a supporter of the government," he insisted. "But because you're a supporter, doesn't necessitate that you should be handcuffed and duct-taped not to protect your taxpayers and your municipalities."

To emphasize his complaint that the tax was nothing like revenue-neutral for folks in the wintry part of B.C., Nelson argued for a five-fold increase for northerners in the $100-per-person climate-action dividend. He also threatened to withhold his city's share of the tax it would pay on municipal fuel purchases.

He backed off the latter after a meeting with then-finance minister Carole Taylor, wherein she made it clear that the boss was not in a giving mood. "The premier has closed the door, locked the door and shackled the door and put the key in his pocket himself," as Nelson described it.

Still, municipal leaders did manage to connect eventually. Campbell acknowledged as much at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in the fall of 2008, when he announced local governments would be reimbursed for their share of the carbon tax, providing they pledged themselves carbon-neutral within four years.

Nelson, for his part, wrapped up his term as mayor in December 2008, then sought to refurbish his credentials as a party loyalist by seeking the Liberal nomination in Cariboo-Chilcotin. He lost narrowly to Donna Barnett, the former mayor of 100 Mile House, who went on to win the seat, also narrowly, against New Democratic Party incumbent Charlie Wyse.

Today, Barnett is high on the list of likely targets for recall over the harmonized sales tax. Meanwhile, there was Nelson this week, airing his own reservations about the HST. But unlike his urgings on the carbon tax, he made no pretense this time that the concerns could be assuaged by mere tinkering.

"There's such anger and frustration out there, a lot of members are walking away," said Nelson. "They don't want anything to do with the B.C. Liberals."

Nor was the self-styled loyalist inclined to speak of the leader's good qualities in anything other than the past tense. "He's done some fantastic things, but there comes a time when your core, key supporters are leaving the flock. It's time for him to retire."

He speaks for growing numbers of B.C. Liberals, never mind that for many of them, Campbell is the only leader they've ever known.

He captured the party leadership 17 years ago this weekend at a convention dominated by his organizers, his fundraisers and his supporters. He has dominated the party ever since.

His method is the one evidenced on the carbon tax. He'll make the occasional concession when bone-tossing is unavoidable. But otherwise, it is his way or the you-know-what. As he told a caucus meeting during the depths of the public outcry against the carbon tax, the way to get rid of it was to get rid of him.

Instead, he won the next election, his third in a row. And that only reinforced his overweening self-confidence, evidenced in the rushed decision to harmonize the sales tax without the slightest effort to prepare the public for such a major reversal in long-standing provincial taxation policy.

But this time he went too far. The carbon tax, while angering some Liberals, also divided NDP supporters. The HST, because of the tax shift itself and the way it was handled, united pretty much everyone in opposition to the government.

Campbell, for his part, continues to act as if the backlash merely represents a failure of communication, blameable on Finance Minister Colin Hansen.

Instead, it is the culmination of an arrogant, one-man style government.

In an effort to put the blame where it properly belongs, Nelson is one of two Liberal insiders -- Langley riding president Jordan Bateman is the other -- to highlight the opportunity at hand for party members this fall.

They can send the premier an eviction notice by voting non-confidence in his leadership at a series of locally based riding association meetings. The vote is by secret ballot. The option is there for every paid-up Liberal who is inclined to find out when and where the meetings are being held and show up.

But it remains to be seen whether many of the estimated-by-Bateman 40,000 or so members will take the trouble.

Few Liberals have ever challenged him, even in private. The practice has generally been, "Let Gord do it." And as the record will show, he has been only too happy to do it, with as little questioning of his authority as possible.

vpalmer@vancouversun.com