VANCOUVER -- Relaxing in a leather wingback chair in his Tudor-style home south of Vancouver, Bill Vander Zalm is the very picture of elegance.
Dressed in a crisp blue suit, white shirt and multicoloured tie, he looks at first blush like the same man who was driven from office as B.C.'s premier two decades ago. The strong jawline, the perfect teeth, the skin that has just a hint of tan.
The big difference, of course, is when he left office he was the man with the target on his back. Having been swept to office in 1986 on a wave of "Vandermania," he was forced to resign in 1991 after a provincial inquiry determined he mixed his private business interests with his public office in the sale of his infamous Fantasy Gardens theme park. He was ultimately acquitted of criminal charges, but his stock as a politician had evaporated.
That was then. Vander Zalm's back and, in a masterfully ironic twist, he's the guy throwing the darts.
As the spiritual leader of the anti-harmonized sales tax movement in B.C., Vander Zalm has made a miraculous comeback on the political stage. His grassroots populist uprising drove Premier Gordon Campbell from office and forced the province to agree to hold a referendum on the future of the HST. For a politician who left office in disgrace himself, you would think he has done enough to restore some of his reputation, and most of his profile.
But there are other opportunities for Vander Zalm to show he's still a force to be reckoned with. And the first will come on May 2, when Canada votes on a new federal government.
"I am absolutely sure the HST will have an impact," Vander Zalm said. "I will make sure that it does. The (Tory) government knows that it will."
There can be no doubt that the convergence of the HST referendum campaign and the federal election campaign will create some additional twists and turns in what is already the most unpredictable political market in the country. The HST remains a most vilified subject and the May 2 federal election is the first opportunity British Columbians will have to voice their displeasure at a ballot box.
The big question is whether there will be blowback for the federal Conservative government. Vander Zalm feels certain there will be consequences, in large part because many British Columbians feel the tax has been foisted on them, not only by the provincial Liberal government, but also by the Tories in Ottawa. "I think the majority of voters can make the connection," Vander Zalm said. "They know the federal government provided $1.6 billion in bribe money to make this work. They also know the Conservative MPs all voted to bring in the HST."
Where will the HST arise as an election issue? In B.C.'s rough-and-tumble federal political world, there are many two- and three-way races. In six or seven of them, the NDP has promised to make the HST a deciding factor. NDP Leader Jack Layton went to Surrey on the first day of the campaign and served notice his candidates will remind voters who was behind the HST.
One riding in particular that should feel the impact of the HST referendum is Surrey North.
To understand this riding, you need to go back to the story of Chuck Cadman, a musician and electrical technician who got involved in politics in the late 1990s after his son, Jesse, was stabbed to death in a random street attack. He and his wife, Dona, won national media attention by lobbying for tougher sentences for youth offenders. Although the area is strongly NDP provincially, Cadman won it in 1997 for the Reform party, and was re-elected as a Canadian Alliance candidate in 2000. However, he lost the Conservative party nomination in 2004. Undeterred, and despite having been diagnosed with cancer, he ran as an independent and won.
In May 2005, Cadman voted to support NDP amendments to a Liberal budget that helped the government of then-prime minister Paul Martin avoid a vote of non-confidence. He died three months later.
Following his death, his wife Dona alleged two Conservative party operatives had offered Cadman a million-dollar life insurance policy in exchange for his vote against the Martin budget. Cadman's death and the bribery allegations eroded Conservative support in the riding; New Democrat Penny Priddy won the seat in the 2006 general election.
If the tale of Surrey North was not bizarre enough, it took another twist in 2008 when Dona Cadman re-emerged as the Tory candidate in Surrey North despite having accused Harper of trying to buy her dying husband's support. Cadman claimed to have reconciled with Harper and thanks to her work supporting the victims of violent crime, she was elected handily.
Given this history, there is no reason why Surrey North should be in play in this election; the Cadman name is pure gold in this riding. No reason except the HST, a thorny issue in British Columbia that has made ridings like Surrey North very much in play.
How does this connect to the HST?
Dona Cadman became embroiled in the HST controversy in 2009 when, on the eve of the vote to approve the HST deal with British Columbia, she pledged to vote against the measure because she was convinced that was what her constituents wanted. When the vote took place, however, Cadman was a no-show. She later said that despite her constituents' concerns, she simply could not vote against her party. Critics accused her of betraying the memory of her fiercely independent husband.
Notoriously media-shy, Cadman has been an elusive presence in the riding ever since. An interview request from the Free Press went unanswered.
The NDP hopes in Surrey North in this election rest with Jasbir Sandhu, a program manager with a private police training institute who has a long history of political activism in Surrey. Sandhu said the riding is dynamic, one of the fastest-growing and poorest ridings in all of B.C. A combination of a large immigrant population, extensive poverty and street violence makes this politically unstable ground. Sandhu believes, however, the HST will be the deciding issue for many voters. "We've been hearing from people all over the riding about how hard life is and a big part of that is the HST. People here are still angry about how the Conservatives and the Liberals did this to us."
It is not a slam dunk, however, that the NDP will be able to pin the HST on the Tories, or that it would stick as an election issue. James Moore, the Tory heritage minister and incumbent MP for Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, said the HST is simply not an election issue because the federal government is not responsible for the introduction of the tax.
Moore said the province asked for the HST to be introduced and the Tory government in Ottawa was merely responding to that request. "We have not run for office on this issue," Moore said. "The job of the federal government is not to dictate to provinces their local tax policies. Provinces should make up their own minds on the tax policies of the provincial governments."
Moore said he is confident most British Columbians are looking to the referendum vote -- scheduled for June -- as their real chance to decide the HST issue, not the May 2 federal election. "I just don't see how it will impact us. British Columbians are sophisticated and they understand there's a referendum coming up and it's not up to me or Michael Ignatieff anymore. This is a decision for British Columbians."
Vander Zalm said he is concerned that the anger among the voters that forced Campbell from office has subsided in recent months. The most recent polling shows well over half of British Columbians still oppose the HST, but that is down significantly from last year when more than three-quarters were in opposition. Still, Vander Zalm said there is a pent-up frustration among B.C. voters, and the May 2 vote will provide a vent.
"I don't believe anyone in B.C. has changed their mind about the HST," Vander Zalm said, his trademark whiter-than-white smile beaming. "We are still very upset about this and we're going to let people know just how upset."