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HST results reveal B.C.'s nature

More than anything, the result of the referendum on the HST shows just how neatly divided this province remains. Our electorate has been known over the years for its polarization.

More than anything, the result of the referendum on the HST shows just how neatly divided this province remains.

Our electorate has been known over the years for its polarization. We are a 50-50 province, where about half the people come down on the other side of an issue from the other half.

We are not like Alberta, which is an almost monolithic conservative bastion where pockets of liberalism are barely tolerated. And we're not like Ontario, an essentially conservative province with a giant liberal urban centre.

When the HST was introduced in B.C., the first public opinion polls showed the province was split about 80-20 against the tax. The referendum result was a 55-45 per cent split, a clear example of a polarized electorate.

Looking at the results riding by riding shows the wealthier parts of the province were strong supporters of the HST, while poorer sections had the highest opposition. West Vancouver, Kelowna, North Vancouver and White Rock posted some of the highest pro-HST results, while East Vancouver and North Surrey had high numbers of anti-HST votes.

A Globe and Mail analysis of the results also showed bettereducated people supported the HST more than lower-educated people.

So how should our political parties view the referendum outcome?

The NDP has never been able to achieve power in this province when the electorate is divided in half (it has needed a further split on the right to win elections), but it can take a lot of comfort from the referendum results.

Of course, a voter's opinion on the HST does not necessarily translate into support for or against a political party, but I would suggest in a great many instances that is precisely what happened in the referendum.

The NDP, in particular, turned the HST referendum into a referendum on the B.C. Liberal government, and it did so very effectively.

Just 25 ridings held by the B.C. Liberals supported the government's HST. More worrisome for the Liberals, however, is how the so-called "swing" ridings held by the party voted.

These are the ridings where the difference between the winning B.C. Liberal candidate and the NDP candidate in the last election was less than five per cent, suggesting the riding could "swing" to either party in the

next election.

Of 12 such ridings, only two of them voted in favour of the HST. In six of the swing ridings that voted against the HST, the anti-HST vote was more than 55 per cent.

The B.C. Liberal MLAs in those swing ridings must be somewhat nervous about their re-election chances given the referendum results, but three of them must be particularly apprehensive.

Marc Dalton (Maple Ridge-Mission) won by just 68 votes in the 2009 election, but his riding voted against the HST by a margin of 56-44 per cent. In a riding where every vote is obviously precious, more than 300 fewer people voted for the HST than voted for Dalton.

He will need to convince those anti-HST folks to stick with him in the next election if he wants to hang on to his seat.

Donna Barnett (Cariboo-Chilcotin) is similarly looking over a very steep cliff. She won by just 88 votes last time, and her riding voted 57-43 per cent against her government's tax.

More than 1,400 fewer people voted for the HST than voted for her in 2009.

And Richard Lee (Burnaby North) can't be too happy either. His riding went against the HST by 60-40 per cent and he won by fewer than 600 votes last time.

Another troubling outcome of the referendum for the B.C. Liberals is the high degree of opposition to the HST in regions that traditionally have high anti-tax and anti-government sentiments among voters.

Places like Prince George, north Kamloops and Peace River voted overwhelmingly against the HST, which may suggest the B.C. Conservatives could be a factor in some ridings in those areas come the next election.

About the only good news in the referendum outcome for the B.C. Liberals was that it was so close.

The government succeeded in moving the electorate from overwhelming opposition to one of its policies to a more even split.

We remain a fundamentally divided province and there is scant evidence out there that the situation is going to change anytime soon. The HST referendum is proof of that.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global B.C.