VANCOUVER (Reuters) - British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell denied on Thursday he was pressured to resign by his own party, and said he plans to remain as provincial leader until a permanent replacement is chosen.
Campbell, whose popularity has been battered by voter anger over a new sales tax policy, surprised even his own cabinet on Wednesday when he announced he plans to step down after leading Canada’s westernmost province since 2001.
Campbell denied reports he was pushed out by a brewing revolt within the B.C. Liberal Party, and said that in the 17 years he has led the right-of-center party he always had its strong support.
But Campbell said he concluded his political struggles had become too big a distraction after seeing the muted public and media reaction to his announcement last week of the second largest income-tax cut in the province’s history.
“I think it is in the best interest of British Columbia to refocus people’s attention,” he told reporters. “When people are focused on one person ... it’s better to step aside.”
Campbell, the longest-serving of Canada’s current provincial premiers, said he made the decision during a weekend visit with his son and grandchildren in Los Angeles.
A recent poll showed his popular support -- riding high in February during Vancouver’s Winter Olympics -- had dropped to 9 percent amid anger over the merger of the 7 percent provincial sales tax and the 5 percent federal goods and services tax into a 12 percent harmonized sales tax (HST) that applies to a wider range of purchases.
“You have to be pretty deep underground to know the polls have not been my best friends,” he said.
Campbell said on Wednesday he wanted the Liberals to pick his replacement soon as possible, but added on Thursday that no interim leader would be needed as he would stay on the job until the party elects a new leader.
“I’ll be premier. I‘m not expecting to launch a whole series of new initiatives ... but we’ve got enough initiatives on the table to fill up our time for the next four months or five months,” Campbell said.
He will nonetheless be gone by next September when voters will decide in a referendum whether to repeal the HST. A leader of the anti-HST campaign said Campbell’s resignation meant that vote should now be held sooner.
Campbell declined to speculate on whether the party should pick a leader from inside or outside the sitting Liberal members of the provincial legislature. He would only say that whoever is selected should be committed to maintain the Liberals as a “free-enterprise” party.
British Columbia’s provincial politics has long split along economic class lines, with the B.C. Liberals -- a coalition of right-leaning Conservatives and Liberals -- squared off against the largely union-backed New Democratic Party.
No members of Campbell’s cabinet have said publicly that they are interested in running for premier.
Among the politicians outside of government who have been mentioned in media reports as a potential candidate is Dianne Watts, mayor of Surrey, a fast-growing suburb of Vancouver.
British Columbia’s next scheduled provincial election is set for 2013.
Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson