05/08/2013 04:21 EDT | Updated 07/08/2013 05:12 EDT

NDP leader uses botched HST against Liberal attack ads in final week of campaign

VANCOUVER - A botched Liberal-government initiative that angered the public and sank the former premier's career has failed to materialize as a campaign weapon for the NDP — until now, less than a week before the British Columbia election.

The Harmonized Sales Tax was introduced in July 2009 by then-premier Gordon Campbell, whose approval ratings tanked to the lowest of any premier in Canada after he broke promises not to implement the levy that had been introduced in Ontario five months earlier.

Campbell sold the HST as a better alternative to the combined Provincial Sales Tax and the Goods and Services Tax and as a way to make B.C. more competitive, but his decision was a massive misstep for the Liberals, who are now hoping to get back into office for a fourth time on May 14 with leader Christy Clark at the helm.

NDP Leader Adrian Dix has barely mentioned the so-called Hated Sales Tax, killed in a referendum two years ago by consumers forced to pay more for everything from restaurant meals to kids' clothes.

But on Wednesday, the New Democrats aired a new TV ad with a voice over about various issues including the gutted tax: "The HST broke your trust," it says, before Dix promotes "change for the better" with a new government.

The NDP commercial was unveiled on the same day that the Liberals came up with another attack ad against Dix for backdating a 1998 memo to protect his then-boss, former premier Glen Clark, as the man who now wants B.C.'s top political job unleashed a salvo of his own.

Dix criticized the Liberals for the "misleading smear campaign," which claims he failed to take responsibility for the memo that was backdated to suggest Clark wasn't involved in a neighbour's casino application.

"The problem in this campaign is the Liberal party never does (take responsibility)," Dix said during a campaign stop in Kelowna. "Don't take responsibility for the HST, which damaged the entire economy, negatively affected every business in the province."

Clark said the 13-year-old scandal about the memo written by her political rival is a legitimate issue to bring up during the election campaign.

Michael Prince, a University of Victoria political science professor, said he's surprised the NDP did not pounce on the Liberals' pro-business HST debacle at the beginning of the campaign.

"I've always thought the HST was the gift that kept on giving for the NDP and so I sure would be reaching into my back pocket if that's where it was put," he said.

Prince was even more puzzled about the NDP's decision not to use the HST issue against the government considering the former PST and GST model was just rolled out on April 1 and voters are still grumbling, as are business owners who had to transition back to the old system.

While Clark has focused on promoting British Columbia's economy, Dix has stuck mostly to questioning the Liberals' accumulation of debt and the party's claims of a balanced budget, though he did raise the HST in the televised leaders' debate last week.

Dix said after the election writ was dropped that he wouldn't run a negative campaign, perhaps pre-empting the Liberals' attacks against him for writing the memo, for which he has repeatedly taken responsibility, including in the TV debate.

The NDP leader may also have steered clear of a negative campaign because of criticism against his predecessor Carole James for her negativity during the 2009 election.

And he could have shied away from the HST issue because he's been courting B.C.'s struggling film industry, which benefited from HST refunds but must now pay the non-refundable seven per cent PST on everything from construction material to prop rentals.

But his decision to change course Wednesday was most likely due to the tightening gap between the NDP and the Liberals in the days before B.C. voters head to the polls.

Kyle Braid, vice-president of polling firm Ipsos-Reid, said the Liberal government's deception over the HST has continued to rankle British Columbians and that he too is mystified about why Dix didn't use it to woo voters from the beginning of the campaign.

"It is the issue that broke trust of the public with the B.C. Liberals," he said. "It's stuck on them. It's not going away."

"I would say given the tightening of the polls, it's become clear that maybe the NDP does need to start turning away from a discussion of Liberal issues such as debt and back to reminding people why government disapproval was so high in the first place," Braid said.

Even former Liberal finance minister Colin Hansen — who introduced the HST —suggested before the election that the government's weak explanations in introducing the HST would hound his party into the campaign.

"It was a mistake," he said in an interview after Clark unveiled the party's candidates at a pre-campaign kickoff.