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Campbell's Challenge from the Right: The BC Conservative Party

Leader Wilf Hanni says he plans to run up to 30 candidates, and win races.

By Bill Tieleman, 7 Apr 2009, TheTyee.ca

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Hanni: Libs 'ethically challenged.'

"I don't think it would be wise to ignore the impact of a potential split in the free enterprise vote, the centre-right vote." -- Mike De Jong, B.C. Liberal House Leader

The fate of Premier Gordon Campbell's B.C. Liberal government in the May 12 election may rest in the hands of an oil and gas drilling rig supervisor from Cranbrook.

And Campbell should be very worried, since that man is Wilf Hanni, leader of the B.C. Conservative Party, who intends to run 30 or more candidates.

In an Angus Reid Strategies poll released last month, the B.C. Conservatives were included for the first time as a party choice – and picked up four per cent province-wide, with five per cent support in the North and Vancouver Island and seven per cent in the Fraser Valley/southern Interior.

And with the New Democrats just six points behind, B.C. Conservative candidates could help defeat Campbell.

But De Jong's vote-splitting arguments don't bother Hanni, who believes his party can win enough seats to hold the balance of power in a minority government because conservative voters are fed up with Campbell.

"The B.C. Liberals have become a big, left-wing, tax and spend government," Hanni told me in a lengthy interview. "If the Liberals ever were conservative, they sure aren't any more. The B.C. Conservatives are the only party that advocates lower taxes and smaller government."

Hard core election issues

"The Liberal Party is going into the election saying the number one issue is the economy but what have they done to rebuild the economy? Nothing!" Hanni says.

Hanni is campaigning against B.C. Liberal plans for a Recognition and Reconciliation Act that would recognize aboriginal rights and title without proof of claim.

"We're the only party in B.C. opposing the Recognition Act. We really believe all B.C.ers should be treated equally," Hanni says. "We can't take the risk of giving up title to all public and private land. Title is title -- there is no such category as aboriginal title."

And Hanni disagrees with Campbell's carbon tax on gasoline and heating fuels, which goes up again in July.

"We would scrap the carbon tax totally," he says. "The carbon tax is an unfair tax, it's a wealth transfer tax. It takes money particularly out of people's pockets in the Interior and the North."

"You can't take public transit and you can't drive a Prius [hybrid car] like the premier -- you won't get anywhere. And you can't turn off the furnace when it's minus 30 in Fort Nelson," Hanni laughs.

Should Campbell be worried?

Hanni says his big challenge now is to convince television networks to include him in B.C. election debates. If he does, Campbell will worry even more.

That's because Hanni is an affable conservative who is anything but doctrinaire right wing. Hanni opposes the B.C. Liberal's privatization of B.C. Hydro, the promotion of private power projects on provincial rivers and streams by banning B.C. Hydro from also doing so and the export of raw logs.

"We would not privatize B.C. Hydro without public approval through a referendum and we would not initiate that referendum, Hanni told me. "We would also end the prohibition on B.C. Hydro being banned from new power projects."

And on raw log exports: "I'd prefer to process the logs in B.C. -- this government has done absolutely nothing to develop the forest industry in B.C. We have millions of tons of dead timber in our forests that we should be using for biodiesel, ethanol and wood pellets for fuel."

Slamming Railgate

And if that's not enough to differentiate the party, Hanni also raises the B.C. Legislature raid case, connected to the $1 billion privatization of B.C. Rail.

"The Liberals also appear to be ethically challenged, as we're finding out in the Railgate case," he says.

That's why Hanni confidently predicts that his B.C. Conservatives will defeat B.C. Liberals in some parts of the province.

"In some ridings in the Interior even some B.C. Liberal incumbents are going to come in third place behind the Conservatives and NDP -- and a vote for the Liberals will split the vote," he says.

"The number one argument the B.C. Liberals and Gordon Campbell will use is 'don't vote Conservative -- you'll split the vote," Hanni says. "Well, if you had a job vacancy and someone came to you and said: 'Hire me so you won't have to hire that other guy' -- is that a good argument? No."

Counting on Campbell's negatives

Hanni knows and counts on Campbell being disliked in much of the province. The Angus Reid Strategies poll shows that when asked, only 34 per cent of respondents felt Gordon Campbell should be re-elected, while 54 per cent said it was time for B.C. to have a new premier.

But it may be the B.C. Liberals' Recognition and Reconciliation Act that pushes the most buttons with rural voters in the election. Hanni says that with the B.C. Liberals introducing the act and the NDP likely to support it, only B.C. Conservatives will oppose it.

"We agree with signing treaties with aboriginals but treaties should involve cash payments by the federal government, who are responsible," he says with a view that isn't often heard or widely accepted in land claims discussions.

"With the giveaway of our rivers to foreign interests and the giveaway of our land to aboriginals, the B.C. Liberals have done serious damage to our province," Hanni says.

Fourteen candidates lined up

The B.C. Conservative Party first formed a provincial government in 1903 but has not had an elected member since 1977.

Hanni aims to change that, with 14 candidates nominated to date and more to come.

"We will accept applications to be candidates right up to the deadline. We expect to run 20 to 30 candidates but we will accept more if they come forward -- we encourage people to apply," Hanni says.

And with people like popular former federal Reform Party MP Darrel Stinson coming forward to manage local campaigns and other former Reform and Conservatives running as candidates, maybe Hanni has some reasonable grounds for optimism.

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