The British Columbia Liberal Party's two-day convention in Whistler was aimed at rallying delegates ahead of next May's election at a time when the governing party is threatened by opponents on both its right and left wings.
Premier Christy Clark, who was not available to the media during the convention until a scrum at its end, gave several speeches and urged members to "prepare for the fight of your lives."
Much of day one, pitched as "Free Enterprise Friday," was aimed at burnishing right wing credentials.
John Martin, who recently joined the party after running as a BC Conservative in a byelection last year, was mentioned several times and gave a short speech. Former Social Credit cabinet minister Jack Weisgerber appeared in a pre-recorded video address. And Stockwell Day, a former federal Conservative member of parliament gave a 60-second speech stressing the need to win that received a standing ovation.
There was also an address by Brad Bennett, citing the legacies of his father Bill Bennett and grandfather W.A.C. Bennett, both former Social Credit premiers.
The much repeated message was that the party needs to unite its coalition of Liberals and Conservatives if it wants to win. One speaker talked about not wanting to live under the "tyranny" of an NDP government, language NDP House leader John Horgan, who was at the convention as an observer, called "inflammatory."
Fresh ideas lacking: NDP
The NDP's Maurine Karagianis, who was at the convention as an observer, said the Friday sessions were more focused on bashing the NDP than in offering any new ideas, despite the billing.
"[Fresh ideas have] not been reflected in anything I've heard so far," she said. "You're not going to win the next election by demonizing New Democrats and failing to offer up fresh ideas that show that the last 12 years are not a foreshadowing of what they're going to do in the future."
In her speech to close the convention Friday, Clark repeated themes that have been core to her leadership. She spoke about supporting families and how the best support is a good job in the private sector. Her BC Jobs Plan is working, she said, and has resulted in 57,000 net new jobs since it was launched just over a year ago.
Clark also spoke about Coquitlam student Amanda Todd's recent suicide and said the province will host an anti-bullying summit in two weeks. "You know government can only do so much," she said, noting adults have to be role models. "The solution to bullying lies in all of us."
She repeated a recent goal of reaching a 10-year contract agreement with the BC Teachers' Federation, acknowledging that many believe it's impossible but arguing that it would bring stability and make the system work better for students rather than adults.
"We have a bold vision for British Columbia," she said in her speech, telling the crowd they are part of the renewal of the Liberal party.
Later she told reporters the vision is reflected in the jobs plan. There will be a fuller platform to come before the election, but she wasn't going to share details yet, she said. During the same scrum she chided NDP leader Adrian Dix for not releasing his party's plans.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
A Saturday afternoon session on campaign strategy was closed to the media, though many of the details were tweeted by people inside and much could be heard from outside the doors.
The main attraction was Don Guy, an Ontario strategist for Premier Dalton McGuinty, and Stephen Carter, who was chief of staff for Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative government in Alberta.
The pair described a back-to-basics kind of campaigning. Carter told delegates to focus on "social networks" instead of social media. He encouraged them to have thick skins when the media says "nasty" stuff about them, and to keep repeating their messages over and over until it gets through.
He also encouraged Liberals to take communication back from the government bureaucracy and tell people what they stand for, to compare their track record to that of the NDP.
Guy told delegates that the recipe for winning elections is straightforward. It's about being passionate about beliefs and connecting with voters by telling stories, he said.
He also observed that negative advertising does work, citing an example of an ad comparing Apple and PC computers, and cautioned the party not to rule out using it as a tool.
Lower taxes, bash unions: delegates
On the Saturday morning, the party considered dozens of resolutions. They turned down a motion that would have supported excusing teachers from having to be members of the BC Teachers' Federation, but passed two other resolutions antagonistic to unions.
The delegates voted in favour of restricting unions from using money for political purposes, and requiring them to disclose their finances, an idea that echoes a recent federal bill.
"The fact the government wants to go after one sector of society... is inappropriate and unfair," said the NDP's Karagianis. "An even playing field is a good, lofty goal. You can't say 'we're for families first,' and exclude union families."
The NDP supports restricting both union and corporate donations, she said.
The delegates also passed motions asking for the threshold on the property transfer tax to be raised from $200,000 to $500,000 and to have the tax reduced. They also voted in favour of building more infrastructure and creating residency positions in B.C. for foreign-trained doctors.
They defeated a motion calling for the elimination of the carbon tax, which was introduced in 2008 as a flagship policy under former premier Gordon Campbell.
Close election predicted
Barry Penner, who held several cabinet posts before quitting as the MLA for Chilliwack-Hope, said there appears to have been some change in the party since previous conventions.
"I see new faces," he said, along with many that were familiar. "It could well be that Christy has brought new people into the party that weren't as active before, that weren't attending conventions before."
The BC Conservative Party should not be dismissed despite its recent troubles, he said. "I would strongly suggest not to underestimate the potential impact of simply having candidates on the ballot with the party name BC Conservative Party after their name. Just appearing on the ballot will draw a certain number of voters."
Keeping conservative and liberal British Columbians together in one party requires constant effort, he said. "It's an ongoing challenge to keep the party strong and united and not to have people think they have the luxury of having a boutique party to pursue their particular interest or hobby," he said. "There simply isn't enough room in the political spectrum in British Columbia to accommodate that and not have the NDP get elected."
While polls in recent months have had the NDP well ahead of the Liberals, Penner predicted it will get closer by the time the May 14, 2013 election arrives. "Polls go up, but polls go down."
NDP leader Dix, as it happens, has for some time been saying the same thing.