10/26/2012 11:08 EDT | Updated 12/26/2012 05:12 EST

BC Liberal Convention In Whistler Aims To Rally The Faithful

WHISTLER, B.C. - British Columbia's Liberals are barely able to contain their glee at what they are calling the implosion of the upstart B.C. Conservative Party, but some Tories aren't prepared to hand over the free-enterprise mantle to Premier Christy Clark's Liberals and they're saying: "Not so fast."

At the Liberal Party convention Friday, the Liberals were treated to a confession-like speech by former Conservative John Martin, who quit the Conservatives and joined the Liberals after losing last April's Chilliwack-Hope byelection to the New Democrats.

Martin told the Liberals he learned the hard lesson last spring in Chilliwack-Hope that splitting the free enterprise vote between the Liberals and the Conservatives results in wins for the New Democrats.

Federal Conservative stalwarts Stockwell Day and Gerry St. Germain told the delegates free enterprise British Columbians must unite under Clark to keep the New Democrats from office.

"The socialist hordes, my friends, are at the gates," said St. Germain, a retired senator. "We've got to keep these socialists outside the gates and show them where they belong because every time they enter into the gates they take us to have-not status."

Martin said the results of the Chilliwack-Hope byelection — where he polled 25 per cent, but placed third — cost capable Liberal candidate Laurie Throness the victory and handed Chilliwack, a deeply Conservative community, to the New Democrats.

"Two important lessons came out of that byelection," said Martin.

"The first is that when the non-NDP vote is pursued by more than one party, the NDP wins."

He said the byelection also revealed that British Columbians support the B.C. Liberals as the province's political free enterprise voice.

But rebel B.C. Conservative Ian Toothill said he hasn't heard enough from the Liberals to convince him the Conservatives are a dying option.

Toothill said he's noticed the Liberals reaching out to Conservatives in recent weeks, but their past record has been one of indifference to Conservatives.

"They've got to convince me that they're all of a sudden building a better mouse trap over here," said the Vancouver-Point Grey constituency association president. "They're here to listen today, but some of the people I've been trying to talk to haven't been listening."

Toothill, who faces censure from the B.C. Conservative brass because he's called for Leader John Cummins to resign, said he's been lobbying the Liberals for years to change highway speed zones, but has been stalled.

Cummins issued a statement that said the B.C. Liberal brand is in an unmistakable downward spiral. Cummins's statement rejected Liberal concerns about vote splitting as nonsensical.

"It is understandable that Christy Clark and the other Liberals want to put the best possible spin on events as they gather for convention this weekend," Cummins said in the statement.

NDP MLA Maurine Karagianis, who was in Whistler, rejected Liberal concerns about vote splitting. She said British Columbians support more choices when it comes to voting.

"People still want to look seriously at the opportunity to vote for parties other than the Liberals and the NDP," she said.

Clark urged the Liberals to unite under her free enterprise coalition and get ready to fight the May election.

"We have the fight of our lives ahead of us," she said. "Be that difference. Be bold. Be creative. Be brave. Decide you are going to make a difference."

Bold election predictions were being made at the convention.

Party vice-president Bill Belsey started off the convention telling the estimated 1,000 people gathered in Whistler that the party is prepared to fight the election.

"Our goal is to ensure the re-election of one of the most successful, free-enterprise coalition parties in Canada, our party," said Belsey. "It's so important that you get out there and tell the rest of the province how ready we are."

Belsey, who's a former MLA, said the Liberals are poised to "deal a devastating blow to the New Democrats."

The Opposition NDP is well ahead of the Liberal government in public opinion polls.

Liberal members, who acknowledge the party currently trails the NDP, say there are signs the party has bottomed out and has been on the upswing.

Bill Bennett, the Liberal election platform co-chairman and the Liberals' sport minister, said British Columbians are tuning into Premier Christy Clark's jobs and families message.

The internal battles among members of the upstart B.C. Conservatives have solidified the Liberal Party brand as the free enterprise choice in the province, he said.

Ben Besler, a former Conservative Party vice president who has now joined the Liberals, said he's found a comfortable home in the Liberal tent.

He said leaving the Conservatives was similar to leaving the "twilight zone."

Opening day of the Liberal convention has been dubbed "Free Enterprise Friday" as the party brainstorms and seeks to re-energize members in the seven months before election day.

Agenda items on Saturday include a campaign overview and campaign training sessions, as well as a speech by Stephen Carter, the man credited with helping Alberta Premier Alison Redford defeat the Wildrose party in April. Clark also addresses the delegates.

Observers see many parallels between the last Alberta election and B.C.'s situation because the latest polls show a wide gap between the opposition New Democrats and the trailing Liberals.

Members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union greeted some Liberal delegates as they arrived at the convention.

The union members were carrying placards supporting community social services workers.

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