WHISTLER, B.C. - With the so-called New Democrat "socialist hordes" on the left and the "twilight zone" Conservatives on the right, British Columbia's Liberals spent the weekend positioning themselves as a free-enterprise convoy on the move as the May election approaches.
Premier Christy Clark spent much of the Liberal party's convention highlighting the Liberals as the party of growth, opportunity and results while telling delegates the NDP is hiding behind a secret agenda and the Conservatives are falling apart as they feud about their leader John Cummins.
The Adrian Dix-led NDP has been well ahead of Clark's Liberal government in public opinion polls for much of the year, but that didn't stop Clark from predicting election victory and challenging Dix to show his cards in the months before the campaign.
"I wish I could challenge you to compare our plan to that of our opponents but you can't," Clark told the Liberals. "They are hiding it. They're hiding it because they don't want you to know what's in it."
She said what's known about the NDP plans — scrapping the balanced budget law, dumping secret ballot votes for unions and raising taxes — all contribute to job losses.
The premier later told reporters she is openly goading Dix into releasing his economic and election agenda.
"I want to draw them out, to be honest and up front with British Columbians about what their plan is," said Clark. "My plan has been out there for a year now. We're building on it and we're acting on it. I'm saying New Democrats need to come out with their plan."
New Democrat MLA's John Horgan and Maurine Karagianis, who attended parts of the convention as observers, said British Columbians will be able to see and examine the NDP plan as the May 14 election nears, but they didn't say exactly when.
Horgan bristled at Clark's suggestions the NDP plan is secretive and he rejected convention comments that the New Democrats are planning to turn the province into a socialist state.
Retired Conservative senator Gerry St. Germain told the convention delegates that "socialist hordes" were at the gates of power in B.C. and the Liberals must turn them back or face economic ruin.
"It's inconsistent with the reality that they see," said Horgan, New Democrat house leader. "Maurine and I and New Democrats are not socialist hordes. We're regular people just like Liberals."
The convention also saw the Liberals warmly welcome recent Conservative defectors, treating former foes like long-lost comrades.
Former Conservative byelection candidate John Martin, who now will run for the Liberals in May, told delegates he saw first-hand what happens when two so-called free enterprise candidates are on the same ballot — the vote splits and the NDP wins.
Martin placed third with 25 per cent of the vote in the byelection that saw the New Democrats win in a traditional free enterprise riding.
Ben Besler, former Conservative vice-president, said he spent the weekend meeting with people committed to ensuring British Columbia elects a viable free enterprise government. Many of the Conservative gatherings he attended often generated into mean spirited personal battles, he said.
"I'm just so glad to be out of the twilight zone," said Besler.
For much of the past year, the Liberals were consumed with courting and beating back the Conservatives who they feared would split the vote and allow the NDP to win easily.
Conservative handlers from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Ottawa machine were brought to Victoria to shore up the Liberal right flank, but most are gone or shuffled to less influential positions.
But former Liberal cabinet minister Barry Penner said Clark's Liberals should never let themselves feel they've slain the Conservative dragon because B.C. political history is ripe with examples of free enterprise vote splits benefiting the NDP.
Penner said vote splitting catapulted the NDP to power in 1972, 1991 and 1996.
"I would strongly suggest not to underestimate the potential impact of simply having candidates on the ballot with the party name B.C. Conservative party after their name," he said. "Just appearing on the ballot will draw a certain number of voters."
Penner said the Liberals are sending strong signals they intend to fight the May election campaign with heroic effort, but trying extract the NDP agenda from Dix prior to the start of the campaign will be difficult.
Penner said he sees similarities between Dix's current calm and quiet approach to that of former NDP premier Mike Harcourt, who in 1991 told British Columbians they had nothing to worry if he formed government.
But once Harcourt was elected he raised taxes, changed the Labour Code and increased corporate capital taxes, he said.
"So, it's a smart political strategy (by Dix), and ultimately we'll see what happens in reality if the NDP happens to form the government," Penner said.
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