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British Columbia BC Liberals reflect on past campaign mistakes as they look to future at annual convention

The BC Liberals spent the weekend soul-searching as they reflected on their past campaign mistakes and tried to figure out new opportunities to connect with voters, with the hopes of regaining power in the tight provincial legislature.

The debriefing and strategy were part of the B.C. Liberal Party’s annual convention. In a keynote address on Saturday, party leader Andrew Wilkinson spoke to the big picture. A Sunday forum, whose key speakers included the party’s executive director, a member of the election readiness committee and two members of caucus, spoke to tactics on the path ahead.

For 16 years, the party – a hybrid of federal Tories and Liberals with no official ties to either national party – governed under premiers Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark. But though Liberals won more seats in the 2017 election, the NDP won enough to strike a governing arrangement with three members of the BC Green Party. A former Liberal, now sitting as an independent, is speaker. The official count is 42 Liberals; 41 New Democrats; three Greens; and one independent.

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B.C. Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson greets delegates before addressing a party convention, in Vancouver, on Saturday November 3, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Last month, an NDP MLA was elected mayor of the Vancouver Island community of Nanaimo and so is leaving provincial politics. If the NDP loses the eventual by-election, the gap in the legislature will get even tighter.

The move to being the Official Opposition has been an adjustment for the Liberals after a long period in government. “Shifting from answering questions as ministers to asking questions is a really strange kind of a mindset that you have to get into,” Mary Polak, opposition house leader, told delegates Sunday as the three-day convention concluded.

But the party sees milestones along the political terrain that can work to its benefit.

This week Mr. Wilkinson will participate in a debate with Premier John Horgan on the issue of electoral reform, now before voters in a mail-in referendum. The Liberals are taking issue with the NDP’s management of the file.

Emile Scheffel, party executive director, said it was unusual to have such a crowded political agenda, but the party’s focus is to demonstrate its strength and momentum with its handling of each file.

Questions from the floor prompted discussion about such issues as drawing sharper differences with the NDP, wooing millennial support and using IT for tracking support. Without providing details, Mr. Scheffel said, “There is some very cool stuff we hope to pilot with the Nanaimo by-election.”

There was also talk about winning back Liberals who voted for the Green Party.

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Jas Johal, a former TV reporter who is now a Richmond member of the Legislature, said the party lost those voters in 2017 by failing to talk up the positive aspects of its social-policy record. “We got tagged as the party of the 1 per cent; the party that doesn’t care.”

Dimitri Pantazopoulos, a pollster for the Liberals and former principal secretary for Ms. Clark, made the case for clarity of message, saying that is the quality of winning politicians.

The member of the party’s election readiness committee asked the audience what U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan was in the last election, receiving a subdued chant of "Make America great” in response. The audience sat silent when he asked for Hillary Clinton’s slogan.

“People understood what he said. He repeated it constantly. That’s the first and most important aspect of political leadership and of winning,” said Mr. Pantazopoulos.

On Saturday, the BC Liberals announced a new brand identity, replacing their “Today’s BC Liberals” slogan with “BC Liberals – Opportunity for all of B.C.”

Asked if the Liberals had a clear message in the 2017 election, Mr. Pantazopoulos said, in an interview, that there are no perfect campaigns and that the new slogan is to be just one part of the party’s eventual messaging. He said the NDP will be hard-pressed to match the Liberal slogan because the party lacks representation in some parts of the province.

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To the delegates, Mr. Pantazopoulos said the party needs to let go of the past. “We did a lot of things really well. We did a couple of things not so well. That doesn’t matter anymore,” he said.

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