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The Globe and Mail

B.C. Liberals try to work out differences with Tories

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Liberal MLAs at the BC Liberals’ convention in Penticton, B.C., May 14, 2011.

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Liberals are inviting rival Conservatives to help shape the governing party's policies and even toss around a possible name change at their next convention. But the bid to revive a "free enterprise" coalition stops short of handing any control to non-members – only B.C. Liberal delegates will be able to vote on a new identity or direction for their party.

The B.C. Liberals' October convention in Whistler starts with a "Free Enterprise Friday" initiative where a new policy platform will be up for debate. However, intense efforts to bridge the gap between the two parties will continue throughout the summer, senior party organizers said Monday. Those efforts are being led by Premier Christy Clark's chief of staff, Ken Boessenkool, a prominent federal Conservative.

Members of the B.C. business community who want to see the two parties reconciled are conducting a similar effort, but have met with little encouragement from B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins. "Nobody underestimates the work ahead," said Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.

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Mr. Hochstein, whose organization has sponsored attack ads on the B.C. New Democratic Party, said business leaders are alarmed at recent polls showing that the combined voter support for the governing B.C. Liberals and the upstart B.C. Conservatives does not equal the popularity of the B.C. New Democratic Party.

But when he sat down last week in his boardroom with Mr. Cummins, he found the Conservative Leader unresponsive to merger talk.

"I don't see this going anywhere," Mr. Cummins said an interview later. "The issue is not a vote-split, this is about people leaving the Liberals in droves." He added he does not plan to accept the invitation to the B.C. Liberal convention. "The suggestion that somehow the Liberals can change their name and fix their reputation – you can call a skunk a rabbit, but it's still a skunk."

Mr. Hochstein hasn't given up. He doesn't think the two centre-right parties are irreconcilable; he said the challenge is to manufacture a tent that will fit their supporters.

"The discussions about what it takes to bring free enterprise together, what do we have in common, it's more urgent now than ever before," he said. "I don't think the gap is as wide as people perceive it. There are far more things in common than separate us."

The B.C. Liberals' centre-right coalition has carried it through three successful elections in a row, but since the 2009 victory the alliance has frayed and Mr. Cummins' party now is garnering roughly equal support.

Mike McDonald, the B.C. Liberal campaign director, said it's unlikely that a deal will be brokered at the executive level. Instead, he said, the way to win back voters who have been drawn to the B.C. Conservatives is through a grassroots effort. "That's the only way it would succeed, if it happens in a bottom-up type fashion."

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The B.C. Liberals continue to push the message that splitting the centre-right pool of voters will result in an NDP victory in next spring's provincial election.

"We believe the math doesn't lie when it comes to B.C. politics," Mr. McDonald said. The NDP's election victories in B.C. – in 1972, 1991 and 1996 – have taken place when more than one party vied for the "free enterprise" vote.

John Reynolds, a top Tory organizer who chaired the Premier's latest fund-raising dinner, said he is hoping that gap will close once the election campaign starts next April. "I am hoping people will come to their senses and decide they want a free enterprise government," he said in an interview.

He is urging the Premier to be more aggressive in defining herself apart from the NDP, saying she should embrace the controversial pipeline proposal from Enbridge Inc., the Northern Gateway project. He said that would create a wedge issue, with the Premier standing up for job creation against the New Democrats who oppose the pipeline.

Mr. McDonald said the Premier won't be rushed into a decision on the pipeline that would bring Alberta crude oil across B.C. to the coast for shipping to Asia. The proposal has yet to win federal regulatory approval and is facing growing opposition in B.C.

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