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Clark sees 2013 party convention as start of election comeback

B.C. Premier Christy Clark heads to her party convention this weekend in Kelowna.


B.C. Premier Christy Clark heads to her party convention this weekend in Kelowna to celebrate a victory that was far from certain the last time the B.C. Liberal membership met.

Capturing the spirit of the gathering, the convention starts Friday with busloads of delegates touring the region's wineries. The last "Free Enterprise Friday" in the fall of 2012 was, by contrast, an intense, all-business affair where the Liberals were desperately trying to stitch together a coalition tent that had badly frayed under Ms. Clark's early leadership.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Clark recalled that Whistler convention as a turning point, where federal Conservatives and Liberals, former Socreds and Reformers, returned to her coalition. The groundwork for that moment, however, was set when she shuffled her cabinet just weeks earlier, dumping disgruntled MLAs who were not seeking re-election in the 2013 campaign.

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"For me in those two and a half years, there were many days when it seemed quite apparent there were members of our caucus who would rather see the B.C. Liberals defeated than the NDP defeated," the Premier said.

"Those were very emotional days for some of those members of the caucus, none of whom had a personal investment in the future because they weren't running again – all of whom should have had a strong investment in the future whether or not they were running again. … But I think for some people, after they have been around a while, it's like in any job, you get tired of it and then it's time to go."

In October, 2012, Ms. Clark's party was trailing badly in the polls behind the New Democrats, and the B.C. Conservative party was enjoying what proved to be a temporary surge in popularity. A string of high-profile Liberals announced they would not run again, including failed leadership contenders Kevin Falcon and George Abbott. Colin Hansen, Blair Lekstrom, Mary McNeil, John Les, Murray Coell and others joined the exodus.

The convention in Whistler opened with an invitation to any centre-right political activists, who didn't have to be party members. Images of Social Credit premiers Bill Bennett and W.A.C. Bennett loomed up on a screen in the ballroom of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler while Brad Bennett, the youngest in the family dynasty, called on delegates and visitors to unite under Ms. Clark's "free enterprise" banner.

Behind closed doors, party delegates were urged to embrace negative campaign tactics and to "thicken your skins" for a gritty campaign. Strategist Stephen Carter, brought in to share the secrets of then-Alberta premier Alison Redford's electoral success, challenged the doomsayers in the party to "ignore the holy trinity of pundits, pollsters and political scientists." He would later be proven correct, and Ms. Clark said she knew at that time her party was on its way back up.

"I would mark that as the date at which our members decided that we had a lot of fight left in us," Ms. Clark said. Despite the dismal polls, Ms. Clark said she believed her party could secure another electoral victory if she could reunite the centre-right forces – and rid herself of the internal sniping. "I always knew it could work if we could stick together."

The Whistler convention did little to craft election policy – the real agenda was to smother the growth of the B.C. Conservative Party. Brad Bennett, who will again open the B.C. Liberal convention in Kelowna on Friday, was a key figure in bringing back disaffected supporters to Ms. Clark's party.

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Today, Ms. Clark enjoys a larger majority than the one she inherited in 2011, and more important, the caucus today is one that chose to run under her leadership.

"Everybody is pulling in absolutely the same direction," she said. "There is an incredible sense of unity."

Ms. Clark now has to deliver on her campaign promises to expand the resource sector. She said she is still confident that her efforts to create a liquefied natural gas industry will pay off as companies make final investment decisions, but the details of any such deals are still months away.

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