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B.C. Premier faces risks from both left and right flanks

I don't have a horse in the B.C. provincial race, or any other race for that matter. But I love good competition among leaders at the top of their games. That's why the speech by Christy Clark to her BC Liberal Party convention last weekend got my attention.

Months of brutal polls have had Ms. Clark and her party on the defensive and scrambling for a sound footing heading into next year's election. Her party has been in power for long enough that voters are restless for change. Her pitch will need to be almost pitch perfect to turn things around.

One of the toughest choices facing Ms. Clark is an increasingly common one in Canadian politics: whether to focus more on defending her right flank or her left. She faces risks on both sides.

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Usually, the best choice in a circumstance like this is "neither".

Her opponents won't agree on much, except that the past has been abysmal. In this kind of situation, incumbents in trouble can easily fall into a "best defence is a great defence" habit. It's a very bad habit.

Every day's message ends up sounding like, "We're haven't been as bad as they say we were" or "…as we were last year" or "… as they would be". Often, "not that bad" ends up being not good enough. This is true for many reasons, including the fact that it's a discussion about the past, rather than the future. Long term incumbents usually get booted in an election about the past, and have a much better chance if they can shift the focus to what comes next.

Over the weekend, the Premier staked out an approach that has a chance of narrowing the polls. She spent relatively little time attacking her opponents, or defending the long term Liberal record.

Instead, she went hunting for optimists. She painted a vivid picture of B.C.'s future, one that might not suit everyone's tastes, but will appeal to a pretty wide cross section of voters. She talked about how the province was on the verge of huge economic opportunities, the results of which will fuel social progress in the province and ensure jobs for the province's young people. Ms. Clark didn't just promise things would be better; she made a case that they could be terrific.

She has some material to work with.

The province's resource sectors are attracting investment from abroad and have established market beachheads in some of the fastest growing economies in the world. The statistics she was able to reel off about job gains and rising exports in the last year alone were impressive.

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British Columbians are weary of the Liberal Party, and may well in the end decide that it is time for a change. But in a lot of recent elections, polls that show a broad desire for change end up narrowing as voters become engaged in thinking about the alternatives.

B.C. voters know that they live in one of the most extraordinary places anywhere in the planet: a modern economy, possibly the most beautiful environment anywhere, public health and education, a vibrant democracy.

Ms. Clark's speech also sidestepped the risk of being on the wrong side of the change vs. no change paradigm. She painted her own idea of what change should look like: even more of what makes B.C. an exceptional place to live.

Her message may tempt those who are leaning NDP, but not fully committed. She wants B.C. to become the economic engine of the country, because economic success means good jobs for those who need them, and programs to help the vulnerable.

She also argues the strongest economy means a thriving private sector, lower taxes, stronger communities and families. Those who have been toying with the idea of voting Conservative can hear their values played out in her speech as well.

What's most interesting about this weekend's speech is that it showcases Ms. Clark as a fighter, a change agent, an optimist, and someone with a keen instinct for the ground on which the soft left and the near right might be able to unite. How far it can take her is anyone's guess, but this race may not be a foregone conclusion, if she continues down this road.

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