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Liberals launched their national convention with a vow to continue pushing positive politics in the face of divisive opposition rhetoric, even as one of their MPs compared former prime minister Stephen Harper to a dictator.

With about 3,000 members gathered in Halifax, the Liberal Party is set to debate policy proposals on Friday and Saturday that include the creation of a new pharmacare program and the decriminalization of the sex trade.

Still, party officials made it clear at the start of the convention on Thursday they are mainly focused on firing up the electoral machine in the lead-up to the next federal election in October, 2019. Outgoing party president Anna Gainey said the federal Liberal government’s achievements to date, including the establishment of the Canada Child Benefit and a national price on carbon, are on the line.

“In just 18 months, Canadians will head to the polls,” she said. “We know our opponents will do everything they can to undo the progress for all Canadians that we have worked so hard for. We cannot let that happen.”

Ms. Gainey said Liberal supporters can count on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to deliver in the next election, but that it is up to them to volunteer on local campaigns and knock on as many doors as possible to spread the Liberal message.

“Our opponents are tireless in their divisive rhetoric, in their efforts to undermine our record and our progress. We will prevail if we are louder, stronger and united in our support and stand with Justin every step of the way,” she said.

Earlier in the day, however, Liberal MP Andy Fillmore told a session of young Liberals that they were instrumental in defeating Mr. Harper and the Conservative Party in the last election, comparing it with the fall of an authoritarian regime.

“We’re having a different kind of election this time. We’re not deposing a dictator this time; we’re fighting to keep our mandate going,” said Mr. Fillmore, who represents the riding where the convention is taking place. “This visit to our beautiful city of Halifax is part of reigniting all of the passion that you guys had in 2015 – that we all had – to bring us even more success in 2019.”

A key speaker at the convention on Friday will be David Axelrod, who was a top strategist to former U.S. president Barack Obama. Mr. Axelrod said in an interview earlier this week the Liberals have to adapt their electoral strategy now that they are in power, which includes going on the offensive against their main rivals.

“I don’t think it necessarily needs to be searingly personal, but you know, the reason there are parties is that there are competing visions of the future,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Trudeau’s vision will be challenged and he has a right to ask exactly what is the offering on the other side and what it would mean for everyday Canadians.”

Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who is representing her party at the Liberal convention, said she was disheartened by Mr. Fillmore’s comment.

“I find it awfully immature,” said Ms. Raitt, who added that comparing Mr. Harper with a dictator highlights a growing arrogance in Liberal ranks. “They believe they are better than anyone else.”

Ms. Raitt said she will closely follow the debate over 30 policy resolutions that are up for discussion at the convention, pointing out that two-thirds of them entail additional costs to taxpayers. “They are still thinking about spending taxpayers’ dollars,” she said.

The launch of the convention included speeches from a number of politicians from Atlantic Canada, where all seats turned Liberal red in the last federal election. Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who recently received a second majority mandate, said Mr. Trudeau will also win a second election if all Liberals work together in coming months.

“As we debate policy and the direction where we go, let’s not kid ourselves: This weekend is about the next federal election and the launching pad for that federal election,” he said. “We need to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we give Prime Minister Trudeau the same privilege Nova Scotians gave me, and that is a back-to-back majority government.”

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