Fletcher: Little new as B.C. Liberals rally the troops

Campbell led a front-running party to a third straight majority, while Clark is a struggling underdog pleading for unity.

Liberal delegates gathered for their convention on the weekend at the Chateau Whistler, the same luxury hotel where Gordon Campbell fired up the troops in 2008.

Back then the advertising slogan was “Keep BC Strong.” Unveiled at Premier Christy Clark’s pre-election pep rally: “Together. Building BC.”

This slight change hints at the big difference. Campbell led a front-running party to a third straight majority, while Clark is a struggling underdog pleading for unity to turn back an NDP tsunami.

Hence “Free Enterprise Friday,” a discussion open to non-party members. Clark began with an upbeat speech urging party members to “reach out our arms, open the tent and be as big as we can possibly be.”

So did they? Dashing between three concurrent sessions, I missed a fair amount of it, but there were some provocative suggestions to appeal to those inclined to support the resurgent B.C. Conservatives.

An accountant spoke to a packed room about the growing unfunded liability of public sector pensions, most of which are still of the “defined benefit” variety. Based on bond interest rates that have since sunk to all-time lows, these government-guaranteed pensions are now a free ride for those lucky enough to have them, funded by the taxes of private sector workers who in many cases have no pension plan at all.

There was talk of passing a law that all new public sector hires be restricted to a “defined contribution” plan where the employee and employer contribute equally and the pension is based on what those contributions yield. This would provoke the mother of all confrontations with the B.C. Federation of Labour, but there was no evidence yet that this is going beyond the talking stage.

The resolutions continued the theme of confronting the labour movement, ritual combat that seems to be an inescapable part of B.C. elections.

Delegates passed two motions, one calling for public sector unions to disclose what they spend on salaries, political activities and lobbying, and another advocating a ban on unions spending compulsory dues on political campaigns.

This is a pet project of Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad, whose constituency sponsored both motions. Rustad presented a private member’s bill last year to require detailed disclosure, but it was left to die on the order paper.

Like all the policy resolutions debated at the convention, these ideas are not binding on the government. Again, there is no actual change on the horizon.

Delegates rejected another motion that would have made membership in the B.C. Teachers’ Federation optional. This would have been a declaration of war on B.C.’s most militant union, just as Clark and Education Minister Don McRae embark on a long-shot bid to end the decades of confrontation that have defined that relationship since teachers were relegated to the industrial union model of labour relations.

There was a brief debate on a motion to scrap the carbon tax, sponsored by northern members who see it as unfairly punitive on those who endure cold weather and long highway drives for themselves and the goods they need to have trucked in.

This was rejected

too, after delegates were reminded that the tax now takes in more than $1 billion annually that is used to reduce business and personal income taxes. Scrapping it would amount to announcing across-the-board income tax hikes, contradicting 12 years of B.C. Liberal policy just before an election.

The good news for Clark is that the 2012 convention was a high-energy, well-attended event that contradicts the notion of a party in disarray.

The bad news is, nothing has really changed.

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