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Liberals use Whistler to rally for next election, announce spending

New Democrats warn it’s no way to run a province

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There was only supposed to be 700 of them but when it came time to applaud Premier Gordon Campbell onto stage there were more than 1,000 Liberals from all over B.C. attending the party’s bi-annual convention at the Fairmont Chateau in Whistler last week.

They were here to discuss policy and more importantly, rally for the next provincial election on May 17, 2005.

There were several key policy announcements and Campbell made a concerted effort to motivate the party. On numerous occasions he and his ministers had the party faithful chanting "B.C.’s back" and poking placards into the air.

Campbell bounced all of his announcements off the fact that his government has been able to balance the budget and now has close to a $1 billion surplus. The Premier also focussed on the fact that B.C.’s economy is clearly recovering and there has been enormous growth in job creation.

His spending announcements were also an indication that, after several years of fiscal restraint, the government would now be looking to use the money they have saved to bolster social services and soften the party’s image. During his keynote address on Saturday Campbell urged his constituents to look back to when the NDP was running the province.

"Think how far we’ve all come… despite 9/11, avian flu, floods, fire… we have created more jobs than any other province," said Campbell to rousing applause. "We’ve got so many jobs in B.C. right now that we have a training shortage.

"And I have to ask the NDP – why don’t you just admit it, you put people out of work. We’re putting people back to work."

NDP leader Carole James later responded to Campbell’s comments by highlighting the fact that the "unemployment rate is still worse than when they (the Liberals) took office."

"As a province we also have one of the largest moving gaps between the haves and have-nots, according to Statistics Canada," said James. "And we have one of the highest uses of credit in the country; I think B.C. is No. 2 when it comes to people living on credit."

James added that the Liberals have done nothing to diversify the economy and protect it from the boom and bust cycle.

"The biggest overall concern that I have is that – you will do well when commodity prices are doing well, but every resource-based economy knows that there are ups and downs," she said. "But we have done nothing to weather the ups and downs. We have a government that is spending the surplus to win the next election, and what’s going to happen when the price of lumber goes down? You’ll have communities shutting down again.

"I think British Columbians have had enough of boom and bust financing. That’s what we’re seeing with the government right now; they’ve cut, cut, cut for three years and now they want to hand back a few of our dollars to us when we’re seven months away from the election."

During the convention Finance Minister Gary Collins said among the many indicators he used to gauge how the B.C. economy was fairing, he always watched the statistics that indicated how many people were migrating to B.C. Thousands of Canadians are moving to B.C. so Campbell later used this line of thought and pointed to the growth in energy, mining and forestry industries.

"Today, instead of people looking for work, there’s work looking for people," said Campbell.

While there was a lot of posturing and flag waving, Campbell did not dodge the areas that have become major issues for the party since its defeat in the Surrey-Panorama Ridge by-election. Campbell admitted his party had to do a better job of communicating with ethnic minorities and helping the disabled.

"We have to do a better job of reaching out to all of our citizens, to our ethnic communities because the great diversity in B.C. is one of our truly great strengths as we build a future for everyone in this province."

Campbell also addressed the importance of developing relationships with First Nations. The role First Nations have in the province prior to the Olympic Games has been an ongoing issue in the Sea to Sky corridor. It was most recently in the spotlight, again, when the Squamish Nation opposed a gondola proposal in Squamish.

Squamish Councillor Raj Kahlon is a Sikh and a member of the B.C. Liberals. He agreed that more must be done to connect with minority groups.

"I don’t think the provincial Liberals are paying enough attention to ethnic communities," said Kahlon. "They started OK after the last election (in the Sea to Sky corridor) and then totally abandoned the Sikh community, and that shows that the Liberals are not in touch with the community."

Kahlon said the government only seems to acknowledge the big issues and/or attend the major celebrations.

"Overall, B.C. is not doing as much with all the visual minorities as they should be and it’s the same with First Nations as well… they should be in touch just out of respect."

While ethnic minorities were a priority, Campbell saved arguably his most important announcements for youths. He pledged that by the end of his next term, if re-elected, "there would be no junk food in schools" and that $1.5 billion would be spent over 15 years on "seismically upgrading" all the schools in B.C. He also promised to establish better systems for testing and supporting children with disabilities.

"There are 248,000 children under the age of six years old in the province of British Columbia and I want to make sure that every child that lives in B.C. has the benefit of timely early learning diagnostic tests and to timely treatments if they’ve got a challenge.

By the end of the year Campbell said the government would allocate $55-million to increase disability benefits, which should result in a $70 increase in monthly cheques to people with a disability.

Joan McIntyre-Pottinger will be vying for the Liberal party nomination in West Vancouver-Garibaldi on Dec. 14 and 15 to replace Ted Nebbeling, who is retiring from politics.

Pottinger said many of the Premier’s announcements, "underline that the provincial economy has indeed turned a corner. These initiatives should help most families from D'Arcy to West Vancouver in one way or another," said Pottinger.

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