BRANDON -- Just months before they begin a titanic battle for control of government with the NDP, the provincial Conservatives kept mainly to themselves at their annual general meeting on the weekend.
The two-day gathering here was closed to the public except for a half-hour rally where delegates chanted "Time for change!" and party Leader Hugh McFadyen spoke, promising to cancel a western hydro transmission line in favour of a cheaper eastern one and vowing to plow the savings into highways, transportation and the development of CentrePort.
Unlike last year's meeting, where the party passed 38 policy resolutions, including a dozen in the areas of health, education and social services, this year's meeting was all about winning the next election. And like a football squad discussing strategy, Team McFadyen kept its sessions private.
"Every party AGM, especially those that lead up to an election, is a private affair," said Jared Wesley, a political studies professor at the University of Manitoba. "They have a lot of important business to do and they're not going to do it in front of the cameras."
The Tories said the closed-door sessions would be devoted to fundraising, contacting voters and ensuring compliance with election rules, but Wesley said they also likely provided McFadyen with a forum for ensuring his troops would all be on the same page as they head out to battle for the Oct. 4 vote. That likely involves pulling the party to the centre -- much in the same way Gary Doer did with his left-leaning NDP in 1999 before the election that brought that party to power. Doer persuaded his troops to abandon dreams of re-nationalizing MTS and to maintain several Tory tax cuts. "If they're taking a page out of Doer's playbook... then I think what they were doing was making sure that the (Conservative) base is on side with what the leadership wants to do in the next campaign," Wesley said.
On Saturday, McFadyen told reporters if elected premier, he would fire Manitoba Hydro's board of directors and slam the brakes on the government's plans to build the Bipole III hydro transmission line down the west side of the province, instead of down the east side.
Speaking to more than 200 delegates and supporters, he said the Tories would review a ban on hog-barn expansion in eastern Manitoba, improve farmland drainage and build reservoirs to save water for future droughts.
He also vowed to "finish the job that Duff (Roblin) started" by raising bridges and enhancing dikes needed to protect Winnipeg from flooding. He said engineers have warned the "persistence of these weak links leaves the city as vulnerable today as it was before the NDP spent $665 million on their failed floodway expansion."
The party is debt-free and expects to set a new fundraising record in 2010 for a non-election year -- at least $1.1 million.