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Former MP John Cummins, with his wife Sue in Vancouver Tuesday, announces he wil be running for leadership of the B.C. Conservatives. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Former MP John Cummins, with his wife Sue in Vancouver Tuesday, announces he wil be running for leadership of the B.C. Conservatives. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

B.C. Conservatives risk splitting Liberal vote, aiding NDP, critics say Add to ...

As John Cummins enters the race to lead the moribund provincial Conservatives, a former parliamentary colleague said he risks causing a split on the right that would help the B.C. New Democrats.

"This is very foolish to launch or breathe new life into another conservative party rather than working with [Premier]Christy Clark as the bona fide new leader of the coalition, the Liberal Party," said Jay Hill, who resigned in 2010 after a 17-year run in Parliament capped by two years as government house leader.

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Stockwell Day, the Treasury Board president, made a similar, general point about vote splitting earlier this month, but Mr. Hill sharpened the attack and targeted Mr. Cummins.

"Certainly those of us that have worked very closely with John over the years recognize that he's very headstrong," said the long-time member for Prince George-Peace River. "[Mr. Cummins]obviously believes in what he's doing. There's many of us that believe that's exactly the wrong thing to do, so we'll be speaking out and hopefully the vast majority of conservatives will stay with the B.C. Liberal Party as the coalition party and reject what John is doing."

On Tuesday, Mr. Cummins became the first candidate to enter the race to lead the B.C. Conservatives ahead of a May 28 leadership vote, vowing to forge the "dominating party of the centre."

The party has no MLAs and has not been a political force in B.C. for decades, but party members have been aiming to capitalize on discontent with the governing B.C. Liberals - a coalition of federal Conservatives and Liberals - over such policies as the adoption of a harmonized sales tax.

Mr. Cummins rejected the vote-splitting argument by suggesting his Conservatives will grow their own vote by appealing to voters who did not go to the polls in the 2009 election that saw the B.C. Liberals win a third majority.

"We've looked at this backwards-forwards. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at the fact that 48 per cent of the people didn't vote last time," said Mr. Cummins, an MP for 18 years until this month, when he said he would not seek re-election in his Delta-Richmond East seat. "There's a lot of room out there for this new Conservative party."

Elections B.C. said the turnout in the last B.C. election was 51 per cent.

Mr. Cummins said the B.C. Liberals have attracted conservative voters because they are seen as the free-enterprise option.

"But that's not solid," he said. "I've talked to I don't know how many people that tell me, 'Yes, I voted Liberal in the last provincial election, but I had to hold my nose to do it,' and it's those kind of voters we're hoping to attract."

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom - returned to caucus and cabinet after quitting last year over the HST - was government point person in responding to Mr. Cummins. He said the government would focus on the Premier's agenda in hopes that the public will support it.

Although busy in Ottawa, where the 69-year-old Mr. Cummins has been particularly vigilant on fisheries issues, the former MP has long been a supporter of the B.C. Conservatives, sharply criticizing the government in B.C. over such policies as the HST.

In Ottawa, he voted for legislation to allow the federal government to enact the hybrid of the goods and services tax and provincial sales tax. But he said Tuesday his point of disagreement was lack of consultation on the process and the fact that the PST component was not reduced to ease the tax burden on consumers.

He promised to ban corporate and union donations to the provincial political process, and said other policies would be coming as the campaign unfolds.

Although admittedly exhausted with the grind of travelling to and from Ottawa for his MP duties, Mr. Cummins said he was eager to enter provincial politics. Whether or not he wins the leadership, he plans to seek a seat as a B.C. Conservative.

"There's nothing I like better than to jump in my truck and travel this province. It's something I've enjoyed for decades and it's something I'll enjoy until the day I die. I get up on it and it's just great," he said.

"I'm in great health, never had a health problem. My father's 96 and doing fine. I think I'll be around for awhile."

Follow on Twitter: @ianabailey

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