Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen has defected to the B.C. Conservatives, exposing a significant fracture in the B.C. Liberal coalition under Premier Christy Clark’s leadership.
Mr. van Dongen stood in the legislature on Monday and said he could not support the Clark government because of its lack of integrity on a range of issues, from the handling of the BC Rail case to the failed deal to sell the naming rights for BC Place.
His move did not come without warning – just over a year ago, the Abbotsford South MLA told The Globe and Mail he had serious reservations about serving under Ms. Clark, who at that time was running for the B.C. Liberal leadership.
A year into Ms. Clark’s leadership, Mr. van Dongen said her tenure has proven to be as he feared. “Early on I stated my views of my assessment of her leadership capacity, including dimensions involving around integrity and around commitment to public service,” he told reporters. “It’s significantly about the leader.”
An hour after his statement in the House, Mr. van Dongen joined B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins at a news conference, where he was formally welcomed into the fold of the party that has been eroding B.C. Liberals’ support and threatening to split the Clark government’s centre-right coalition.
The B.C. Liberals, with two by-elections looming next month, were swift to dismiss their former colleague as someone simply struggling with personal troubles that clouded his judgment.
“I’ve been concerned about John as a friend for a long period of time,” Government House Leader Rich Coleman told reporters in Victoria. “He’s been struggling with his role in public life.”
But the New Democratic Party opposition – the biggest winner in this realignment – cheered Mr. van Dongen’s decision, after 17 years as a B.C. Liberal MLA, to cross the floor.
The split of the right has been a boon to the provincial NDP, which has a credible shot at forming government again after more than a decade in opposition – in part due to Mr. Cummins’s efforts.
B.C. New Democratic Party House Leader John Horgan said the Liberals should be worried. “It’s a big problem for the B.C. Liberals particularly going into two by-elections,” he told reporters. “Christy Clark is the loser today,” he added. “It’s a seismic shift in B.C. politics.”
Mr. van Dongen told reporters the final straw was the collapse of a deal that would have sold Telus the naming rights to BC Place, but he said the Premier’s leadership was the core issue.
Ms. Clark was not available to speak to reporters, leaving Mr. Coleman in charge of damage control by seeking to play down Mr. van Dongen’s departure and pour cold water on suggestions that others will follow.
Mr. van Dongen has been unhappy since he left cabinet in 2009 over his driving record while he was serving as solicitor-general, Mr. Coleman said.
Mr. Coleman would not elaborate on the “personal issues” that his friend had confided to him about. But he suggested something would be coming out soon that might drive public opinion against him.
At his news conference later in the day, Mr. van Dongen took pre-emptive action. He said he felt sure after Ms. Clark won that his personal relationship with his constituency assistant, Sherri Wacker, would be used against him. He obtained a legal opinion – with copies provided to reporters on Monday – that stated he was not obliged to fire Ms. Wacker once he and his long-time assistant started living together.
In his statement in the House – which was greeted with cheers from the opposition NDP benches – Mr. van Dongen clearly took aim at Ms. Clark’s leadership. “I had hoped that there would have been renewal in my party and government. But, in the last 12 months, that has not happened,” he said. “I will put my time, energy and talents to serve my constituents and the party that can best provide British Columbians with a broadly based, credible, free-enterprise option.”
Mr. Cummins would not say if he is talking to other B.C. Liberal MLAs about crossing the floor, but it would take four MLAs under the B.C. Conservative banner to gain official recognition as a party in the legislature. Mr. van Dongen will not give up his seat to run in a by-election, saying it would not make sense when the next general election is just 14 months away.