A glimpse inside the caucus rebellion that pressured Gordon Campbell to resign suddenly in 2010 is provided by an affidavit filed with the Supreme Court of British Columbia.
In the document, John van Dongen, who is now a Conservative MLA, states that as Liberal caucus whip at the time he pushed Mr. Campbell to quit after failing to get answers to questions about why the government paid $6-million in legal fees for Dave Basi and Bob Virk.
The case of the two former ministerial aides, who pleaded guilty Oct. 18, 2010, to breach of trust charges for leaking confidential cabinet documents concerning the sale of BC Rail, has long haunted the Liberals. It remains before the courts in a case in which the Auditor-General is trying to force the Attorney-General to release records concerning all indemnity payments ever made by the government.
When Mr. Campbell stepped down in November, 2010, The Globe and Mail reported that a “critical mass” of MLAs had been poised to engineer his ouster. On Tuesday, members of the B.C. Liberal caucus largely confirmed Mr. van Dongen’s account, although they stressed that there were other issues – particularly the implementation of the harmonized sales tax – that had contributed to the leadership challenge.
Mr. van Dongen is breaking his self-imposed silence over events behind the scenes leading up to Mr. Campbell’s resignation in an affidavit filed to support his bid to gain intervenor status in the current case.
He states that on Oct. 25, 2010, he began to press Mr. Campbell “for disclosure of the details of the legal fee indemnity waiver.”
On Oct. 28, he sat down with Mr. Campbell to discuss the issue and ask for a caucus meeting with two deputy ministers who handled the indemnity deal.
“The Premier knew before the meeting began that I was already talking to MLAs about asking him to resign,” he alleges. “He told me he would not resign, but would stay on … that the earliest possible date he would resign was June, 2011. He further said he would try to extend his term to the fall of 2011, and if possible he would extend to the spring of 2012 after that.”
Mr. van Dongen states that the next day he was informed caucus would not get the meeting with the two deputies, but the Attorney-General would attend instead.
“I phoned the Premier and told him … he should resign immediately,” states Mr. van Dongen, adding he then alerted cabinet ministers to his demand.
In Victoria, rumours were spreading through the legislature that a caucus revolt was under way.
Mr. van Dongen states in his affidavit he had a number of reasons for calling on Mr. Campbell to resign, including a public outcry over the harmonized sales tax, “but the legal fee indemnity waiver regarding Basi and Virk had been the final straw.”
He states that on Oct. 30, he met with Gary Collins, the former minister of finance, to discuss caucus opposition to Mr. Campbell.
Mr. Collins, who had been Mr. Basi’s boss, had left government, but as a respected Liberal he was often called in to help resolve internal disputes.
Mr. Collins confirmed the meeting in an interview Tuesday, but said Mr. van Dongen’s list of complaints was long and the indemnity payment was raised only briefly.
“That issue was a very small part of the discussion,” he said. “It was primarily in relation to the HST issue and the pressure building in caucus.”
On Nov. 3, Mr. Campbell surprised cabinet by announcing his decision to quit.
At the time, Mr. van Dongen would not comment on what role he had played.
“Our conversations as a caucus are confidential and I’ll leave it at that,” he said at the time. “No one tells this premier what he should do – he makes his own decisions.”
Mr. Campbell’s sudden departure, and Mr. van Dongen’s part in the caucus revolt, remain sensitive issues in government.
B.C. Liberal MLA John Les said it would be “wisest if I kept my mouth shut” about Mr. van Dongen’s account of how Mr. Campbell was pushed out.
“I’m not going to add to John’s version of the various intrigues that may or may not have played out at the time,” he told reporters in Victoria. “Those issues will sort themselves out in court and I’m not going to throw any gas on the fire.”
The caucus chair at that time, MLA Ron Cantelon, was reluctant to comment Tuesday, but he did not dispute any statements made in Mr. van Dongen’s affidavit.
“I lived through it … I don’t have any different knowledge,” he said in an interview.
He said Mr. van Dongen was disclosing matters subject to caucus confidentiality and, “I don’t intend to betray that confidence.”
Asked if there was an emergency caucus meeting to discuss the premier’s leadership – a meeting that was derailed when the premier abruptly announced his resignation – Mr. Cantelon deferred to Mr. Campbell.
“Gordon would be the person to ask on that. I think he looked over and decided his page was due to be turned,” he said.
Mr. Campbell, who is now Canadian High Commission in London, could not be reached for comment.