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Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen in his office at the B.C. Legislative Building in Victoria,BC Tuesday March 27, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
Former B.C. Liberal cabinet minister John van Dongen in his office at the B.C. Legislative Building in Victoria,BC Tuesday March 27, 2012. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason

Van Dongen's defection a wake-up call for B.C.'s Premier Add to ...

It wasn’t a place Premier Christy Clark likely imagined herself being barely a year into her tenure as Leader of the B.C. Liberals – chairing an emergency meeting of her caucus to determine just where her leadership stood with those in the room.

But that’s precisely where Ms. Clark found herself Monday evening after disaffected Liberal MLA John van Dongen shocked the legislature and his party by announcing that he was crossing the floor to join the upstart BC Conservative Party.

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And as he did he left little doubt that the main reason he was quitting the Liberals was because of Ms. Clark.

The Premier wasn’t in the legislature to hear Mr. van Dongen’s dramatic announcement. But she did arrive in Victoria later in the day to chair the extraordinary meeting of her caucus. According to sources, Ms. Clark was resolute. She dismissed the long-term consequences of Mr. van Dongen’s move. She insisted better days were ahead if everyone stuck together.

But she also wanted to know if this was it; whether she could anticipate any more firebombs going off in the near future. And so she went around the room asking her MLAs if they were loyal to the party and her leadership. They all said they were.

What were they going to say?

It’s unclear if others will follow Mr. van Dongen, whose disregard for Ms. Clark was palpable and long known. While there are certainly other Liberal MLAs unimpressed with the Premier’s command of issues and ability to inspire, they’re not yet ready to flee for greener pastures.

Those who might be tempted to join the Conservatives aren’t sure how real the party’s surge in the province actually is. Many will be watching to see how it does in two upcoming by-elections. Its best chance is in Chilliwack; if the Tories win there, it will give them fresh momentum.

Meantime, Conservative Leader John Cummins is putting out feelers to those Liberals MLAs who might be considering a move. If more follow Mr. van Dongen in the months ahead, it will sound the death knell for the Liberals in next year’s election.

It’s impossible to overstate just how troubled Ms. Clark’s leadership is at the moment. If the defection of an MLA to a party threatening your tenuous grip on power wasn’t bad enough for the Premier, she awoke to new polls Tuesday that again illustrated just how bad things are.

An Angus Reid survey indicated that her approval rating had dropped nine points since last August to a dismal 33 per cent. Among Canadian premiers, only Quebec’s Jean Charest had a worse score. And then later in the morning, a new poll by the Mustel Group confirmed what surveys have been saying for months now: The NDP has a solid (in this case, eight points) lead over the Liberals, and the BC Conservative Party is showing no signs of going away.

This marks the low point of Ms. Clark’s year-long term as Premier.

At the moment, it’s hard to see how she escapes this morass. After capturing the public’s imagination with her obvious charisma and fresh leadership style, a seemingly endless series of gaffes and missteps has eroded much of the support and goodwill she had.

They haven’t all been Ms. Clark’s doing, of course. But enough of them have been to feed questions, both in and outside Liberal ranks, about how good a fit as Premier she actually is.

As Mr. van Dongen exited the Liberals, he announced he had hired a lawyer to do an independent investigation of the Liberal government’s decision to pay the $6-million legal fees of two party insiders convicted in connection with the sale of BC Rail. He’s also getting Roger McConchie to look at Ms. Clark’s own connections to the scandal.

During the six-year-long court case, the Premier’s name surfaced several times in connection with some of the principals involved, most notably Erik Bornmann, who admitted to bribing government officials in exchange for secret information.

A defence lawyer for one of the accused suggested in court that Ms. Clark, a friend of Mr. Bornmann, was the actual leaker of cabinet documents. But the prosecution said after the trial concluded that a police investigation found no evidence of improper conduct on Ms. Clark’s part.

Ms. Clark, meantime, has steadfastly maintained that she did nothing wrong.

Whether this self-funded exploration of Mr. van Dongen’s goes anywhere remains to be seen. But it could end up being another major irritant to the Premier – who would seem to have enough to worry about already.



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