Skip to main content

British Columbia Conservative party leader John Cummins in Chilliwack, B.C., on Thursday April 19, 2012.Darryl Dyck

It's the big time for John Cummins.

The former Tory MP turned leader of the B.C. Conservative Party has been on the road for awhile testing his message that his party is the true "free-enterprise" party in a province where the governing Liberals claim the title.

But, on Tuesday, Mr. Cummins will be making his case before what many call the "downtown business crowd" in Vancouver, and it's shaping up as an important opportunity for the Conservatives, who are jostling with the Liberals for support in the polls, but way behind the opposition NDP..

Before more than 70 people, Mr. Cummins will have the floor for an hour in a room at the posh Terminal City Club in a speech organized by one of his supporters, a former B.C. Liberal.

While Mr. Cummins has met with business people across the province, he has yet to participate in an event like this, especially before the downtown business community largely associated with the Liberals.

"This will be the largest of this kind of event he's done," says party organizer Hamish Marshall,.

The speech, organized by former Liberal Rick Peterson who has joined the Conservative cause and is seeking the party's nomination in a Vancouver riding, was billed as an opportunity for Mr. Cummins to outline his party's vision for the business community.

But Mr. Peterson, a corporate finance consultant with a group of mining companies in mining exploration, amended that somewhat in an interview on Friday.

"It's an opportunity to connect with a crowd that is concerned about vote-splitting - an opportunity to confront that front and centre," said Mr. Peterson.

There has been a view, promoted vigorously by Liberal Premier Christy Clark that the Conservatives stand to be spoilers in the May, 2013 provincial election, splitting the centre-right vote and allowing the NDP to take power for the first time since 2001.

Mr. Cummins, who was travelling Friday and unavailable for comment, has disputed that view.

Philip Hochstein, president of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, and a vigorous proponent of the centre right uniting against the NDP, says he changed his schedule to attend the meeting as soon as he heard it was scheduled.

"I think he's an unknown commodity and people are interested in what he has to say, but the business community wants one tent, not two," said Mr. Hochstein.

He said he expected Mr. Cummins will face tough questioning on that point.

Political scientist Hamish Telford said Mr. Cummins will have to justify his party's place in the B.C. political terrain, especially after losing two recent byelections.

One of those, in Port Moody-Coquitlam east of Vancouver, was an easy win for the NDP largely because the party had a popular former mayor as candidate.

But Prof. Telford said the other race in Chilliwack-Hope out in the Fraser Valley was more troubling for the Conservatives because it was in fertile ground for the party yet they came third behind the NDP and Liberals.

The Conservatives who, like the provincial Liberals, have no connection to their federal namesake now have one member among 85 in the B.C. legislature - a Liberal defector.

"As the outsider trying to break in, it's up to him to justify his role," said Prof Telford of the University of the Fraser Valley.

That priority is all the more urgent, he said, because of a recent annual fundraising dinner held by the provincial Liberals that rallied more than 1,700 people for the $350-per-plate event. "It suggests the business community is starting to rally behind the Liberals," said Prof. Telford.

Mike McDonald, the B.C. Liberal campaign director, said his party's focus is NDP Leader Adrian Dix, and that the Liberals are inviting "conservative-minded" voters to attend an "open" Liberal convention in October where non Liberals will have a say in several policy areas such as education, skills training, public-sector spending and the reform of democratic institutions.

Meanwhile, Mr. Peterson says the planned attendance is notable because it would have been a tiny group had it just been Conservatives attending.

"This is not preaching to the converted. It's a great test for John. This is a crowd he needs to convince."