Victoria— Globe and Mail Update
Published Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 5:42PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Mar. 26, 2012 6:23PM EDT
Just weeks before the B.C. Liberal government faces the polls in two by-elections, a longtime MLA and former solicitor-general quit the party and caucus on Monday to join the upstart B.C. Conservatives.
John van Dongen, the MLA for Abbotsford South, told his B.C. Liberal caucus colleagues of his decision at their regular meeting in Victoria on Monday afternoon, just minutes before rising in the House to deliver a stinging condemnation of the Clark government, saying it is heading for failure and citing a lack of integrity.
Mr. van Dongen’s departure was not a complete surprise – he had signalled his discomfort with Premier Christy Clark’s leadership a year ago when she took over the B.C. Liberal party. But the Liberals were still left reeling, as Mr. van Dongen did not warn them in advance that he would sit as a B.C. Conservative member.
Ms. Clark was not available to speak to reporters, but government house leader Rich Coleman suggested Mr. van Dongen’s judgement was clouded by personal issues.
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.
“I’ve been concerned about John as a friend for a long period of time,” Mr. Coleman told reporters in Victoria. “He’s been struggling with his role in public life.”
Mr. Coleman would not elaborate on the “personal issues” that his friend had confided to him about. “I think it was coming, one way or the other.”
The move gives the B.C. Conservatives a boost at a time when the coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives led by Ms. Clark is under significant stress. The party has been struggling in the polls while John Cummins’ party, even without any elected members, has been bleeding off traditional B.C. Liberal support. The split of the right has been a boon to the B.C. New Democratic Party, which currently has a credible shot at forming government again after more than a decade in opposition.
Mr. Coleman said he doesn’t expect the B.C. Conservatives to gain any long-term advantage by having a member in the House. Under the legislature rules, Mr. van Dongen will sit as an Independent MLA. The Conservatives would have to woo more disgruntled MLAs to its fold in order to form a party in the legislature.
But B.C. New Democratic Party house leader John Horgan said the Liberals should be worried. “He chose today, after 12 months of Christy Clark, to head for the door. That speaks to a fundamental challenge with the B.C. government, they are not able to shoot straight,” he told reporters.
“Christy Clark is the loser today, John van Dongen has clearly said to his constituents that he is going to put them first.”
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. Indeed, every week constituents question government actions and issues that I am not able to defend.”
He cited the “serious unanswered questions” about the government’s handling of the $6-million the government paid to cover legal fees for convicted former civil servants in the BC Rail case, and more recently the failure to reach a deal on the naming rights for BC Place.
“I believe the people of B.C. deserve a government that will look in the mirror and honestly contemplate what it sees in the reflection,” 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.”