Shortly after B.C. Conservative Party members voted Saturday to retain John Cummins at their leader, Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen stepped out of the annual general meeting to say he was quitting the party to sit as an independent.
For the second time in six months, van Dongen cited a lack of confidence in a party leader’s abilities as the reason for his leaving, as well as differences with the leader about the party’s direction.
“The job of the premier of B.C. is an extremely tough job. [Cummins] doesn’t have the skill set or the qualities for that tough job,” van Dongen said Monday.
“And frankly, I did not have a good response from [Abbotsford] constituents about John Cummins as the leader.”
Van Dongen left the B.C. Liberals in March to join Cummin’s B.C. Conservatives because he could no longer support Premier Christy Clark.
At the time, he cited several reasons for defecting, including the unexplained cancellation of a $35-million naming rights agreement with Telus as “another example of failed leadership,” and unanswered questions regarding the writing-off of $6 million in legal fees in the B.C. Rail case.
Van Dongen’s latest decision to leave the BCCP comes after a growing public rift in support for Cummin’s leadership.
It also came just one day after John Martin, a BCCP candidate in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election in April, announced he was leaving the Conservatives to join the B.C. Liberals.
Martin came in third in the by-election, after then-B.C. Liberal candidate Laurie Thorness, and the first-place finisher, New Democrat Gwen Mahoney. Martin will seek the nomination to run for the Liberals in the Chilliwack riding, held by veteran MLA John Les who won’t seek re-election.
(see John Martin story at bit.ly/Rf3AlU)
Van Dongen said he joined the BCCP on March 26 in “good faith with the stated goal of building a credible, broad-based free enterprise party. I enthusiastically applied myself to that.”
He admits there were “some caution flags” and that the decision was a political risk not just for himself, but also his constituents. But he said it was a risk he was willing to make to give the electorate an option beside the B.C. Liberals and the NDP.
However, in the past three months it became clear to him that he and Cummins had differing views on the direction of the party, he told the Times.
“He has not appealed to middle of the road voters and he does not appear to want to do so,” said van Dongen. “I took that risk in good faith. Mr. Cummins let me down.”
A faction in the party calling itself the Friends of the B.C. Conservatives, led by current party vice-president Ben Besler of Chilliwack, also questioned Cummins’ ability to lead and party decisions.
The group pushed for a vote for a leadership review at the general meeting held Saturday, and tried unsuccessfully to get their slate elected to the party executive.
In the end, 71 per cent of the 1,100 (out of 3,000 active membership claimed by the BCCP) who voted said no to the review.
Van Dongen noted on Monday that Cummins seemed unconcerned about the leadership issue, and was “very dismissive” about the 30 per cent of the membership who had concerns.
For his part Cummins, 70, the BCCP leader since May 2011, said he didn’t know why party members were against his leadership.
“The big question is what are the substance of the complaints. I’ve looked at the emails and if you can make head or tails of the substance of the complaints then please advise,” he said Saturday.
Van Dongen said trouble in the party was already obvious when the BCCP placed third in the Chilliwack-Hope by-election in April, which they had expected to win handily with local candidate John Martin.
“That was a very clear signal that the party did not have election readiness. What does that say about your leader’s competency and ability to execute a campaign?” said van Dongen, a four-term MLA in Abbotsford.
When asked if Cummins’ fundamentalist religious views were a factor in his concerns, van Dongen said they were, but to a much lesser degree than Cummins’ skills.
He said Cummins’ decision this summer to appoint former Abbotsford Reform and Alliance Party MP Randy White and Brian Peckford, past premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, as the BCCP’s issues advisors, didn’t help to make the party attractive to a wide range of voters.
“Then later [Cummins] make comments that invoked a religious figure and those kind of comments don’t [reflect a leader] that is prepared to be open to the political spectrum and different points of view. Generally speaking, people want to see a separation of church and state – he didn’t respect that with his comments,” said van Dongen.
(In reference to growing dissent among the party executive in late August, Cummins had compared himself to Jesus Christ, saying, “I hate to use a biblical reference but Christ had 12 apostles and one turned him in.”)
Looking ahead, van Dongen said he has no plans to quit politics.
“I will continue to represent my constituency as honestly and as aggressively as I always have. I very much look forward to putting my record to the constituents in the 2013 election,” he said on Monday.
He acknowledged that “it doesn’t look good for me to change parties twice in six months.”
“I’ve taken political risks for what I believe was for the good of the province, and I’m prepared to defend my record on that.”
In the view of the Legislature, van Dongen has been an independent MLA since he left the Liberals, as the BCCP does not have enough elected members to have party status.
Van Dongen feels confident that he will still be able to work effectively for his riding as an independent, by raising questions in the Legislature about governance issues, as do the two other independents in the Legislature: MLAs Vicki Huntington in Delta South, and Bob Simpson in the Cariboo North.
“We can raise questions, we can speak up, to engage government on various issues,” he said.
The three already collaborated when they opposed the government’s plan to add an additional statutory holiday in February, he said.
They are in contact, and van Dongen said he was meeting with Simpson soon.
Simpson was first elected to his riding as an NDP MLA in 2005, but left the party in 2010, explaining on his website that “political parties have garnered too much control over our democratic institutions to the detriment of good governance.”
Huntington, a Delta councillor for 15 years, squeaked past B.C. Liberal opponent Wally Oppal in 2009 as the first independent elected in the province since 1949.
Both outspoken and try to keep their profiles up in the public’s awareness. The two joined forces for a Twitter townhall on democratic reform on Sept. 20 to discuss free votes, the status of independent MLAs, campaign finance reform and improving citizen engagement, among other topics.
“I do envision working with them on some issues – we will gain some mutual strength that way,” van Dongen said.
He has no plans to start a party of his own, but he said provincial leadership remains a crucial issue for B.C.
“I’ll work with anyone to help move the leadership issue, in the interests of B.C. I will continue to contribute what solutions I think will help,” he said.
Earlier this year, van Dongen asked for and was granted intervener status in the provincial auditor general’s application to force the government to provide documents about the Dave Bassi-Bob Virk indemnity case of $6 million in legal fees, which was related to their 2010 guilty pleas to providing inside information in the sale of BC Rail.
– with files from the Vancouver Sun