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'There's No Doubt It's Set Us Back': Cummins

BC Conservative leader says he expects to easily face down revolt this weekend.

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Sep 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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BC Conservative party leader John Cummins: Fending off review vote.

As the British Columbia Conservative Party heads to a meeting this weekend that will provide a key signal whether they're ready to compete in the next provincial election, a group of dissidents has had party in-fighting in the headlines.

"It's quite the tempest in a teapot that's happening, and it's beginning to spill over out of the teapot," said Jamie Lawson, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. "If the B.C. Conservatives can't staunch this on the weekend, the BC Liberals might start... saying, 'We might be able to save this.'"

The Conservatives may deal with the dispute and come out of the weekend stronger, or there may be a crumbling that leads to a rebalancing for all the province's major parties, he said.

The rumblings out of the Conservative Party became public over the last few weeks as emails by directors John Crocock and Ben Besler have leaked to the media. The emails urged support for a review of John Cummins' leadership.

Criticisms included the failure to do better in two by-elections last spring, the lack of progress organizing constituency associations and Cummins receiving $4,000 a month from the party at a time when it needs all the resources it has to fight the next election.

Besler has circulated a slate for the party's board of directors, hoping in Saturday afternoon's elections to beat a slate of people who support Cummins.

The results of the vote on whether to hold a leadership review are expected to be released after noon Saturday, shortly ahead of a scheduled speech by Cummins.

'Small but vocal group'

The headlines have been the kind that hurt: "Cummins faces a revolt in the ranks" (Vancouver Sun), "Infighting divides BC Conservative Party" (CKNW), "Ben Besler leads BC Conservative revolt against John Cummins" (Canadian Press), "Cummins' list of friends doesn't add up" (Times Colonist), "Leaked documents indicate a growing rift in B.C. Conservative Party" (Vancouver Province).

Several stories have noted that the party's one MLA, John van Dongen who defected earlier in the year from the BC Liberals, has declined to voice support for Cummins, and have suggested there's a rift between the leader and his highest profile recruit.

Despite what's been in the news, Cummins' and his supporters have said they're confident the membership is solidly behind a leader who has taken them from a fringe party to 20 per cent support in the polls.

"I don't see it as a serious threat," said Cummins. "I think we'll do quite well on the vote."

Holding a review is more complicated than many people think, he said. The party's constitution requires that for a review to happen he would have to step down, there'd be a call for candidates and a process that would take into January, making it difficult to focus on the election, he said. "It's not an insignificant vote."

Meanwhile, Cummins acknowledged, the dissidents and the headlines haven't helped. "It's certainly raised the specter of disunity within the party," he said. "There's no doubt it's set us back."

The party had issues it intended to raise publicly in August, but instead it was forced to deal with the internal issues, he said. "That's political life. You don't always get your way."

Costing Conservatives credibility

Asked about van Dongen, Cummins said, "Obviously he hasn't been supportive. That's troubling in a sense."

He added that van Dongen had trouble with the BC Liberal Party's leadership before he changed parties, and that efforts were made in the Conservatives to work things through with him. "To a certain extent I guess it wasn't successful."

Cummins said his focus is on growing the party and getting the message out, but acknowledged it's often difficult. "Reviving a darn party is not an easy task," he said. "It's quite a daunting task."

There are times when it's been necessary to make decisions on the fly, and it's difficult to keep everyone happy, he said. "At times we just haven't met everybody's expectations. I don't know what you can do about it."

Just four of the party's 26 board members oppose Cummins, said Al Siebring, a director-at-large on the party's board and a North Cowichan municipal councillor. The proportion suggests around 80 per cent of the membership will support the leader, he said.

While parties need to be able to discuss issues, it's frustrating to have internal spats play out in public, Siebring said. If the party wants to govern the province, they have to be able to show they can govern themselves, he said.

"I have no problem talking about John Cummins' leadership, but you don't do it the way it's been done," he said. "These guys have cost the party credibility."

Dissidents taking a gamble

"If I was a Conservative in B.C., I would be pretty upset," said UVic's Lawson. "People have choices to make in that corner of B.C. politics and I don't think their choices are obvious ones."

People who've been telling pollsters they'll vote Conservative may not be strongly attached to the party, so recent events may have them taking another look at the Liberals, he said. "They may say, 'Given a choice between two dysfunctional parties, I'll take the one that's in office.'"

Lawson said it remains to be seen whether or not the dissidents speak for a larger swath of the membership. That seven people have come forward to form a slate suggests the concern runs deeper than a few disgruntled board members.

"There's enough people who are willing to take the gamble that this is not going to destroy the whole project of the BC Conservatives," he said. "I'd have to think there are a lot of people who are biting their tongues beyond those seven people."

When a party is growing and doing well, party members will keep their concerns to themselves, he said. But if there's a feeling the party has plateaued at 20 percent support, there may well be nervousness about what that will mean in the May 14, 2013, election.

Depending how Conservative voters are spread across the province, he said, "Twenty per cent can get you a solid caucus with party recognition in a corner of the legislature, or it could get you nothing."

The Conservatives are at a point where they may be having some growing pains as different factions figure out what they want the party to be, he said. There's a desire to be an ideologically pure party that represents right wingers in the province, and there's a competing desire to be the kind of "umbrella party" that attracts a wide enough range of voters to beat the NDP and keep them out of power, he said.

Other observers have suggested the in-fighting is spurred by a small group of people whose influence in the party declined after Cummins and others arrived.

Asked about the theory, Cummins said, "There's a certain amount of truth to that. The party had 250 members and they were significant players."

The party has grown to over 3,000 members, Cummins said, adding that it has inexplicably surged again during the recent troubles.

Much will depend on whether Cummins succeeds this weekend, said Lawson. "If he stares them down on Saturday, people will have no choice but to shut up until the election is over," he said.

If not, it will set the Conservatives into serious disarray just eight months before the general election. "It's late in the day to be fussing about leadership," he said.

The Tyee plans to have a reporter at the Conservatives' meeting this week. Stay tuned.  [Tyee]

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