"Doesn't it make you feel a bit like the early days of Reform?" -- Former Reform Party MP Randy White to BC Conservatives
When has a Conservative politician publicly said he voted for a provincial New Democrat MLA, wants to appeal to unionized workers, supports the role of government in the economy and backs environmental critics of run of river projects?
It happened in Vancouver on Saturday when veteran federal Conservative member of parliament John Cummins addressed the provincial BC Conservative Party's annual general meeting.
And Cummins got strong applause for his views from the almost 200 delegates in attendance, including former premiers from two provinces and several ex-MPs.
Cummins gave a campaign-style speech making clear the BC Conservatives are going to target not only disgruntled BC Liberal voters but also the NDP's traditional support bases.
With Premier Gordon Campbell facing a disastrous nine per cent personal approval rating in a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll while his party sits at just 24 per cent thanks to the hated Harmonized Sales Tax, past BC Liberal supporters are looking for a new centre-right home.
The NDP are pleased to hold 49 per cent in the same poll, but leader Carole James has only a 27 per cent approval rating and faces internal party issues highlighted by caucus chair Norm Macdonald's resignation last Friday over James' expulsion of MLA Bob Simpson without any discussion or vote by her MLAs.
The two major parties' problems helped create an ebullient mood among delegates, perhaps unrealistic for a party that has no leader, no elected members, only ran 24 candidates in the 2009 election and garnered just two per cent of the vote, but that optimism is not totally misplaced.
The same poll shows the BC Conservatives rising to eight per cent and positioning themselves as the go-to alternative for voters angry at the BC Liberals but afraid of the New Democrats.
That's why the BC Conservatives -- who are not connected to the federal party -- have been able to attract a collection of senior ex-politicians to advise them on how to build the party.
Led by former Conservative and Reform MP Randy White, their "Tactical Advisory Group" includes ex-BC Social Credit premier Rita Johnston, ex-Newfoundland Conservative premier Brian Peckford -- now a long-time resident of Qualicum Beach, and other former Reform MPs Darryl Stinson, Jim Hart, Andy Burton and Reed Elley, along with former Cowichan Lake mayor Jack Peake and party president Wayne McGrath, a three-term Vernon mayor.
But it's sitting MP Cummins who has the highest profile -- and who may well be the front runner for leader in 2011, though he has to date denied any interest.
Cummins' speech may change that perception.
'People are environmentally conscious'
"You don't want people voting for you simply because they don't like the other guy -- we need to stand for something," Cummins, a commercial fisherman and teacher, told members.
"British Columbians believe there is a role for government," he said, extolling the actions of former Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett in nationalizing BC Electric to create publicly-owned BC Hydro and creating BC Ferries as a Crown Corporation.
But the BC Liberals have removed the role of government and ignored environmental concerns with their controversial independent power projects across the province, Cummins said, a mistake the BC Conservatives must not repeat.
"People are environmentally conscious -- this party has to be seen as a protector of the environment -- if not, we're not going to make it to government," he said.
And Cummins reminded BC Conservatives that in past federal elections the right wing Reform, Alliance and Conservative parties had all gained workers' votes to win seats, despite the NDP having strong ties to organized labour.
"The union guy voted for us -- don't ever forget that," Cummins said forcefully and to a round of applause. "Those are the people we need on our side."
"There are voters, some of whom have voted for the NDP -- and I've done that in the last year," Cummins said, referring to his public endorsement of NDP Delta North MLA Guy Gentner. "The NDP MLA in my riding was helpful on some fisheries issues, so I gave him my vote, because I can't vote Liberal."
Cummins also reminded the audience that Bennett was premier for 20 years because he always won votes from union workers, many of whom supported his championing of major infrastructure projects like the BC Hydro dams that opened up the province.
Cummins didn't shy away from some of the BC Conservatives' chequered history either.
"The party has a bit of a coloured past -- now we're a new Conservative party," Cummins says.
"As [former Reform leader] Preston Manning said -- bright lights attract flies. In the past year this party has been the bright light in politics and yes we've attracted flies, but now we have the flypaper up," he said to laughter.
And perhaps anticipating a rough ride from journalists in days ahead -- although surprisingly I was the only media person present at the event -- Cummins told members not to fear scrutiny.
Shifting issues anticipated
"How do you deal with the media? They aren't ogres. They're people like you and me who go home at the end of the day to their families," he said. "Tell the truth as you see it. If you do that you will be well served."
And likely referring to the HST -- which Cummins voted for in parliament as a Conservative MP and has said in a recent interview is "necessary" -- he advised the audience that the "issues of the day seem big but don't really matter in the long run."
"Nobody really knows the issues which will be fought over in the next election," he said.
Cummins also fired both barrels at the BC Liberals, whose MLAs have accused the upstart BC Conservatives of vote splitting of voters on the right-centre which could lead to an NDP victory, as it did in 1972, 1991 and 1996 with the social democrats taking around 40 per cent of the vote but a majority of the seats.
"As to the question of splitting the vote -- who is splitting the vote?" Cummins asked, pointing out that with the record low turnout in the 2009 election of just 51 per cent, the B.C. Liberals' 46 per cent winning vote came from less than 23 per cent of all eligible voters.
"We're coming up like gangbusters. We're going to be the party to beat in the next election," Cummins said to applause, before delivering his punch line. "Then it will be the Liberals splitting the vote!"
"I see this meeting today as the start of a great Conservative movement in this province. We are going to win the election in 2013!" Cummins concluded to a standing ovation.
Campbell not welcome: McGrath
Earlier at the AGM, party president McGrath answered questions from members in a sometimes overly frank way.
McGrath said that if recall attempts organized by Fight HST, which I support, were successful in removing BC Liberal MLAs the BC Conservatives would contest subsequent by-elections.
But he warned that the party's lack of constituency associations in several ridings would be a problem.
"It could be that we have a by-election through recall in a riding were we don't have a C.A. -- that would be unfortunate but it could happen," he said.
While McGrath also said sitting BC Liberal MLAs were welcome to join the BC Conservatives, they would have to apply and go through a process to be accepted.
However, he added to loud applause: "If Gordon Campbell were to apply, I as a board member would vote no!"
McGrath was also asked why Fight HST organizer Chris Delaney had quit the BC Conservatives in September to join a new political party, BC First.
"Chris Delaney was very opposed to the HST -- as we were, as we are. He formed his own party and said we were in favour of the HST -- a total fabrication," McGrath claimed. "But I don't want to be negative today, only positive."
Confusing stances on taxes
While the BC Conservative policy online clearly states that it opposes the "totally unfair BC Liberal HST" on several grounds, it also proposes to eliminate the Provincial Sales Tax, lower the corporate income tax, end the Property Transfer Tax and double personal income tax exemptions -- all at a cost of billions in government revenue without any explanation of how public services would be maintained.
And with Cummins defending his vote in favour of the HST in parliament, while White recently said it wouldn't be possible to now remove it, the HST may be the biggest challenge for the party to overcome.
One solution -- despite Cummins' stated advice to simply be truthful with the media -- came from the BC Conservatives' communications director, Nanaimo city councillor and retired newspaper publisher Merv Unger.
"There are people out to discredit us. It's always important to control the message," Unger said. "If there's anything you need to disseminate to the public, send it to me first."
White also addressed a question about how the Tactical Advisory Group would be accountable to the members.
"None of us want to be elected. Our job is to keep these people out of the minefields -- just ask my wife," White said to laughs. "We have a limited shelf life until the new leader is elected in 2011."
Leadership contest not scheduled
McGrath said that leadership contest will "hopefully" take place in the first half of 2011 but definitely take place later in the year if not.
"Perhaps some of the answers have been a bit nebulous but I believe they have to be," McGrath concluded.
Nebulous indeed. But the potential for the BC Conservatives to strike fear into BC Liberal MLAs is very clear.
Less certain but not to be discounted is the potential that BC Conservatives may have to appeal to traditional BC NDP working class voters -- especially if led by a populist like John Cummins.
For any who doubt that, take a good, long look at the results of the federal election of 1993.
That was the election when Reform wiped out the federal Conservative government as English Canada's right wing party and took 24 of B.C.'s 32 seats by devastating the NDP, which lost 17 of its previous 19 seats.
NDP MPs going down to defeat at Reform hands included former B.C. premier Dave Barrett and current New Westminster NDP MLA Dawn Black.
How many B.C. seats did the Reform Party hold before that 1993 election? Exactly none, which is just as many as the BC Conservatives have today -- for now.