Ex-BC Liberal John Rustad’s coronation as BC Conservative leader Friday is one more piece of bad news for struggling BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon.
The Conservatives, a long-ago political force, have been wandering in the wilderness for 70 years, last electing two MLAs in 1971. The Liberals have done a tidy job in keeping the province’s centre-right, not-NDP coalition together.
Rustad, MLA for the Nechako Lakes riding west of Prince George for 18 years, is unlikely to make the Conservatives an electoral contender. But he could lead the party into a spoiler role in the next election scheduled for Oct. 19, 2024. (Assuming that Premier David Eby shows greater respect for the fixed election date law than his opportunistic predecessor.)
Especially in our current times, when contrarian populism is a viable political brand.
Rustad, who worked in forestry before entering provincial politics as a BC Liberal, was kicked out of the Liberal party last August by Falcon. His ousting offences included a retweet suggesting climate change was a fraud, and “a pattern of behaviour that was not supportive of our caucus team and the principles of mutual respect,” Falcon said.
But the BC Liberals rated Rustad highly enough in the past to make him minister of forests, natural resources and Indigenous relations when they were in power. Which makes it hard to dismiss him as a loonie now.
And he’s sitting beside them in the legislature, with at least limited opportunities to build the Conservatives’ profile. (Limited because one MLA doesn’t bring official party status and associated funding.)
And Rustad has set out a Conservative agenda aimed at the BC Liberals.
“We have an NDP party, we have an NDP-lite party, or whatever the BC Liberal Party are calling themselves these days, but we do not have a party that actually promotes and supports people individually to be able to fight for their ridings,” Rustad said in an interview with The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod.
“I just think quite frankly the Liberal Party has run its course. It’s lost its moral compass. It is no longer a coalition party and we have to have a new coalition party to be able to have an opportunity to govern in this province.”
And Rustad staked out his populist credentials.
“I am the only MLA who has publicly supported the freedom movement in our province. I am proudly pro-freedom and pro-trucker, and I'm fighting to end mandates and hire back our health-care heroes.”
Falcon, he said, is “trying to follow this woke ideology and I just don’t believe it’s going to resonate with people in this province.”
Rustad is wrong. Sending unvaccinated health workers into seniors’ care homes or ICUs is dangerous. Letting protesters capture Ottawa and shut down a border crossing is irresponsible. Climate change isn’t just real, but an imminent threat. “Woke ideology” mostly just translates into “don’t be a jerk.”
But his kind of political claims can resonate, as Donald Trump has shown in the U.S. and Pierre Poilievre is trying to show as federal Conservative leader.
The BC Liberals are an often uncomfortable coalition — federal Conservatives are suspicious of federal Liberals, rural British Columbians wary of the party’s Lower Mainland axis.
But they’ve been united based on a simple reality. When there is one centre-right party, it has a good chance of winning elections. When there are two, defeat is likely.
Rustad’s Conservatives are unlikely to win any seats. But they could change the outcome of the next election.
The party is polling at about 12 per cent, compared with the NDP at 47 per cent, Liberals at 28 per cent and Greens at 10 per cent, according to a January Leger report. Conservative support spikes to 18 per cent outside the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
Typically, that support erodes on election day as people hold their noses and vote for the party that has a chance of winning and that they dislike least.
But these are different times, and estrangement is running deeper.
The BC Liberals won five ridings by less than 1,000 votes in 2020. Only one of these five had a Conservative candidate.
If Rustad succeeds in fielding a full slate of credible candidates, and can use his seat in the legislature to raise the party’s profile, the already floundering Falcon could win even fewer seats than predecessor Andrew Wilkinson.
Read more: BC Politics