Geoff Russ: A Conservative revolution is coming to B.C.

The B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C. is shown on Wednesday, June 10, 2020. © Provided by National Post

In 2020, few predicted that the Conservative Party of British Columbia (CPBC) would become a serious political force by 2023, let alone with potential to grow into the NDP government’s strongest challenger.

B.C. United (BCU; formerly the B.C. Liberals) has been the province’s main centre-right party for almost 30 years, but it’s been overshadowed by the CPBC in recent months. Between its strong performances in a summer byelection and favourable fall poll, and last week’s floor-crossing of a BCU MLA, the CPBC’s seven-decade dormancy may be at an end.

The CPBC’s comeback started in August 2022, when MLA John Rustad was expelled from the B.C. Liberal caucus for challenging the effect of carbon dioxide on climate change. He sat as an independent until he joined the CPBC in February 2023, and was made leader shortly afterward, giving the party parliamentary representation.

In July, the CPBC contested a byelection in a safe NDP riding. Unsurprisingly, the NDP retained its seat, but the real story was that the CPBC surged ahead of BCU as the runner-up. On Sept. 8, Mainstreet Research released a poll suggesting that the CPBC was the preferred choice for 21 per cent of all B.C. voters. This was a mere nine points behind the governing NDP, and three points ahead of BCU.

On Sept. 13, the CPBC gained an additional member. BCU MLA Bruce Banman crossed the floor, doubling the size of the CPBC caucus to meet the province’s two-seat threshold for official party status in the legislature. The party gained access to funding and additional resources. Banman, explaining the reason for his move, said BCU stifled the ability of its MLAs to speak transparently with their constituents and express their views.

“There was one vote that happened in the legislature, where I was told you were either in agreement on this vote, or leave the building,” Banman said in an interview Sept. 15. “I struggled with that. I wanted to vote against it, but I left the building.”

Banman said the process that led to his floor-crossing began after a chance meeting with Rustad at an event in Abbotsford, during which the two exchanged phone numbers.

BCU’s image-conscious approach has stifled others. Falcon, the BCU leader, won the party leadership race when it concluded in 2022. Arron Gunn, a filmmaker and activist from Vancouver Island, had attempted to enter the race in 2021, but his candidacy was rejected by the party executive out of concern that his views were inconsistent with the party’s “commitment to reconciliation, diversity and acceptance of all British Columbians.” An outspoken conservative, Gunn’s posts on social media were considered too controversial to be a viable candidate.

“I think my expulsion sent a message to all like-minded conservatives that they are no longer welcome in the party,” Gunn wrote in an email Sept. 14. “If you oppose the Trudeau carbon tax, ideological education or the government’s provision of hard drugs, this simply isn’t the party for you.”

Like the Conservative Party of Canada under Pierre Poilievre, Rustad’s CPBC explicitly calls for boosting the housing supply, cracking down on crime, lowering taxes, pushing back against identity politics, defending parents’ rights and abolishing B.C.’s carbon tax outright (the tax was first legislated in 2008 by the B.C. Liberals). BCU’s Kevin Falcon, meanwhile, has attacked the NDP government for removing the provision that made the province’s carbon tax revenue-neutral, but steered clear of promising to abolish it.

Rustad has  praised Poilievre as Canada’s next prime minister, while CPBC vice-president Harman Bhangu is also an outspoken supporter of the federal Conservative leader.

“People in Canada want to hear what Pierre is saying, and John (Rustad) is hitting the same thing,” Bhangu said in an interview Sept. 13. “Any (other) political party out there in B.C., it doesn’t align with the federal Conservatives like ours does.”

Several members of the CPBC executive, including Bhangu, supported Poilievre’s successful bid to lead the federal Conservatives back in 2022. Bhangu also says Gunn’s expulsion from the leadership race in 2021 has not been forgotten by many younger grassroots CPBC supporters.

“A lot of the youth that were involved with the B.C. Liberals; they really resonated with Aaron’s documentaries,” said Bhangu. “I happen to know a lot of the people that are part of (BCU), and supporters of the party, their voter base, and they were appalled when they saw that.”

Despite the recent developments, challenges remain for the CPBC in its quest to displace BCU as province’s go-to centre-right party. Having governed B.C. from 2001 to 2017, BCU still has an extensive network and is closing the fundraising gap  with the NDP.

B.C. Premier David Eby pledged in June to not call an early election before 2024, leaving plenty of time for BCU to turn the ship around, but it may mean breaking its signature mantra of being a centrist collaboration of federal Liberals and Conservatives.

BCU was once a winning coalition in which pro-business views were always welcome, but any strong views on social or cultural issues were at the very-least discouraged. The prospect of such a big-tent coalition was easier in 2005 when the business-friendly Paul Martin led the federal Liberals, and Stephen Harper led the Conservatives.

In 2023, it makes far less sense to think that supporters of both Poilievre, the populist conservative, and the staunchly progressive Justin Trudeau can compromise not only on carbon taxes, but also on parental rights, gender and safe supply of drugs.

BCU will eventually have to choose between trying to replicate their old centrist coalition, or opt to pick a side. The CPBC has clearly chosen one, and it’s the federal Conservatives that could win 200 seats if a federal election was held tomorrow; federal political polls this summer have consistently suggested that the Poilievre-led Conservatives are in majority-government territory.

“In my view, it’s currently a toss-up between B.C. United and the B.C. Conservatives as to who will emerge as the main alternative to the NDP during the next election,” wrote Gunn. “Time will tell, but the trend certainly doesn’t look good if your name is Kevin Falcon.”

It may take more than one election, but B.C.’s NDP government will eventually fall. When that does happen, and it will happen, the CPBC are well-positioned to take their place.

Geoff Russ is a journalist and writer from British Columbia.

Source: National Post