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CONTRIBUTION · 26th March 2012
John Twigg
MLA Van Dongen shakes balance of power in B.C. politics with shocking exit from Liberals to join B.C. Conservatives

The lure of "a broadly based, credible free enterprise option in the next provincial election" and the alleged lack of accountability in Premier Christy Clark's B.C. Liberal Party government have caused 17-year Liberal MLA John van Dongen to suddenly join the upstart and until-now seatless B.C. Conservative Party.

"When more and more decisions are being made for the wrong reasons, then you have an organization that is heading for failure," an even-voiced van Dongen told the hushed Legislative Assembly on Monday afternoon in a personal statement right after Question Period, calmly and quietly sending an earthquake through the structures of B.C.'s partisan politics.

Van Dongen explained he has been concerned for more than a year about what he alleged were inconsistencies in what Clark told people about what her own role had been in the B.C. Rail sale when she was running for the party leadership, which she narrowly won one year ago this month, and about other concerns such as the $6-million settlement for Basi and Virk in the BCR scandal as well as certain other issues.

BC Place name deal was last straw

He said the last straw was the string of inconsistencies (i.e. changing reasons) from Clark's government regarding the cancelling of a $40-million deal with Telus Corp. regarding the naming rights on B.C. Place, which led van Dongen to approach B.C. Conservative Party leader John Cummins, who happily (and sensibly IMO) welcomed him even though Cummins and the party had previously stated that MLAs wanting to change parties should have to first run in a byelection (which IMO is naive, extremist and too rigid to allow for a situation like this in which the party changed more than the politician did, and a situation in which the new party's policy orientations are very similar to the jumping politician's orientations).

In other words, van Dongen is jumping from a big free-enterprise ship that is sinking to a small but growing free-enterprise ship that is rising quickly in opinion polls; it's not as if he is leaving an anti-development party to join a pro-development party or vice-versa. And while the B.C. Place naming controversy was the last straw, the core issue was Clark's weak leadership.

"Mr. van Dongen cited two core values by which he judges leadership – integrity and a genuine commitment to public service -- both of which are areas of concern with regards to the current leadership of the B.C. Liberal Government. As such, his only option is to align himself with a party that has the best potential to provide a broadly-based, credible, free-enterprise option in the next election," said a statement from the B.C. Conservative Party.

The seriousness of van Dongen's concerns was underlined by the revelation that he had hired a lawyer at his own expense to try to probe certain problems related to the B.C. Rail sale, and he further noted that the B.C. Auditor General has had to go to court to try to get documents related to the $6-million payout to former government aides David Basi and Bob Virk who pleaded guilty to wrongdoing in the B.C. Rail sale but still got their legal bills paid contrary to government policy and also got to keep their homes.

There are some arguments that could be used to justify that payout but they bring the integrity of the justice system into disrepute, namely that they took a gentle fall in order to end a complex and costly trial before it called in to testify such principals as Clark, former finance minister Gary Collins, former premier Gordon Campbell and several others - in other words the dubious plea bargain looked a lot like a blatant and too-convenient coverup of a dirty political scandal.

Van Dongen in an interview with CKNW's Jon McComb admitted he was aware of allegations published recently on some blogs but he insisted his actions were based solely on his own research. The most notable blog postings probably were Alex Tsakumis's recent suggestions that Clark herself may have leaked documents in the B.C. Rail scandal and that despite previous denials she in fact had been the subject of some RCMP investigations shortly before she resigned from then-premier Campbell's cabinet - plus revelations that her leadership campaign had connections to an Indo-Canadian gangster and that she may have lobbied India's consulate to get him a travel visa, and that she may have had questionable connections to a private-post secondary institution that was in the news.

But I would note that my own little blog for several weeks also had been focussing on Clark's failing leadership on those and numerous other issues such as putting misleading revenue projections in the provincial budget and using misleading employment statistics for political self-aggrandizement. To which I further add that while I would not knowingly repeat an unfounded libel, those statements have been posted by Tsakumis and gone unchallenged for several weeks or more now.

Departure could soon be followed by more

Meanwhile van Dongen's move by itself does not jeopardize Clark's majority in the House but it could be merely the beginning of more defections because several other Liberal backbenchers are said to be unhappy with Clark's style of government, notably Joan McIntyre of West Vancouver - Sea-to-Sky but possibly numerous others too, even some now in cabinet.

Cummins declined to confirm whether any more defections are in the works but he was obviously enthused about his party's prospects and said van Dongen's move was a sign of the times.

"People are abandoning the B.C. Liberals in droves," he said, claiming his party's membership numbers have been growing rapidly.

Clark meanwhile slightly enlarged her cabinet on Saturday by adding John Yap to replace the ousted Harry Bloy as Minister of State for Multiculturalism, medical doctor Moira Stilwell as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health with a focus on health care innovation, and Rob Howard as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transportation with a focus on air services agreements.

The timing and content of those cabinet tweaks were a bit unusual but could have been a bid to manufacture some news in time for the deadline of the Vancouver Province's Sunday edition in order to bolster the Liberal Party's hopes in the two byelections underway and/or to help stop the party's and the Premier's plunges in opinion polls. But in retrospect they may also have been to mitigate the impacts of van Dongen's anticipated move on Monday.

Clark was not available to any media today but was expected to be in Victoria tomorrow.

Van Dongen said he had tried but not been able to reach the Premier to personally advise her of his decision to leave caucus but he repeatedly assured the media that she was well aware of his on-going concerns.

Margin of power gets tighter for Clark

The standings in the Legislature are now 46 Liberals, 34 NDP, 2 Independents (Vicki Huntington and Bob Simpson), 1 Indep. (Conservative) (van Dongen) and 2 seats vacant (with byelections set for April 19 in Port Moody and Chilliwack) - which with one seat for the Speaker means only four more defections from the Liberals would deprive Clark of her majority - assuming the New Democrats win the byelection in Port Moody and the Conservatives win in Chilliwack as now expected (though there is still lots of time for changes in B.C.'s ever-fluid politics).

The House sitting is scheduled to end on May 31, which means there could be time for the new MLAs to get into the House and participate in a vote of non-confidence in Clark's regime if that became appropriate.

NDP House Leader John Horgan seemed to welcome the move and suggested it was not entirely surprising given recent events but still was quite significant.

"It's a seismic shift in B.C. politics," Horgan told reporters, apparently signalling the NDP's recognition that B.C. politics now is truly a three-way contest.

Some eyebrows were raised about van Dongen's timing but he claimed it had nothing to do with the byelections and instead was driven mainly by the B.C. Place naming issue explanations, though it should be noted the Legislature is scheduled to sit only until Thursday and then recess for two weeks, which suggests there were some conveniences to doing it now rather than later.

Van Dongen's jump will help in byelection

Cummins clearly was happy with that too since it probably gives the Conservatives a lock on the Chilliwack riding because van Dongen - a longtime very successful dairy farmer and leader in the local Catholic church - is extraordinarily popular and well-respected in the upper Fraser Valley, winning his Abbotsford-South seat with 59% of the popular vote in 2009 even after he had been dumped from cabinet over speeding tickets and personally had gone through a marital breakdown and now is engaged to his constituency assistant.

"He's a man of great passion and integrity," gushed Cummins in one media comment though his quickly-issued news release cited his being a man of principle and integrity.

"I am delighted that he has joined BC's fastest growing party," said Cummins. "I am excited to work with John as we reach out to British Columbians and share our message of fiscal responsibility, ending the catch-and-release justice system, and reducing the influence of special interests in the political process. John's experience in the legislature will be invaluable in holding the government to account."

That passing reference to "special interests in the political process" could well have been a shot at renowned lobbyist Patrick Kinsella who apparently worked for three sides at once in the sale of B.C. Rail and who more recently was apparently the main architect of first getting Clark an open-line gig at CKNW and later co-piloting her leadership bid with prominent government lawyer Doug Eastwood, both of whom also worked for Vanoc during the 2010 Winter Olympics.

For his part van Dongen said he decided to join the B.C. Conservatives because they are a party devoted to integrity and are motivated by a genuine commitment to public service.

"I am energized to be part of a principled, honest and growing party that offers the people of B.C. a credible free-enterprise option in the next provincial election," he said, indicating that he intends to seek re-election as a Conservative in the next provincial election.

At a subsequent Conservative Party news conference in a hotel near the Legislature van Dongen also was armed with a legal opinion regarding the appropriateness of the payment arrangements for his longtime constituency assistant Sherri Wacker with whom he is now living in a committed relationship.

Government House Leader Rich Coleman, who dealt with the issue in Clark's absence, said he was a bit surprised because while van Dongen told his colleagues he would be leaving he had not told caucus that he also would be joining the Conservatives. Then Coleman made some comments suggesting that van Dongen, a longtime friend, may have been affected by personal issues that he had been struggling with since van Dongen lost his driver's licence.

Van Dongen said such remarks were unfortunate but noted that his personal issues had been known for about four years and were not a problem in the community. He further claimed he is a bridge-builder who will not hold grudges, adding he was aware of the risk of such questions being raised but he decided to proceed anyway because the key issue is regarding the Premier's leadership.

Van Dongen's resignation text

Mr. Speaker, I rise and ask for the attention of the House to make a personal statement.
For almost 17 years I have risen in this chamber to represent the best interests of both my constituents, and the best interests of all British Columbians. I have done so as a member of the Official Opposition for 6 years, a Cabinet Minister for 8 years and as a private member for the last 3 years.

Throughout that time I have been keenly aware of both the privilege and responsibility that comes with being an elected member of this Assembly. I have always tried to conduct myself in a manner consistent with the expectations of those who entrusted me with this office. I am by no means a flawless individual, but have strived for personal and political integrity. I have always taken ownership of my own shortcomings.

Mr. Speaker, I had hoped that there would have been renewal in my party and in government. But, in the past 12 months, that has not happened. Indeed, every week constituents question government actions and issues that I am not able to defend.

What I believe people expect from political leadership are core values that include integrity and a genuine commitment to public service.

Integrity includes honesty, ethics and personal character. Integrity is non-negotiable. It is foundational for a strong organization. Most importantly, integrity includes accountability.

To this day, Mr. Speaker, there are still serious unanswered questions regarding the writing-off of 6 million dollars in legal fees in the BC Rail case contrary to government policy.

Questions I have been asking for a year-and-a-half, and questions the Auditor General is seeking answers to through the courts.
Most recently, the unexplainable cancellation of a 35 million dollar naming rights agreement with Telus is another example of failed leadership.

There have been other lapses in proper accountability and I expect more to come. When more and more decisions are being made for the wrong reasons, then you have an organization that is heading for failure.

Today, Mr. Speaker, I rise because I can no longer carry on with my duties as a member of this government. I have decided to resign as a member of the BC Liberal Government Caucus and I am cancelling my membership with the BC Liberal Party.

I believe the people of B.C. deserve a government that will look in the mirror and honestly contemplate what it sees, a government that people have trust and confidence in, a government that models true accountability for its actions.

To my colleagues in the government caucus as well as those in opposition and those who sit as independent MLAs, I celebrate each of you and your willingness to serve the people of British Columbia. This is not an easy job, so to all of you who continue to strive for excellence, I applaud your efforts.

To my constituents, in the coming days and weeks I look forward to speaking with you and further discussing the decision I have made. Indeed, I do have much to share and will in the coming weeks make it clear that while this was not an easy decision, it was the only decision I could arrive at in good conscience.

To the government caucus staff, constituency assistants and party staff, it has been a privilege to work with you. And to all those public servants who I have had the honour of working with, rest assured that my work with you to accomplish the goals and policies that were right for all British Columbians have been one of the most meaningful aspects of my time in public office.

To my family and friends, thank you for standing by me through some difficult times. In particular I wish to thank Sherry and Lucas for their continued love and support.

In closing, Mr. Speaker, looking forward, I will do what I have done for the past 17 years. I will put my time, energy and talents to serve my constituents and the party that I believe can best provide British Columbians with a broadly based, credible free enterprise option in the next provincial election. Therefore, I am pleased to announce that I will now be sitting in this House as a member of the B.C. Conservative Party.

Van Dongen biography

John van Dongen, one of the longest serving MLAs in the B.C. Legislature, has represented Abbotsford voters since 1995.

He was re-elected in 1996, 2001, 2005 and began representing the new riding of Abbotsford-South in the spring of 2009.

During that time he has held a variety of posts, including Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety, Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations and Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.

John has called Abbotsford home for more than 30 years, and before his election to the Legislative Assembly operated his own successful dairy farm.

He was actively involved in farm organizations and business for 20 years, serving as the Vice-President of the Board of Directors of Dairyland and as a board member of Agrifoods International Co-operative (Dairyland), BC Dairy Foundation, BC Federation of Dairyman’s Association and the Federal Farm Debt Review Board.

John, the oldest of seven children, was born in Canada after his parents emigrated from Holland. He is father to two adult sons and has two grandchildren. He and his partner Sherri enjoy travelling, the outdoors and community involvement.

John holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of British Columbia.

Since he was first elected as MLA in Abbotsford, John quickly earned recognition and respect for his tireless dedication to his constituency, advocating passionately for the people he serves.

John believes British Columbians deserve a government that embraces integrity, works diligently and manages taxpayers’ money effectively.