BC Conservative leader: ‘People are looking for change’

Written By Fran Yanor

“[Voters] are not happy with the status quo. They’re looking for change and they’re looking for hope. And that’s what we want to be able to give them.”

–John Rustad

In 17 months, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad has transformed from BC United persona non grata to leader of the fastest-rising provincial party in B.C. Rustad was kicked out of the BC United (formerly the BC Liberals) caucus in August 2022. By March the following year, he’d joined the BC Conservatives and been acclaimed leader, becoming the party’s only sitting MLA. Six months later, Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman quit the BC United and joined Rustad, catapulting the party to official status. An eventful fall legislative session followed. Fuelled by the rising popularity of federal Conservatives, namely Leader Pierre Poilievre, the BC Conservatives capped 2023 by placing second behind the governing BC NDP in a poll of decided voters. 

The following is an excerpt from Rustad’s year-end interview with Northern Beat in December.

Q: You were the lone gun in the spring legislative session? How did things change [with Banman joining] now that you have an actual caucus?

A: Well, a caucus meeting of two makes for very short caucus meetings, which is good. But no, in all seriousness … that was certainly not an easy decision for Bruce, but it was a real game changer for the Conservative Party [of BC]. Getting party status is one thing, but having the additional resources, some staffing, getting a question in question period every day, as opposed to once every two weeks. That was a big gift for us … for how we can hold government to account.

Q: So, the front-facing effect that the public sees is that you suddenly showed up in the question period every day?

A: For the public who watch question period, yes. Certainly, it gave us an opportunity to ask very uncomfortable questions of the NDP and put them in a place where they’re not used to. You could see the NDP were getting frustrated or getting angry. They found it challenging. And I think that’s quite frankly, what democracy should be.

Q: Just to go back to the first day of session, your first question – which caused an uproar – your first two questions were SOGI-related. What motivated that? Do you have regrets about asking them?

A: Absolutely not. I get that there’s some people that are concerned about that position. But when you have a significant group in the province, whether it’s minorities, whether it’s religious groups, whatever it may be, that have real concerns about their children, about what’s going on in schools, about the sexualization of children in schools. They just want their kids to be kids. They want the kids to be safe. They want the kids to be able to not have any bullying or any other issues going on at school for anybody. But they want to have the ability to address social issues themselves. 

“[Parents] want to have the ability to address social issues themselves.”

And government seems to think that shouldn’t be the job of parents, that school should do that. I fundamentally disagree. I think parents and grandparents should have the right to be able to raise their children in the way that they would like to raise them. Schools should be about providing kids the tools to give them the ability [to learn] how to think, not what to think.

David Eby’s response tells me very clearly that this is an issue that they’re very concerned about, that they feel very vulnerable on. And his over-the-top response tells me that this is an issue that needs to be talked about, and it shouldn’t be shut down through bullying, or an authoritarian-style government.

Q: We interviewed Mike Bernier as the education minister who originally brought in SOGI [in 2015, under the then-BC Liberal government]. As you know, because you were part of cabinet at the time… SOGI was brought in as three teacher modules. It was never meant for the classroom. It was intended to help teachers recognize when kids are being bullied and figure out how to help. Is that your recollection also, and why has that changed? 

A: When I was cabinet and when Mike brought this in, I asked him about it. I didn’t actually look at it, I didn’t look at how it was being implemented in other jurisdictions, or what the history of it was. I simply asked him about it because I trusted my colleagues. And he said ‘It’s nothing to worry about, it’s just an anti-bullying program.’ And I agreed, anti-bullying is exactly what we need to be doing. We should not be accepting bullying. We should have zero tolerance for bullying. So I just moved on. 

It wasn’t until a couple of years later, that I came to the realization that [SOGI] was way, way more than that. 

Q: It sounds like SOGI is a bigger issue outside of Vancouver than the Vancouver politicians maybe realize?

A: it’s a big issue in many corners of the province. It’s certainly not the only thing we’re going to be running on. It’s just an issue that we took on. Because we believe in parents. We believe in family values. We believe in supporting parents. We believe in supporting communities. That’s who we are. This is an issue that has become very divisive. And that should not be what our education system is about. 

Q: A November poll from Abacus actually has you ahead by one per cent in the north and interior over the NDP. That is a meteoric change compared to even last spring.

A: I think it’s that people are looking for change. Since 1991, it has been 16 years of NDP and 16 years of BC Liberals/United. And you can look at everything in this province [from health care to affordability, housing, overdose deaths, crime and the resource sector] … just about anything you look at in this province, it is not working.

“Just about anything you look at in this province, it is not working.”

People are looking for a different approach to being able to address this. And that’s what we’re providing as the Conservative Party of BC. I think that is a big piece of why we’re gaining so much traction.

Q: Obviously, the BC Cons are pulling [support] from the BC United, but do you have any indication that you’re also drawing some former NDP supporters?

A: Certainly, we’ve had families of NDP come up to us and say, they’ve been lifelong NDP supporters. They feel like they’re being ignored and they don’t like what’s going on. They’re looking for a change, and they’re coming in saying ‘We’d like to support you.’ 

Now, is that a large percentage? The polls ultimately will tell that. But I think there is a significant portion of the NDP vote, in particular the blue collar worker, the person who’s struggling to put food on the table that doesn’t want to have to worry about anything, that may have voted NDP in the past, that feel like they’re alienated. They have indicated to us in the polling … that they’re certainly considering voting Conservative in the next election.

That’s why you see David Eby out attacking us, because [the NDP] are worried. They’ve got some problems within their own ranks and they know that they’re at risk of losing support to the Conservative Party of British Columbia.

Q: What’s your motivation and what are your biggest worries?

A: Back in 2000, I had this conversation with my wife. I was worried about where the province was going… about whether we should leave the province. Ultimately, we came to the decision that we wanted to stay here. We love the province. We love where we live. Our families are here. We’re involved in other things. 

That left me with the choice: do I either get involved and try to change it, or do I live with it? And that’s what led me to going into politics, I decided to get involved in trying to change it.

Fast forward now to when I was kicked out of the BC Liberals/BC United Party. I’m not happy with where things are going in the province. It’s all the same problems that we had coming out of the 1990s. And so I had a choice once again. Do I just live with it or do I try to change it? 

“Do I just live with it or do I try to change it?”

That’s why, I didn’t jump to a party right away. I took some time. I thought about it. I talked to my wife about it. And she agreed. She said, we have to try to make some changes. We have to see what we can do. And so that led me to then having a serious conversation with the Conservative Party and joining them in February.

Q: Top three things that you’ll be focusing on in your campaign?

A: The biggest issue is going to be affordability and quality of life for people. There’s no question. Obviously, budgeting plays into that, tax cuts, things like getting rid of the carbon tax, all those things are going to be a big part of that whole piece of affordability and how we how we shape a different future for B.C.

“The biggest issue is going to be affordability and quality of life for people.”

Addressing crime, making sure that people feel safe is going to be a major issue. We’ll have some big policy pieces around that that’ll be coming out in the new year.

And I think of course, what’s going on in education and our children’s future and giving them hope. 

Those are going to be big issues, and we’ll see where the electorate is on other issues.

Q: What are your biggest worries for the province?

A: What I see in the province is – in particular, I hear this from young people – there is no hope. People are working a job, are working two jobs. They’re struggling just to put food on the table and pay rent. They’ve got no hope whatsoever to ever be able to own a home, no hope to be able to put money away. And they feel like, why am I doing this? Where’s my future? 

And to me, that’s wrong. 

“What I see in the province is – in particular, I hear this from young people – there is no hope. And to me, that’s wrong,” says BC Conservative Leader John Rustad. [Photo Chad Hipolito]

British Columbia has the potential to be the shining jewel of Canada. We have all the resources we can want. We’ve got a trained, well-educated population. We’ve grown all the food that we could ever need, But we’re hopelessly managed. We need to be able to provide what our real potential is, which is to be that island of sanity [amid] so many crazy things that are going on the world. And focus on helping to improve quality of life, not just for today, but for future generations.

Q: When people talk to you about their concerns, what are you hearing most?

A: In Surrey, crime is a big issue… but SOGI is their number one issue. In the north, it’s about things like the carbon tax and the way they feel that their jobs are being shut down in terms of saw mills and other things going on. On the island, certainly affordability is a big issue. They want to be able to have opportunity. When I talk to people in the Lower Mainland, there are all the same issues, especially around affordability. But also they want to be able to have that future for the children. 

“At a very high level … we’re facing the same issues. And we shouldn’t be about talking about divisions.”

At a very high level, we’re all the same right across the province. We’re facing the same issues. And we shouldn’t be about talking about divisions, we should actually have a government that is going to be able to provide that future for all corners of this province.

Q: Eby answers a lot of your questions directly in Question Period, whereas he may or may not answer BC United … which seems to some people like he was trying to raise your profile. But now maybe it’s a little too high?

A: Well, I think part of that is he knows that’s going to be the fight. So he’s setting the stage for the fight between the Conservatives and the NDP. He’s spending a great deal of time these days talking about us. And there’s a reason he’s doing that. Because he knows that we’re going to be his competition. And he’s worried.

Q: What if the BC Conservatives actually just end up splitting the vote and enabling a NDP majority?

A: Every generation or two in B.C. politics, we see a shift in political parties. We’re seeing this shift again. And I guess it’ll be up to the voters to decide if that shift is going to take one election or two elections. 

We’re going to certainly be making the argument that that should take one election. I think when you ask the majority of people across this province about that, they want change. They’re not looking for more of the same that they’ve seen for the last 32 years.

Q: The government is polling really low on a lot of areas. People are dissatisfied with its performance… yet, they’re still polling a majority government [among decided voters]. Why do you think that is?

A: I’ve been on the scene as the leader of this party for eight months. So we’re new in terms of who we are and what we stand for. In the new year, we’ll be rolling out a number of things so that people have a better understanding of just what we’re hoping to achieve for British Columbia. 

I think there’s a lot of people that are holding back and waiting to see how this plays out. But there’s one thing that is in common between whether they’re people disgruntled with the NDP, or whether it’s people that are considering voting [BC] United, or people who are voting Conservative… they’re not happy with the status quo. They’re looking for change, and they’re looking for hope. And that’s what we want to be able to give them.

Q: You don’t have as much money as the other parties. That sets you as a kind of underdog and there can be an extra energy sometimes that comes with that. Do you feel like it doesn’t matter how much money you have?

A: Well, I often think back to what happened to the Social Credit party. And, in particular in the byelection that Mike de Jong won. The Social Credit Party had Grace McCarthy, one of the most well-known politicians in B.C.’s history. They had all the money they could ever want. They had all the volunteers that they could ever want. And Mike de Jong won with a campaign of $5,000. 

“Bring it on.”

Ultimately, I think what this next campaign will come down to, is not political parties trying to buy their vote, but people wanting fundamental change. We’re going to be doing our best to get our message out in terms of who we are and what we’re doing. And I think that has the potential to resonate regardless of how much money is being spent by other parties. 

But I can guarantee you this, the NDP have made it very, very clear, they’re going to be vicious. They’re going to be very aggressive in their attacks on us. 

And my perspective is, bring it on. We’ll see what the electorate wants in British Columbia.

Editor’s note: This interview was condensed. Responses and questions were edited for brevity and clarity.