With official status, BC Conservatives aim high for 2024 election

Written By Geoff Russ

The Conservative Party of BC will enter the Fall legislative session with official party status, making it the first time since 1996 that four parties will be recognized in the legislature.

“We’ve already made history!” Conservative Party Leader John Rustad declared after former BC United MLA Bruce Banman crossed the floor, doubling Rustad’s caucus to two and thus vaulting the party to official recognition status.

Getting party status is a big deal for Rustad and Banman. It brings extra funding and a total budget of almost $400,000 a year for legislative staffing and expenses, according to the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer. The official party status also comes with pay raises for both members, and the opportunity to ask two questions every question period during session – the same as for the two-member BC Green caucus.

Prior to Banman crossing the floor on Sept. 13, Rustad had been the only BC Conservative member of the legislature. MLA for Nechako Lakes, Rustad joined the party in February, following his expulsion from BC United caucus last summer for “not being a team player” among other things, according to BC United Leader Kevin Falcon.

Rustad’s firing followed his refusal to retract social media posts questioning climate science, including some with the hashtag #CelebrateCO2. “[Rustad] does not speak on behalf of caucus on this issue,” Falcon tweeting in August 2022.

Rustad was acclaimed BC Conservative Party leader at the end of March. “I think the potential for a new coalition party in this province is enormous,” he told the Canadian Press at the time.

When asked for further comment, Rustad’s chief-of-staff, Azim Jiwani, said Rustad was referring to a future voter coalition, not a collaboration between the BC United and the BC Conservatives.

Whether the BC Conservatives can build enough supporters to win, let alone gain, seats in the next election, remains to be seen.

In 2020, the party won less than two per cent of the popular vote and zero seats. And although their candidates were competitive in the two Peace River ridings attracting more than 30 per cent support, elsewhere, BC Conservative candidates did little more than split the then-BC Liberal (since renamed BC United) vote. 

But the voter mood has shifted substantially even in the last six months, and it seems to be leaning in the Conservative Party’s favour.

When Conservative Party of BC’s candidate Mike Harris did not win the July Langford-Juan de Fuca byelection, it was no surprise. The riding was an NDP safe seat. What was unexpected was Harris’ strong second place finish. That he placed well-ahead of the BCU candidate raised eyebrows, causing pundits and supporters to speculate whether it was a trend or a blip.

An August poll released by Mainstreet Research suggests that Harris’ results are holding across the province, where 21 percent of all B.C. voters said they would choose the BC Conservatives if an election was held tomorrow, compared to 30 percent for the BC New Democrats, and 18 for BC United. 

A Research Co. poll from Sept. 29 found 48 per cent of decided voters would vote for the NDP, while the BC Conservatives and the BC United were virtually tied at 19 and 20 percent, respectively, with the BC Greens in fourth at 12 per cent. Undecided voters made up about 18 per cent of those polled.

Since NDP Premier David Eby has repeatedly reiterated that he will not hold an early election before the scheduled 2024 provincial election date next October, the Conservative Party of BC has one year to present its message and try to gain more support. 

‘Unite the right’

Falcon needs to “unite the right” in B.C., Mash Strategy campaign strategist, Allie Blades, wrote in a Business in Vancouver OpEd in August.  Blades previously worked as a local campaign manager and consultant for BC United.

A third of British Columbians said the BC United and the Conservative Party of BC should combine into one party, while 43 per cent are against merging, according to the August Research Co. survey. 

“From the summer to now, even leading into the next election…the focus of uniting the right was really not to get so much the card carrying conservative members, but to be a place of ideas,” said Blades in an interview with Northern Beat

“The focus of uniting the right was really … to be a place of ideas.”

Allie Blades

Blades points out that Falcon has committed to building a new party altogether, which would be a place for good ideas, rather than one that straddled the federal partisan divide. 

“He has been doing exactly what every other BC Liberal leader has done in the past and using a line of ‘I’m a BC Liberal leader first, now I’m a BC United leader first, and so I don’t necessarily have to lean into the federal arena’,” Blades said. 

“I don’t know if that’s going to work anymore.” 

It was easier for Liberals and Conservatives to work together in 2005 than it is in 2023, Blades conceded. But the BC United Party also has personnel issues, she said.

“As we all know, politics is all about people management – from the constituents, to the MLAs, to the leader. And that’s kind of been what’s crumbling, and that’s why Bruce Banman left.” 

Banman’s defection

For his part, Banman cited several reasons driving his departure from the BC United Party, including its leadership controlling what MLAs could say publicly, whipped votes in the legislature, and his being unable to garner caucus support for local transportation issues important to constituents in his riding. 

“I was asked to stand aside and let other issues go on, because it was not considered to be important enough to be talked about in a passionate manner. I just could not deal with that,” said Banman. 

Speaking with reporters following Banman’s defection, Falcon stated that floor crossings in B.C. have never ended well, and implied that Banman and Rustad would have a rocky relationship in the same party. 

In a follow up press release, Falcon reiterated that BC United was the only political party that could defeat the New Democrat government and take on the challenges facing British Columbians today.

“That includes lowering taxes, addressing the cost of living, getting our economy and natural resource sector back on track, and making our streets safe again by ensuring criminals face consequences,” Falcon said.  

Shifting allegiances

Discontent with BC United’s top party brass previously surfaced in 2021 during the then-named BC Liberal leadership race when outspoken conservative commentator and filmmaker Aaron Gunn was rejected as a candidate. Party officials at the time stated that several of Gunn’s past statements were “inconsistent with the party’s commitment to reconciliation, diversity, and acceptance of all British Columbians.” 

Gunn refuted the claims, and said he was a small ‘c’ conservative who spoke his mind. He accused the BC Liberals of being an elitist party that favoured Liberal Party of Canada policies at the expense of its provincial conservative grassroots supporters. Gunn has since became a supporter of the BC Conservatives and was instrumental in the party’s revitalization.

Gunn is currently running for the federal Conservative nomination in the riding of North Island-Powell River and has appeared publicly with Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Regarding the BC Conservatives, Blades said to watch out for other BC United MLAs to shift allegiances, adding that dissidents could be joined by more than just disaffected caucus members. 

“That could be other caucus members from BC United, but it could even be a member of parliament, former candidates from the last election, it could be some federal folks as well,” said Blades.

‘New, stronger version of the BC Conservatives’

The rise of smaller parties in the legislature has been inevitable since the NDP government lowered the threshold from four to two seats to be recognized as an official party in the legislature when its own party was reduced to two members in 2001, said Jeff Ferrier, founding partner at Framepoint, a B.C.-based public affairs firm. Formerly with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Ferrier has volunteered on NDP campaigns. He said there are several reasons for the BC Conservative’s rise. 

“I think that there has been a lot of disquiet and conflict on the political right,” said Ferrier. “That gave rise to the creation of what I see as a pretty energetic and pretty substantial, new, stronger version of the BC Conservatives.” 

Ferrier says the approach of BC United, which he described as focused on victory by default when voters get tired of the NDP, is not suited to the politics of the day. 

“It’s gonna be real trouble for [BC United] as they go towards the next election.”

Jeff Ferrier

“I think that the Conservatives have taken advantage of that to really stake a flag in the ground with clear, simple emotional arguments that stand in starker contrast with the government and BC United…so it’s gonna be real trouble for [BC United] as they go towards the next election,” said Ferrier. 

According to Research Co.’s September survey, almost 40 per cent of BC voters surveyed said housing, homelessness and poverty are the most important issues. Health care came next at 22 per cent, followed by concern for the economy and jobs, crime and public safety, and the environment.

The BC Conservatives newly designed website features more than 30 policy proposals ranging from lowering taxes and balancing the budget, to cracking down on crime, expanding the natural resource sector, and taking a harder line on environmental activists. 

By contrast, the BC United focusses on specific issues critiquing the NDP and offering alternative plans, which Blades said could appeal to undecided voters. 

In February, BC United released a detailed $1.5 billion plan to deliver recovery-oriented mental health and addictions care for free, across the province. Earlier this month, the party unveiled its Safer BC platform, which includes rolling back the BC NDP’s drug decriminalization reforms, and a plan to fill 500 vacancies in law enforcement jobs across the province. 

A few days later, Falcon stepped into the fray when he said concerns from parents regarding sexual orientation and gender identity teachings in public schools should not be dismissed. His statement came amid a growing push by centre-right provincial parties across Canada to give parents a greater say in what is taught by public school teachers. 

BC Conservatives aim higher

Angelo Isidorou, the BC Conservative’s executive director and board member since 2022, said he once believed that a re-energized party could emulate the Conservative Party of Québec (PCQ), but after the BC Conservatives’ relatively successful summer, Isidorou now has loftier ambitions.  

In the 2022 Quebec provincial election, the PCQ presented itself as a populist conservative alternative and was projected to have a good shot of winning a few seats. The PCQ ultimately did not win any seats in that election. 

“Our goals are definitely higher,” said Isidorou. “We are an official party in the legislature, we’re the second highest polling party in the province, and we live in a province where electorally we have more opportunities than the Quebec conservatives.”  

Isidorou points to the typically large numbers of B.C. residents who consistently vote for the federal Conservatives as evidence of the provincial Conservatives’ potential. Attracting those federal Conservative voters has been a goal of Isidorou’s since he became a board member. 

The Fraser Valley, especially the less urbanized eastern parts, vote for the federal Conservatives in much higher numbers than urban Vancouver. Isidorou sees the Fraser Valley as a key component of a future BC Conservative voter coalition. 

“I think the electoral map of B.C. in 2024 is going to look very unique,” said Isidorou. “It’s going to look like a [voter] coalition of Vancouver Island, the Interior, the Fraser Valley and even the Lower Mainland. It’s going to be a brand new coalition.” 

“We are an official party in the legislature. We’re the second highest-polling party in the province.”

Angelo Isidorou

It’s too early to predict if the BC Conservatives could form a provincial government, said Ferrier, pointing out Eby’s high approval ratings. 

But Ferrier does foresee a possible situation where B.C. becomes a “blue-orange” paradigm, similar to Alberta or Manitoba, where voters choose between the NDP and an unmistakably conservative option. 

Blades says that voters won’t always recognize the difference between the provincial and federal Conservatives. Just as they have sometimes confused the BC Liberals with the federal party – which precipitated the provincial Liberals to change their name to BC United – and the provincial NDP and Greens have been linked with their federal counterparts.

Given the rising popularity of the federal Conservatives in the polls, the BC Conservatives may catch enough of their wave to make history beyond regaining official party status. And if a “blue-orange” contest lies in B.C.’s future, it will only bring the province in line with its neighbors.