After the BC Conservatives won an unprecedented 20 per cent of the vote in a Vancouver Island by-election in June, beating both the BC United and the BC Greens for second place, some supporters predict a political sea change, while pundits are mixed on the party’s potential political appeal.
“A lot of people around the province really have not seen a Conservative candidate or what we stand for for many decades,” says BC Conservatives leader John Rustad. “This party has not elected anybody since the 1970s, and so we’re really building something from scratch.”
The party rebranded more than a year ago, electing a new slate of directors, updating its policy platform and revamping its website.
“We’re getting good momentum with what we’re doing and connecting with people just by standing up for the everyday person,” Rustad says.
Whatever they’re doing worked in the Langford-Juan de Fuca campaign.
In the 2020 election, in 85 per cent of the ridings, first and second spots went to candidates from the two largest political parties – the NDP or BC United (formerly the BC Liberals), although the two June by-elections were in stronghold New Democrat ridings where the BC Greens had previously placed second. The June elections were expected to garner similar results.
As predicted, both the Vancouver-Mount Pleasant riding, vacated by former NDP cabinet minister Melanie Mark, and the Langford-Juan de Fuca riding, held since 2005 by former premier John Horgan, remained with the governing party.
The big surprise was the strong showing by BCC candidate Mike Harris in Horgan’s old stomping grounds.
While the BCC topped 30 per cent in a couple northern ridings last election and a handful of candidates elsewhere attracted enough votes to swing victory to the NDP, overall the party pulled less than two per cent provincially and didn’t even field a candidate in the Langford riding.
Then on June 24, Harris took his party from zero to hero in one swoop, relegating the BC United (BCU) to a distant fourth behind the third-place BC Greens.
Harris didn’t win the riding, but it was a victory for the BCC all the same.
BCC battle for conservative votes
The BCC has not been shy about plans to supplant the BCU as the provinces’ go-to option for conservative voters in the near-future. Even if it means helping the New Democrats win in the short term. In 2020, BCC candidates in a handful of ridings attracted enough votes to swing victory to the NDP.
In June, Harris’ gains in Langford-Juan de Fuca came at the expense of both the NDP and BC United (BCU), which lost 15 per cent and six per cent of the vote respectively compared to 2020, whereas the BC Greens gained a per cent and the BC Communist Party increased by a few dozen votes. Besides “right wing bleed to the Conservatives,” BC United is also struggling with name recognition issues among voters, after having recently changed its name from the BC Liberals.
Regardless, there were no alternations to the partisan makeup of the provincial legislature where the NDP hold 58 seats, BC United has 27, the Greens, 2, and Rustad, the MLA for Nechako Lakes, holds the sole BC Conservatives seat. Rustad took out a BCC membership last year after being ejected from the then-BC Liberal Party and MLA caucus, and was subsequently acclaimed leader of the BC Conservatives.
By-elections ‘inconsequential,’ but may present a path forward
Political historian and commentator David Mitchell cautions against ascribing any by-election result as a sign of the party’s rise from political obscurity, where it’s been stuck since 1952.
“I think the next general election will be instructive to see what happens,” says Mitchell. “By-elections are interesting, but I would argue they’re not consequential…voter turnout in those by elections was very, very low.”
A former BC Liberal MLA, Mitchell was elected in 1991 and served as his party’s house leader before quitting to sit as an Independent. He left the party before Gordon Campbell became leader in 1994, widely perceived as the point when the BC Liberals began shifting to the political right.
Despite his skepticism of the BCC’s prospects, Mitchell says the differences between the by-election campaigns in Langford-Juan de Fuca and Vancouver-Mount Pleasant could represent two potential directions for the BC Conservatives.
In Langford, BCC candidate Mike Harris ran a campaign focused on lowering taxes, battling the rising cost of living, especially housing affordability, while championing commuter rail Langford and southern Vancouver Island in general.
Meanwhile, Karin Litzcke, the BCC candidate in Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, zeroed in on wedge issues, such as opposing the participation of transgender women in female sports. She ended up with less than 5 percent of the riding’s votes, landing in fourth place, while the BC United candidate came in second and improved upon the party’s 2020 result.
Working class are ‘great opportunity’
BCC supporters like Mike Gheogian are nonetheless bullish on the party’s future prospects, especially in attracting working-class voters who are historically supportive of the NDP.
“The NDP was supposed to be about the working class, and I think that’s a great opportunity that the BCC have,” says Gheogian, a former ministerial assistant to Bill Barlee, a cabinet minister from former premier Mike Harcourt’s New Democrat government in the mid-1990s.
Key BCC proposals include repealing BC’s carbon tax, applied during fuel purchases, which Gheogian asserts is disproportionately impacting working and middle-class individuals, and especially rural residents.
“Let’s keep in mind, if you don’t live in downtown Vancouver, there aren’t a lot of public transit options,” says Gheogian.
Roughly 13 percent of the province’s population live in rural areas, and 40 percent of BC’s population reside outside of Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria.
“People need vehicles in order to get to and from work, and when we’re talking about the rural areas of the province, it’s impractical to take a bus,” Gheogian says.
While the federal carbon tax is nominally revenue-neutral, the provision of B.C.’s provincial carbon tax that made it neutral was abolished by the NDP government in 2017.
Ellis Ross campaign supporters migrate to BC Conservatives
Many former members of the 2020 Ellis Ross campaign for the BC Liberal leadership are now members of the BCC, including the leader, Rustad, who was the Ross leadership campaign co-chair. As well, Azim Jiwani, Ross’ former campaign communications director, is now a political staffer for Rustad at the legislature.
Brad Zubyk, a political consultant and veteran political strategist, does not believe it is a coincidence that some former Ross supporters are now backing Rustad.
“I think probably a lot of Ellis Ross supporters were naturally conservative,” says Zubyk. “What they want to see from that brand is, I’m not sure it’s standing up for B.C., [but] I think there’s a certain feeling outside of major urban areas that people feel no one is standing up for them.”
A Leger poll conducted after the June by-elections found that 16 percent of B.C. residents surveyed supported the BCC, while 26 percent supported BC United, up from 4 percent in a May Research Co. survey poll.
Of all the leadership candidates, Ross particularly appealed to voters outside the Lower Mainland. Ross still lives in the tiny northern Indigenous village of Kitimaat where he was raised and represented his nation as councillor, then chief councillor, before getting elected Skeena MLA. He is seen as an ardent champion of the often largely overlooked rural perspective.
Ross ultimately placed second behind Kevin Falcon, a former heavyweight BC Liberal cabinet minister in the Gordon Campbell government who resigned from politics and worked in the private sector in Vancouver from 2013 to 2022.
Ross ran a campaign focused on speeding up development of natural resource projects in rural areas, such as LNG in Kitimat, which was approved this year. He credits resource development for helping lift his own community out of poverty and supports expanded partnerships between the provincial government, loggers, and ranchers to manage forestry and wildfire responses.
“I think that’s what people admired about [Ross], his interest in prosperity,” says Suzanne Anton, co-chair of Ross’s leadership campaign.
A former BC Liberal MLA who served as Minister of Justice and Attorney General from 2013 to 2017, Anton says Ross’s rhetoric around economic prosperity attracted many political conservatives.
“They’re really much more interested in focusing on prosperity in the economy and jobs and so on,” says Anton. “He was so singularly focused on the most important topic to him, which was resource development, bringing people out of poverty and into prosperity, and helping B.C.”
Standing up to the federal government could be an effective strategy
Historian Mitchell says B.C.’s political culture has evolved beyond the days when the conservative populist Social Credit party dominated for all but three years between 1952 and 1991. Mainstream centrism now appeals to most residents and the BC NDP have succeeded in occupying that space, he said.
“The question is, can there be a right-wing, [or] right-of-centre, party that appeals to the majority of British Columbians who are not strongly ideological?” asks Mitchell.
Politicians in Alberta and Saskatchewan are well-known for being willing to do battle with Ottawa over federal legislation they oppose, such as the federal carbon tax. David Mitchell says disputes with the federal government are also a tradition in B.C., albeit one not felt as strongly as in the past.
Anton compares Rustad to Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, both of whom often clash with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on policies related to natural resource development in their provinces.
“I don’t see the NDP doing that here in B.C. They’re much more willing to succumb to the federal government’s wishes, and the [BC United], I don’t hear them much on that subject,” says Anton.
Former NDP Premier John Horgan, who retired last year, had a noticeably warm relationship with Trudeau during the pandemic, which cooled in Horgan’s last year in office. His successor David Eby has steered clear of public conflicts with Ottawa.
So far, BCU Leader Falcon has avoided provoking disputes with the federal government since February 2022, and he defended the provincial carbon tax legislated by the BC Liberal government when he was a cabinet minister in 2008.
Rustad says the BCC will stand up for provincial interest in a way that neither the BC NDP or BCU has done because federal policies are hurting the provinces in areas, such as inter-provincial trade.
“It is easier for British Columbians to trade with the United States than it is with other provinces, and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” says Rustad. “One of the things that I want to push for is to actually create a Canada-wide free trade agreement.”
Conservatives push law and order agenda
Meanwhile, provincial policy decisions have provided plenty of political ammunition for Rustad, including those affecting rampant homelessness and public drug use, which Rustad blamed on both the BC NDP and Trudeau’s federal government.
Both the BCC and BCU have pledged tougher policies on combatting urban disorder, but Rustad’s BCC have been far more explicit in its promise to pursue a law and order agenda.
In 2019, the federal government passed the Impact Assessment Act, which authorizes Ottawa to scrutinize the impact new projects such as oil and gas pipelines will have on climate change. Global News reported that after more than 3 years, projects were only at Phase 2 of the Impact Assessment Act’s four-phase process.
Additionally, the B.C. government has its own process for granting environmental assessment certificates to natural resource projects such as an LNG terminal in Kitimat, which was approved in March.
“It takes way, way too long to go through any kind of approval process where there’s overlapping assessments for federal and provincial,” says Rustad.
Parties courting Vancouver Island voters
While Rustad is willing to battle the federal government on many issues, he also says there is room for cooperation with Ottawa on matters like funding new infrastructure projects in B.C.
In his Langford-Juan de Fuca campaign, BCC candidate Harris promised to advocate for commuter rail connecting Langford with downtown Victoria.
Several politicians and other figures, such as Nanaimo Mayor Leonard Krog, a former NDP MLA, have been pushing for commuter rail on southern Vancouver Island, but the provincial government has delayed making any commitments to the project.
“I think there’s no question that we need to do that,” says Rustad of a commuter rail on Vancouver Island. “The NDP take Vancouver Island for granted, and the [BC United] party have abandoned any hope of doing anything on Vancouver Island, and I think that’s wrong.”
Gheogian says workers in the forestry and oil and gas sectors struggling to make ends meet in places like Vancouver Island, Peace River and the Lower Mainland are all potential BCC voters.
Falcon openly stated he wants to reach out to Vancouver Island residents, and his supporters say there is potential for reaching out to forestry workers there, but Gheogian says Falcon may be ill-suited for that task.
“I think Kevin Falcon is in a very difficult situation, because he is very much a part of the Gordon Campbell government, which had a rather technocratic, rather than populist, approach to governing,” says Gheogian. “What is being built with the BCC under John Rustad’s leadership is something that is more populist, and populist in the sense that ordinary folks can much better relate to it.”
BCC platform: lower taxes, shorter ER wait times, stable gas and housing costs
Judging by the fundraising numbers, BCC is gaining popularity with regular British Columbians, nearly doubling donations in the first half of 2023 compared to the previous year. But the party’s financials are a far cry from the well-heeled BCU, which is reportedly closing the gap on the BC NDP fundraising machine.
As far as policy goes, the BC Conservatives website lists 37 policy positions, including bread-and-butter issues like lowering taxes, reducing medical wait times, and stabilizing gas and housing prices, in addition to more sweeping reforms like ending ICBC’s monopoly on auto-insurance and scrapping the carbon tax.
Additionally, there are culture war proposals such as defending Canadian history and “removing ideology from classrooms.”
Rustad says the policy proposals are a good collection of ideas suggested by supporters, but they don’t necessarily represent the final BCC platform for the next election.
“Obviously, there’s lots of ideas in there that are intriguing and may end up being part of our platform, but I really believe that the Conservative Party could do something that the other parties just aren’t doing,” says Rustad.