You don’t ghost your party leader in politics, at any level, says Rob Shaw.
BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon booted MLA John Rustad from his party’s caucus this week, signalling yet again that he intends to lead the Liberals to a more centrist position in an attempt to court urban Metro Vancouver voters, even if it potentially costs him votes in northern ridings in the process.
Rustad, the MLA for Nechako Lakes, committed several sins that got him fired from the party.
The first was once again using social media to question the science around climate change, by amplifying misinformation from an online climate denier that CO2 pollution is not raising global temperatures. It’s not the first time Rustad has flirted with this position publicly, either.
Then, Rustad refused to back down when publicly contradicted by Falcon, who was forced to issue a statement saying Rustad “does not speak for our caucus on this issue.”
Rustad refused calls from leader
And finally, Rustad apparently hid from his leader on the issue, not taking or returning any calls from Falcon for more than 24 hours, as the crisis unfolded and the BC NDP took a series of embarrassing public shots at the Liberal party.
You don’t ghost your party leader in politics, at any level.
And so Falcon took the extraordinary step of ousting Rustad, saying “politics is a team sport” and that British Columbians expect the BC Liberals to tackle big issues like climate change, not deny they exist.
“Following a pattern of behaviour that was not supportive of our caucus team and the principles of mutual respect and trust, I have removed MLA John Rustad from the BC Liberal Caucus effective immediately,” Falcon said in a statement on Thursday.
Rustad told Vancouver Sun reporter Katie DeRosa he had “irreconcilable differences” with Falcon, which were also evident when he wasn’t part of Falcon’s northern tour of the province last month.
In an artful bit of hair-splitting, Rustad also tried to argue he’s not a climate change denier, but simply fighting “environmental elitists that are hurting people” by making fossil fuels more expensive.
Still, Rustad served as a cabinet minister for four years in the previous Liberal government, and has been an MLA for 17 — he knows what it means to break with a party leader publicly on an issue and refuse to back down.
By removing Rustad, Falcon has reiterated that he doesn’t intend to let the far-right, anti-LGBTQTS+, anti-climate, anti-vaccine fringes of the Liberal party undermine his chances to appeal to mainstream centrist voters in the Lower Mainland, where he needs votes to win next election.
BC Liberals need urban vote
By and large, urban swing voters believe in climate change and want a government willing to do something about it. They overwhelmingly believe in vaccines and same-sex rights, too.
The BC NDP’s current electoral success has hinged almost entirely on appealing to hundreds of thousands of those voters in dozens of metro ridings, painting themselves as a modern, inclusive, party that is focused on big issues like affordability, the environment, Indigenous rights and housing.
The Liberals desperately want to speak to those voters too. But they are currently stuck as a party made up of mainly rural MLAs in the province’s north and interior, where extreme right-wing views have the largest pockets of support.
In the last election, then leader Andrew Wilkinson was so worried about those seats and that wing of the party, he failed to act decisively in condemning homophobic positions of one of his Chilliwack MLAs, alienating many potential supporters.
Rustad is likely to be courted by the BC Conservatives, potentially giving that party its first seat in the legislature.
But Falcon hopes the electoral math works in his favour if he sacrifices one MLA in Nechako Lakes who doesn’t believe in climate change, in order to strongly compete and potentially win back several ridings in North Vancouver, Burnaby, Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Surrey, where voters demand a plan to tackle climate pollution.
The decision, though, comes with risks and consequences.
BC Conservatives could split vote
If far-right voters tune Falcon out and coalesce around a BC Conservative party, they could show up in large enough numbers to split the BC Liberal vote in some ridings, serving as a spoiler that lets the BC NDP come up the middle and win.
Falcon then is left with a choice that is the lesser of two evils: Flirt with right-wing extremists to try and avoid vote splits mostly in constituencies he already holds, or let the extremists go and hope he wins more urban seats than he loses rural ridings.
Falcon has clearly made his choice.
Rustad is the first MLA to not fit into that new vision for the BC Liberals. But he’s unlikely to be the last, as Falcon charts a new and specific future for his party.