For the first time in over a decade, the Conservative Party of BC has an elected member of the legislature.
Northern MLA John Rustad announced this morning he’d ended his five-month run as an Independent and taken out a BC Conservative membership.
“To be part of a party that can become a true coalition in this province and provide an option that will be focused on people and focused on doing everything it can to fight for the people in British Columbia, I just feel that is the better way for me to be able to spend my efforts,” Rustad said in an interview.
Being an Independent MLA enabled him to build a positive relationship with the NDP government and advocate for Nechako-Lakes, Rustad said, but his influence remained limited without a party membership.
By ‘crossing the aisle’ to the BC Conservatives, Rustad becomes a member of a party that has not held power since it formed a coalition with the then provincial Liberal Party to govern from 1941 to 1952.
“We’re going to make history in the next election — because for the first time in decades, we’re going to give British Columbians a renewed coalition party — a party that fights for people instead of party insiders,” Rustad said in a news release this morning.
“As the leader, former candidate and proud member of the Conservative Party of BC, I gladly welcome John Rustad to our team,” Conservative Party Leader Trevor Bolin said in the release.
Under Bolin’s leadership, the Conservatives placed fourth in the 2020 election, winning nearly two per cent of the popular vote, with a handful of candidates costing the BC Liberals four seats in the Lower Mainland (assuming all Conservative votes would have gone to the Liberals). In the North, Conservative contenders (including Bolin) pulled in more than 30 per cent of the ballots in two ridings the BC Liberals ultimately retained.
The “newly rebranded” BC Conservative Party platform promises to balance budgets, reduce government, scrap the carbon tax, expand LNG, support hydroelectricity, and build pipelines. It will says it will encourage private competition in health care, re-open psychiatric institutions, implement mandatory rehabilitation for chronic offenders with addictions and protect free speech on campus. The party also opposes identity politics and vaccine mandates, among other issues.
‘Pattern of behaviour’
Rustad’s embrace of the BC Conservatives is not entirely unexpected.
He was expelled from the BC Liberal Party caucus last August after allegedly ghosting the party leader and refusing to retract social media posts questioning climate science, including some with the hashtag #CelebrateCO2.
At the time, BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon cited Rustad’s “pattern of behaviour that was not supportive of our caucus team.”
Rustad said his disagreements with Falcon were fundamental and irreconcilable. He said another reason he was fired was because he disagreed with his boss about the role of an MLA.
“I strongly believe that an MLA’s number one job is to represent the riding and to be able to stand up and speak on issues from the riding and defend the riding,” said Rustad, alleging Falcon wanted the party to come ahead of his job representing the riding of Nechako Lakes, “and that you should be beholden to speaking on behalf of the party.”
“This is politics, frankly, on John’s part,” Falcon said today, citing Rustad’s previous support of the revenue neutral carbon tax brought in by the BC Liberals and his longstanding support of the party’s established acceptance of climate change as real.
“If [Rustad] decides he’s going to take a completely opposite position from which the party has long had, in which he long supported, he’s free to do that. But he is not free to do that and continue undermining it publicly – a position that he’s long supported, the party has long supported – without there being a consequence,” Falcon said.
“The consequence in this case, unfortunately for John, was that he can no longer be part of our caucus.”
Falcon said he suggested Rustad share his altered opinion in caucus. “I said … ‘John, if you’ve changed your position, that’s fine. We can have that debate and discuss that in Caucus as we’re always willing to do.'”
When Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Mike Morris stepped outside BC Liberal Party policy lines to lament the loss of wildlife and biodiversity caused by industrial logging, and advocate for new forestry practices that put ecosystems before timber values, Falcon told Northern Beat he was fully comfortable with different opinions in his caucus (where Morris remains a member).
Forestry ‘in crisis’
A former BC Liberal forestry critic who worked in the forestry industry prior to entering provincial politics, Rustad has openly criticized Morris’ push for ecologically-based forestry management, which Rustad speculated will eliminate two thirds of B.C.’s forestry industry.
Provincially, between 2000 and 2019, over 50,000 forestry jobs were lost in B.C. and the trend has not reversed. As well, in the last year or so, hundreds of jobs have been lost as a number of lumber and pulp mills have shut down or undergone curtailments in the Northern region.
Last December, Canfor lumber mills began closing near Vanderhoof and in Houston due to supply-chain problems and heightened log costs, according to a company statement. Other mills closed in West Kelowna, Fraser Lake, Williams Lake and Quesnel in 2022. Additional curtailments or closings hit employees in Prince George, Chetwynd and Taylor in 2023.
“Forestry in this province is in a crisis,” says Rustad. “The government policy that has been put in place has created a tremendous amount of stress on the industry. And what I see from the BC Liberal Party – certainly factions within the BC Liberal Party – is they actually don’t think they’ve gone far enough.”
This week, the BC Liberals pressed the New Democrat government to negotiate a softwood lumber deal and protect workers from job losses. This year so far, the government announced more than $200 million in funding to help diversify manufacturing, including the forestry sector, and facilitate waste wood retrieval.
The BC Conservative platform promises to support the forestry industry and crack down on activists who have protested logging projects in recent years.
Revival or prelude to fade?
South Surrey is over a thousand miles from Nechako Lakes, but in a foreshadowing of his move to the Conservative Party of BC, Rustad travelled to South Surrey in September to endorse the party’s candidate Harman Bhangu in that month’s byelection.
“John, he spoke up on a lot of key things. He’s very levelheaded and I really liked the way he presents himself. I really feel he has a voice of change,” says Bhangu.
The Conservatives ultimately came third and the BC Liberals retained the riding, but Bhangu garnered almost 13 percent of the vote, one of the most successful election outcomes the party has attained in Metro Vancouver in years.
According to the Bhangu, a trucker and small business owner, the BC Liberals and NDP preach diversity but do not tolerate dissent within their own ranks.
“I feel people are open to having a different thought and being out there and I think the Conservative Party is the only one that represents that,” says Bhangu. “If [the BC Liberals] were a big tent party, they wouldn’t be kicking out John Rustad…”
The last time a Conservative member sat in the legislature was 2011, when BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen crossed the floor. van Dongen lasted six months before he got into a public tussle with party leadership and quit the BC Conservatives to sit as an Independent.
The Conservative Party of BC’s brief rally for relevancy faded even faster.
It’ll be known before too long whether history repeats itself, or if, as his supporters hope, John Rustad’s political conversion fuels a more permanent revival for the party.