The provincial legislature will look different when it resumes sitting on Oct. 3, after Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman crossed the floor from BC United to the Conservative Party of BC on Wednesday.
Banman’s decision gives the once-morbid party two seats in the legislature, official party status and momentum, according to its leader.
“This is historic,” John Rustad said. “To the best of my knowledge, there has never been four official parties in the legislature in British Columbia.”
Rustad, who left the BC Liberals in February prior to their name change to BC United, said the Conservative party is trying to build a grassroots-movement, whose policies respond to the day-to-day struggles of average British Columbians. Banman’s decision to join Rustad draws attention to that agenda.
“I think that has played into what Bruce was looking for,” Rustad said, adding that a long conversation in early August led to Banman’s decision.
Voters elected Banman to the provincial legislature in 2020 with 44 per cent of the vote under the banner of the BC Liberals, now BC United. Banman’s decision to depart its caucus gives the Conservatives two seats in the legislature, enough for official party status and additional resources.
Banman said he joined the BC Conservatives because Rustad promised to speak for his constituents in an open and transparent manner that best reflects their local interests.
“It’s an opportunity for actual true change and it excites me and that’s why I came over,” Banman said.
Banman, who served as mayor of Abbotsford from 2011 to 2014, said his new party is the “only party that stands for what’s right in the legislature, rather than what’s politically convenient or politically correct.” He further said the party reflects the true spirit of democracy that attracted his Mennonite ancestors as well as immigrants from Holland and India’s Punjab to the Fraser Valley.
Banman said in an earlier statement that the Conservative party possesses common sense.
“We don’t support Trudeau-backed policies like the punishing carbon tax that hurts everyday people,” he said. “(We) refuse to condone the ideological NDP education agenda that teaches students what to think instead of how to think (and) we will never support the myth of safe supply that kills British Columbians and poisons our communities with hard drugs.”
The Office of the Clerk confirmed the B.C. Conservative Caucus will be the fourth party, adding that no four parties with official status as defined by the provincial constitution have ever sat in the provincial legislature. Elections in 1924, 1952 and 1972 had awarded seats to four parties, but the concept of officially recognized political parties did not appear until 1979.
If the consequences of Banman’s decision to cross the floor appear historic, they could also have significant consequences for the future.
Polls show New Democrats have a sizable lead in popular opinion and a clear path toward a majority government in terms of seats. With BC United trailing by a fair margin, a revived Conservative Party of BC could further cement a New Democratic victory in the next provincial election to be held on or before Oct. 19, 2024. Premier David Eby has publicly ruled out an election prior to October 2024.
Banman does not see it that way. BC United Leader Kevin Falcon — not he and Rustad — are weakening the right, Banman said.
“Kevin Falcon is the one who started the split,” Banman said. “He says he is for a big-tent party, but I guess he really didn’t mean it.”
Banman’s defection is the second under Falcon’s leadership. Rustad sat as an independent MLA for several months after Falcon had kicked him out of the caucus because of disagreements over climate change policy before officially joining the Conservatives in February 2023 and winning their leadership. Banman’s decision to defect also changes Rustad’s official designation in the legislature.
Falcon said Wednesday morning in a statement that Banman’s departure was not entirely unexpected and accused him of betraying his local constituents who elected him under the Liberal banner. Falcon said his party is the only party which can defeat the current government.
“Obviously you don’t like to have these kinds of things happen, but they do happen,” Falcon said later at a news conference. “But I would just remind you, just as I reminded Bruce, to look at the history of the MLAs that have done this in the past in British Columbia…in every single case (it) ended up to be political suicide.”
Falcon said he is already fielding calls for candidates wishing to take Banman’s place as candidate, while trying to down play the Conservatives’ official party status. Falcon added he does not think other members of his caucus will follow Banman’s example.
But Falcon also acknowledged that the provincial Conservatives — which are not related to the federal Conservatives — might benefit from the current surge that the federal Conservatives are enjoying.
Questioned about the consequences of his party’s decision to change names, Falcon said that while it will take some for the public to get used to BC United. It reflects the fact that the challenges facing British Columbia require a collective effort, he added.
The emergence of another party on the right side of the political spectrum in B.C. mirrors developments in other countries where right-of-centre parties face competition on their right flank from populist parties. Many of those parties have been critical of COVID-19 related measures and policies to fight climate change, and the NDP’s reaction to Banman’s defection is telling.
“The BC Conservatives are a party born of anti-science ideas like opposing vaccine requirements and denying climate change,” Ravi Parmar, BC NDP MLA for Langford-Juan de Fuca, said. “At a time when our province has seen back-to-back-to-back extreme weather events, the BC Conservatives are the only party opposed to essential emission reduction measures such as the carbon tax. Most British Columbians trust the science of climate change and vaccines. John Rustad and Bruce Banman are out of step with those values.”
Banman dismissed the criticism as partisanship. “Questioning is the hallmark of science,” he said. “That’s just base-line politics as far as I’m concerned. They are entitled to their opinion.”
BC Greens Leader Sonia Furstenau said BC Conservatives should have the resources that official party status brings.
“That’s an important part of democracy,” she said. “Recognizing the role of official parties in the legislature is important and essential, as it reflects the representation that parties provide to the people of BC. We should always be striving to make our democracy work better, and so my hope is that with more official parties in the legislature, we will see constructive debate, cooperation across party lines and effective representation for all British Columbians.”
Not surprisingly, both Rustad and Banman are publicly optimistic about their prospects. Rustad said the party is planning to run candidates in all 93 ridings with the goal of forming government. “The goal is to win, but I see us as the official opposition, if not government,” Banman said.
–with files from Jessica Peters