These are heady days for the Conservative Party of BC.
With two just MLAs in the legislature and 21 official candidates for the next election, the party has momentum on its side, according to the polls.
Recent surveys have consistently placed the Conservatives in second place after the New Democrats and ahead of BC United from whose flesh the party sprang. Both Leader John Rustad (MLA for Nechako Lakes) and House Leader Bruce Banman (MLA for for Abbotsford South) sat for years on the same side of the aisle when BC United were still the BC Liberals. (Rustad was kicked out of the BC Liberal caucus in August 2022 before joining the Conservatives and becoming their leader, Banman crossed the floor this fall).
Looking back on 2023, Rustad said he made his decision to run for the party’s leadership and build it up after a conversation with his wife earlier in the year.
“It has been a very fulfilling process,” he said. “Politics is politics, you get the rough-and-tumble, the cut-and-thrust…I have been around politics long enough to know what that is like and what to have expected. But the thing for me that really stood out for me the past year is the people who have really stepped up to the plate and wanted to be part of what we are doing.”
Prominent provincial commentators like radio host and former BC Liberal MLA Jas Johal have questioned whether the party’s style fits the modern age — he suggested both could star in Viagara ads — but the Conservatives’ sudden re-emergence gives the party the feel of a business start-up, searching for staff and cash.
“Lots of people are going to say a lot of things about us and that’s fine,” Rustad said, in dismissing Johal’s critique and adding that people are going to be surprised by the quality of candidates across the province. “In terms of our party, because we are new, because we are growing and we are growing at a rapid pace, I’m really most proud of the people who are coming and being part of our party.”
Citing internal poll, Rustad said the party’s strongest appeal lies with voters aged 18 to 35.
“They are the ones, who are looking and saying, ‘we don’t have a future with what’s going on,’” Rustad said. “We have had 32 years (of NDP and BC Liberal governments) and everything in this province is in worse shape than it was. Young people today are working two jobs, barely able to put on the table and pay rent and they have no hope to buy a house.”
Recent polling confirms the party’s appeal among young people — a pattern seen in Canada, and across other western democracies.
The party has shown a willingness to move fast and break things, including topics of discussion and bounds of decorum, as it was the case when Banman quoted explicit language from a children’s book during Question Period.
This type of provocation gave the party attention and occasionally put large parts of BC United in the position of having to support Premier David Eby, like when he rebuked Rustad on the first day of the fall session over questions concerning Sexual Orientation Gender Identity education.
Another measure of the Conservatives’ rise lies in the attention they have gained from the government side of the house. Eby earlier this week said pointing to the Conservatives’ positions will be part of his message going forward.
British Columbians “should be aware that (the B.C. Conservatives) is a party that denies the existence of human-caused climate change, they question whether or not vaccines are effective,” Eby said. “This is a party that is anti-science, this is a party that has some of the worst traditions of populism from the United States that have ripped that country apart.”
Rustad for his part does not consider his party to be a populist party, but told reporters that he considers Eby a socialist authoritarian, before doubling down and calling him a dictator.
“You should maybe take a look back at his initial response to our first question in Question Period and ask ‘who is exaggerating and who is doing what,’” Rustad said, when asked about this. “But regardless of that, the reason why I say that is I believe it to be true,” he added. “He has had a socialist bent in terms of his approach to how to govern….but the problem is, it has failed. Everything they have been doing is failing. What happens when socialists meet failure? They start to become more authoritarian.”
Rustad specifically pointed to government’s approach toward policing in Surrey and changes in municipal planning process as evidence.
“I believe quite frankly in freedoms, I believe in family values, I believe in community values and I think government’s role should be there to work with and support (those values) and not to dictate,” he said.
When challenged, Rustad acknowledged a difference between Eby and leftist authoritarians of the past, ” but what you are seeing is a path.”
Rustad, meanwhile, sees a path toward government.
The party is still recruiting candidates and fundraising figures for 2023 so far show Conservatives far behind the front-leading New Democrats in fourth place, behind the BC Greens. But Rustad sees B.C.’s political system undergo a seismic shift, adding the party will have resources to have “strong campaigns” for candidates.
“But I like to refer to the (1994) by-election (in Matsqui),” Rustad said. It featured the late Grace McCarthy, a former deputy premier, running for Social Credit against Mike de Jong, now BC United MLA for Abbotsford West, of then up-start BC Liberals.
“They (Social Credit) had all the money that they wanted as a party, they had all the volunteers they wanted and along came Mike de Jong with a $5,000 campaign and beat her,” Rustad said.
Social Credit, then already in its death throes following the 1991 election after decades of dominance, would lose its remaining seven seats in 1996 as the BC Liberals nearly doubled their seats to 33 on the way to winning the plurality of votes, falling short of government because of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
“Sometimes, money isn’t all that is needed for elections,” Rustad said. “When people want change, their position is not going to be bought by big flash campaigns. They are looking for something different and I think that is what the Conservative Party of BC can offer.”