In an interview with one of our Vancouver Island papers before Christmas, B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins made a bold prediction that he would have party status before the general election in May 2013.
That’s four seats, and it wasn’t based on an unlikely sweep of the Chilliwack-Hope and Port Moody-Coquitlam by-elections, now set for April 19. He hinted he was getting calls from MLAs looking to join up, after a November Angus Reid poll showed a sudden surge to 18 per cent for his resurgent brand.
We now know that one of those callers was Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen.
I asked Cummins on Friday if he is still confident about three more. “Hopeful, let’s put it that way,” he replied.
Van Dongen’s explosive departure was arranged, with Cummins’ help, for maximum damage to Premier Christy Clark. Van Dongen notified the B.C. Liberal caucus that he was quitting. Then, in a questionable use of legislature privileges, he launched a broadside on Clark’s integrity.
He cited the $6-million legal payout in the B.C. Rail sale, a decision made before Clark’s time, and the recent collapse of a deal to sell naming rights to B.C. Place. He described the B.C. Liberals as “an organization headed for failure,” then announced he’s joined the B.C. Conservatives.
Cummins then joined van Dongen at a hotel news conference across the street, as the former Gordon Campbell cabinet minister disclosed he has hired his own lawyer to dig through the roomful of paper from the B.C. Rail case once again.
Auditor General John Doyle is already in court seeking access to details of the $6 million in lawyer bills, which the Attorney General’s ministry hasn’t provided because it doesn’t have them. These delicate matters were farmed out to yet more independent lawyers.
Independent special prosecutor Bill Berardino also spent seven years and many more millions on the B.C. Rail case, including the role of Clark’s lobbyist brother, Bruce. He didn’t find the smoking gun now sought by van Dongen.
This effort seems designed more for political revenge in an election year than to clarify the sorry legacy of the B.C. Rail sale that has already been examined through two provincial elections.
Van Dongen was at the top of everyone’s list of disgruntled B.C. Liberals. During last year’s leadership contest, he muttered darkly about not only B.C. Rail, but also the integrity of fellow Abbotsford MLA Mike de Jong. Now Clark is van Dongen’s target, with Cummins standing beside him trying to look statesman-like.
Of course van Dongen drove himself out of cabinet long before Clark returned. Chronic speeding by a public safety minister is a tough sell.
I asked Cummins about the reluctance of key cabinet ministers Kevin Falcon and George Abbott to confirm they are running again. His aw-shucks friendly-grandpa modesty precludes speculation, but he did allow it’s “maybe a comment on the state of affairs in the Liberal caucus.”
Reporters started surveying government MLAs after Falcon and Abbott kept their options open for 2013.
For the record, fellow ministers Terry Lake, Shirley Bond, Pat Bell, Mary Polak, Rich Coleman and Stephanie Cadieux all said they are firmly on Clark’s election team. Independent-minded backbenchers Bill Bennett and Kevin Krueger also saluted the B.C. Liberal banner. Randy Hawes allowed that he’s 65, so if he leaves it will be for the golf course.
As I was talking with Cummins, B.C. Conservative advisor Randy White was assuring the Abbotsford News that more defections are coming. Cummins has people for the dirty work.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com