Almost everyone in the B.C. legislature knew that Liberal backbencher John van Dongen might jump ship and join the Conservatives. He hinted at that a year ago when Christy Clark became his new boss and made it clear he would sit on the caucus bleachers until his teeth fell out.
However, no one fully appreciated how malicious his departure would be and how precisely it would be timed to inflict maximum damage on the party he has called home since he was first elected in Abbotsford South in 1995. No one expected him to hurl mud at his premier with mean words that challenged Clark’s “integrity,” “honesty” and “ethics.”
As a political contributor to the noble cause of public service, van Dongen has been barely mediocre. In fact, he was a train wreck waiting to happen. That wreck occurred in 2009 when he left cabinet after his driver’s licence was suspended because he had too many speeding tickets. He was solicitor general at the time … B.C.’s “top cop.” Very bad optics.
Clearly, van Dongen’s fall from grace and his permanent assignment to caucus purgatory has been eating at him like a cancer. His recourse was devastating. He pulled the pin on his Liberals in their most vulnerable hour, during the run up to the April 19 byelections in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope.
These by-elections are necessary because the incumbent Liberal MLAs — former cabinet ministers Iain Black and Barry Penner — decided it was time to embark on private sector careers rather than remain at Premier Clark’s side with the May 2013 general election approaching.
It is my assessment that the Liberals are going to lose both seats. The loss of Port Moody-Coquitlam will be bitter because the Liberals really wanted popular four-term Port Moody mayor Joe Trasolini to be their standard bearer. Trasolini, no fool, spurned Clark and jumped on the NDP bandwagon.
I think it is safe to assume that van Dongen’s defection could have a significant impact on the Chilliwack-Hope vote. Until now, several pundits have predicted that the NDP’s candidate Gwen O’Mahony — a health-care advocate — has a good chance of splitting the vote and winning the seat.
However, van Dongen, regardless of his handicaps, is a Fraser Valley fixture with deep farming roots and his new profile as the Conservative’s first MLA could help convince disaffected valley Liberals to follow his example.
The Conservatives are already well positioned with a strong candidate. John Martin is an outspoken criminologist who has entertained Fraser Valley readers with a long running column in the Chilliwack Times.
I believe a win by Martin is possible if there is a van Dongen slipstream effect. If that happens, it will be catastrophic for the Liberals. For the first time since 1978 — when lawyer Vic Stephens won an Oak Bay byelection — the Conservatives will have managed to establish a two-pronged legislative toe hold.
With less than a year to go before general election campaigning begins in earnest, I’m sure the Liberals would prefer to lose to the NDP in Chilliwack-Hope. At least that loss would reinforce Clark’s dire warnings about vote splitting.
But my gut tells me many of the 53 per cent of valley voters who loyally backed Penner in 2009 will be more willing to drift into the Tory camp now that van Dongen has pointed the way. M