Premier Christy Clark says she isn’t expecting any more resignations from the BC Liberal caucus after Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen’s abrupt jump to the BC Conservatives this week.
And other BC Liberal MLAs canvassed in the wake of van Dongen’s resignation – including Surrey-Cloverdale’s Kevin Falcon (Minister of Finance), Surrey-Panorama’s Stephanie Cadieux (Minister of Social Development) and Surrey-White Rock’s Gordon Hogg (Caucus Chair) – are unanimous in supporting the government and characterizing his defection as an individual decision that does not point to a shaky caucus.
Asked about van Dongen’s parting shots in the legislature Monday – including criticism over the handling of the lawsuit over the sale of BC Rail – Falcon acknowledged that he and “every single” MLA in caucus had been “appalled” by the decision to pay $6 million in legal fees for former government staffers Dave Basi and Bobby Virk after they pleaded guilty to breach of trust.
Van Dongen, saying he was concerned about the integrity of the government, also cited the recent collapse of negotiations to sell naming rights to BC Place stadium to Telus Corp.
“There have been other lapses in proper accountability and I expect more to come,” van Dongen said during question period.
Clark said her top priority is to keep the BC Liberal coalition together for the next election.
“The only thing I would say about John (van Dongen) is, he’s making it easier for (NDP Leader) Adrian Dix to become premier,” Clark said at a press conference Tuesday.
In interviews with Peace Arch News Tuesday, Falcon, Cadieux and Hogg shared a consistent message and much of the same language.
There are always differences in any coalition, they said, but ultimately individuals have to seek common ground for the greater good of the province.
Falcon and Cadieux both described van Dongen’s parting shots at the party as “disappointing,” and their comments agreed with Hogg’s description of the BC Liberals as “the only viable free-enterprise coalition to win the next election.”
“Today I’m moving forward on my job,” Cadieux said. “We have a lot of very important work to do… and I’m focused on that.”
All three said that while they disagree with van Dongen’s characterization of events, they acknowledge he had every right to do what he did.
“In my role as caucus chair, I talked at length with John, and I know he struggled with some of the challenges of being in government,” said Hogg. “I’m not happy to see him go, but I understand his decision and respect his decision.”
Both Hogg and Falcon said they felt van Dongen has had ample opportunity to ask questions and receive a full explanation in caucus on both the Basi-Virk legal fee and BC Place naming-rights issues.
“The decision that was made to relieve Basi and Virk of their legal fees was entirely independent of government,” Falcon said, adding it was made by the justice branch in consultation with deputies from the attorney general’s office and the finance ministry (David Loukidelis, deputy in the attorney general’s ministry and Graham Whitmarsh, finance deputy said in an October 2010 statement they had agreed to cover Basi and Virk’s legal fees).
Falcon said van Dongen was appalled with the decision, “as was I, as was every single MLA in caucus” – which, he said, led to a full review into “what happened and ways to ensure it didn’t happen again.”
At a news conference with BC Conservative Leader John Cummins, van Dongen said he has hired a lawyer at his own expense to investigate the BC Rail legal fees arrangement, and also Clark’s involvement with the sale in 2002-’03. He said Clark made “inconsistent” statements when she ran for the BC Liberal leadership last year about what she knew of the sale and the involvement of lobbyists.
Meeting with reporters Tuesday, Clark again rejected calls for an inquiry into the case, saying she has answered every question about her own involvement in the original sale.
Clark said the government has co-operated with auditor general John Doyle’s requests for documents as far as possible, and those in dispute are the subject of a court case.
“The only documents that haven’t been released are ones that our legal advice tells us we cannot release,” Clark said, adding that a judge will rule if that advice was correct.
Van Dongen was first elected in 1995, and re-elected as a BC Liberal in 1996, 2001, 2005 and 2009. He has held cabinet positions responsible for agriculture and public safety.
Cummins said he does not expect van Dongen to resign his seat and run as a BC Conservative in a byelection, a position he supported during his time as an MP in Ottawa. Cummins said with the provincial election scheduled for May 2013, the voters of Abbotsford South will have their say soon enough.
Van Dongen will sit as an independent MLA, since four members are needed to be a recognized party in the legislature. His announcement comes as the BC Conservatives run candidates in two byelections set for April 19 in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope, to fill seats vacated by retired BC Liberals MLAs Iain Black and Barry Penner.
– with files from Tom Fletcher