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Opinion: Seismic shift in store for B.C. politics if Rustad's Conservative ascent continues

John Rustad has transformed the BC Conservative Party from a marginalized group to a key player in B.C.'s political arena
BC Conservative Leader John Rustad's party has been surging in the polls as of late.

The meteoric rise of the BC Conservative Party – “from three to 39,” as leader John Rustad puts it in poll terms – is without question Canada’s political phenomenon of 2024.

From the relative disgrace less than two years ago of being dispatched into the political wilderness by Kevin Falcon in what was then the BC Liberal party, Rustad has turned the setback into an extraordinary comeback. How far he takes this ascension by Oct. 19 is anyone’s guess.

But it was instructive to see him inside the belly of the beast Wednesday evening – at one of those plentiful campaign-style events in a supporter’s home, but in Point Grey, BC NDP Premier David Eby’s riding – as a man of the hour without the trappings and accoutrements of a possible provincial leader.

He arrived and circulated alone, talked about anything anyone wished, fielded some hard questions, and laid out enough of his vision to make clear a Premier Rustad would be a different species. By the time he was waiting for a taxi about three hours later, enough people knew enough to then take his message forward.

The tendency when someone catches fire like this is to disbelieve there is staying power, so Rustad has been swallowed in recent days into speculation that his Conservatives will find a way to merge with Falcon’s BC United.

He is candid about the party’s first reach-out to Falcon some time ago about whether they could work together to defeat Eby. Falcon’s response was the more visceral version of “take a hike,” and Rustad wasn’t shy about expressing the term verbatim.

But the pressure remains because the poll numbers suggest neither his party nor Eby’s would today take a majority of legislative seats, so the question remains on whether some sort of anti-NDP alliance in some ridings might make sense.

Rustad isn’t categorical in rejecting that, but he also recognizes that his popularity has nearly as much to do with him not being Falcon as not being Eby. Besides, if the two opposition parties chose not to run candidates in some ridings to give the other party a greater opportunity to win, “we would have to defend some of their policies and they’d have to defend some of ours,” he notes.

And, well, in a campaign that would be red meat for Eby, who has been spending far more time of late defiling the Conservative flank than in worrying about the more politically proximate one in opposition. That said, the road remains long to election day, and it doesn’t sound entirely suffocated as a practical premise if it means the assumption of power.

Rustad was booted by Falcon for a social media post that suggested skepticism about climate change science and urged people to “celebrate CO2.” But it was a last straw, not a first straw, in a strained relationship over their conservative visions. In his talk to the room Wednesday, Rustad didn’t deny climate change, but said more had to be done to cope with it than to plan for it. He sees resources in the ground as the best route to prosperity, decries the policy discouragement of forestry as a key industry and rues the disincentives in place to expand upon LNG development. He is also skeptical of B.C.’s objective to protect 30 per cent of its land base as parkland by 2030 in terms of what it will do to thwart resource development and agriculture.

The 61-year-old former cabinet minister didn’t raise the most poignant social issue dividing him from Eby and Falcon – the sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) curriculum in schools – but in answering a question about it made clear it would be scrapped. He does seem eager to take on the B.C. Teachers Federation, saying that if they won’t bend to his will he’s prepared to finance education so “100 per cent of the dollars follow the student.”

One of his most intriguing ideas is for B.C. to have its own immigration policy, as Quebec has, in order to import greater skills to the province. He seems willing to use the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to drive mandatory treatment of addicts, but also said that there needs to be compassionate care for those who are simply too far gone and can’t escape their dependence. He wants universal health care, but both public and private delivery. He thinks health-care workers without COVID vaccines ought to be reinstated.

The list of differences is lengthy. His views are going to make the campaign the most vigorous evidence in memory of the breadth of differences politically in British Columbia. That Rustad improbably has emerged to potentially break the 33-year reigns of Liberals and New Democrats in B.C. shows, if nothing else, the depth of despair about the paths provincial governments have taken. A switch to him would be seismic.

Kirk LaPointe is a Glacier Media columnist with an extensive background in journalism.