VICTORIA - A veteran member of the B.C. legislature shook up the political landscape Monday, quitting the Liberal government to join the provincial Conservative party.
Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen ripped into the Liberals, and especially Premier Christy Clark, in his surprise resignation announcement in the legislature.
"I rise because I can no longer carry on with my duties as a member of this government," he said.
Van Dongen was flanked by B.C. Conservative Leader John Cummins at a press conference shortly after.
"John will be holding the government to account," said Cummins. "In the legislature, he gives the B.C. Conservatives a crucial voice in the people's house. John will also help build the party around the province."
Cummins and his Conservatives, who did not hold a seat in the legislature until van Dongen's defection, have been portraying themselves as the commonsense alternative to the Liberals, a party that has been in power since 2001.
Cummins said Liberals have been leaving the party in droves and he expects many to support his Conservatives.
Clark has recently been attempting to shore up the party's right flank in an effort to prevent the Conservatives from attracting Liberal votes.
The Liberals are concerned that a split of right-wing votes benefits the Opposition New Democrats, a party that appeared pleased with van Dongen's decision.
The last B.C. Conservative to sit in the legislature was Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Victor Stephens, who was turfed during the 1989 provincial election.
The next B.C. election is set for May 2013.
The current standings in the legislature are 46 Liberals, 34 New Democrats, three independents (including van Dongen), and two vacancies.
Clark called byelections for the two vacant seats for April 19.
Van Dongen said he's been concerned about the government's failure to answer questions about the $6 million paid to cover the legal fees of two former government aides who pleaded guilty in a scandal involving the sale of B.C. Rail.
The four-term MLA said the Liberals have also failed to explain the recent cancellation of a $35-million deal to grant Telus naming rights to BC Place stadium.
"The Telus deal, that was sort of the final straw for me," said van Dongen.
Van Dongen said he could not get a proper answer from his own government about why the deal fell through, and he said his concerns about the $6-million B.C. Rail payout prompted him to hire a lawyer at his own expense to investigate the matter.
"The legal fees deal itself will never stand up to scrutiny in any way shape or form, and I've been asking those questions for a year-and-a-half," van Dongen said.
He suggested Clark has unresolved issues with respect to B.C. Rail that date back to 2002-2003, when she served her first stint in the B.C. Liberal government before quitting to return briefly to private life.
Van Dongen did not elaborate on his concerns about Clark other than to say she made several statements about B.C. Rail during her leadership campaign last year.
He admitted Clark's leadership was also a major reason for his decision.
"It is significantly about the leader," van Dongen said.
He told the legislature there have been other lapses in accountability that concerned him, and that when more and more decisions are being made for the wrong reasons an organization is heading for failure.
"I had hoped there would have been renewal in my party and in government," he told the legislature. "But in the last 12 months that hasn't happened. Indeed, every week constituents question government actions and issues I am not able to defend."
Clark, who only recently celebrated her first year leading the Liberals, was not in the legislature when van Dongen made his statement.
Clark replaced former premier Gordon Campbell who quit amid the controversy of the implementation of the harmonized sales tax. B.C. voters later rejected the tax in a referendum.
Liberal House Leader Rich Coleman said van Dongen has been unhappy for some time in his political and personal life and his attempts to console van Dongen have not worked.
Opposition New Democrat House Leader John Horgan called van Dongen's decision to quit the Liberals "seismic."
Van Dongen resigned as solicitor general in April 2009 after it was revealed he lost his driver's license after getting several speeding tickets.