BC Conservatives AGM: John van Dongen Quits, Cummins Stays

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JOHN VAN DONGEN
John van Dongen is quitting the B.C. Conservatives after the party decided against holding a review of John Cummins' leadership. (Darryl Dyck, CP) | CP

LANGLEY, B.C. - Even in the tumultuous world of British Columbia politics, the provincial Conservatives had a roller coaster of a weekend.

Weeks of leaked accusations, acrimony and innuendo came to a less-than-definitive end for the party as roughly one-third of eligible members cast ballots on a leadership review.

Of those, 71 per cent voted against a review for B.C. Conservative party Leader John Cummins, while 29 per cent were in favour.

But his victory was short-lived, as the Conservative's only member with a seat in the legislature quit the party citing his inability to continue with Cummins at the helm.

"I am turning in my B.C. Conservative party membership," John van Dongen told reporters outside the Langley Events Centre, where 200-plus Conservatives were gathered for the party's annual general meeting.

"I could not in good conscience pretend that I could support John Cummins for a future premier. I don't believe he has the capacity to do the job."

But van Dongen, who will sit as an Independent MLA, said he doesn't regret jumping ship to the provincial Conservatives last March.

"I was prepared to take that risk," he said.

The dispute centred around leadership style and a $4,000 a month stipend for Cummins, a retired federal Conservative MP.

Cummins described the vote as a procedural issue.

"My name wasn't on the vote. The vote was about process and whether the party thought a leadership review would be essential," he told reporters after a lengthy speech to members. "We're moving on."

Cummins did acknowledge there is some "upset" among those who were pushing for a review but said he said he didn't know what the issues were.

"I can't make heads nor tails. I'm not going to waste my time trying to. We've got an election to fight in eight months and that's what we're focusing on," he told reporters.

In an unfortunate turn of luck, the Conservative party banner behind him buckled and fell to the floor as he spoke.

Cummins is not the first Conservative leader to face dissent in the ranks.

A few years ago, police were called to a party meeting in the B.C. Interior as tensions flared between two rival factions. The dispute over control of the party that hasn't elected an MLA for decades ended up in a lawsuit that went all the way to the country's highest court.

Cummins said no leader can expect to get 100 per cent support, and that he's satisfied with the results.

"It's been tough, it hasn't been positive. There's no question about it."

For some, 71 per cent was not a definitive victory. Former Liberal premier Gordon Campbell resigned shortly after winning an 84 per cent approval rating in an internal leadership vote.

In announcing the results, party president Reed Elley reiterated that the vote was mandated by the party constitution.

"That brings to a close a very important issue that has, at times, divided this party," he said.

"However, it has been democratically dealt with and I'm sure that as a democratic party we want to be able to support the wishes of our membership in a democratic way. The best way we can do that is to leave this placed united and be prepared together, regardless of what side we were on, to move this party forward in the next seven or eight months so that we can win seats in the next election."

Ben Besler, the party vice-president and member of a Friends of B.C. Conservative Party slate that opposed Cummins, said his concerns remain but he accepts the decision of the membership.

"I'm a Conservative and he's the leader of the Conservative party of British Columbia," Besler said in an emotional interview right after the vote results were announced.

"I think concerned were raised to Mr. Cummins. . . and it's ultimately up to Mr. Cummins which way he's going to address those concerns and make those decisions."

Van Dongen said his political career is not over, and he is open to working with anyone "who wants to work in what I believe is the right direction for British Columbians."

To that end, the former Liberal cabinet minister said he will likely be at that party's convention this fall.

"Lots of things can happen in eight months," he told reporters.

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