Speaker surprise caps tumultuous five years in Abbotsford South politics

Riding has history of reversals and BC Liberal in-fighting

Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas’s decision to take the Speaker’s chair against the wishes of his own party is the latest turn in a riding no stranger to political twists and turns.

Plecas’s decision to accept the Speaker gig Friday was labelled a “betrayal” by interim BC Liberal Party leader Rich Coleman, and party president Sharon White said Plecas’s decision broke the trust between party members and politicians. Both said Plecas had given repeated assurances that he wouldn’t serve as Speaker, and Plecas was booted from the party at the request of the Abbotsford South riding association.

Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong said in an emailed press release: “It is disappointing to see MLA Plecas turn his back on those who elected him as a BC Liberal MLA by choosing to support the NDP government by relieving them of the obligation to nominate a Speaker from their caucus.”

Responses online from constituents and those less-connected to the BC Liberal Party were more mixed, although Plecas’s motives and manner in taking the job drew questions.

Related: Plecas spoke to The News Wednesday morning. For that interview, click here.

Mission Mayor Randy Hawes, who served 12 years as a BC Liberal MLA before leaving

provincial politics in 2013, defended Plecas on The News’s website and put the blame for the matter and the BC Liberals’ turmoil on ex-premier Christy Clark, citing the spring throne speech that borrowed heavily from other parties’ platforms.

“Good on Darryl for standing up like he did and now at least I believe there will be an independent neutral speaker in the legislature,” Hawes wrote.

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As speaker, Plecas will preside over the debate and ensure the legislature’s rules are followed. The job also comes with a $52,091 pay top-up on top of the average MLA’s salary.

The Speaker of the legislature only votes in case of a tie. That means that without one of their members sitting as Speaker, the Green/NDP partnership has more breathing room, reducing the chance it falls or loses votes if one or two MLAs get sick, resign or abandon the party. The government will have a three-vote advantage until the seat Clark left vacant with her resignation is filled.

In a June post-election interview with The News, Plecas said that while he had expressed some affinity for the Speaker position, saying his past in academia led him to look favourably on the ostensibly non-partisan job.

But the Liberals didn’t want one of their members to serve in the position, and Plecas told The News in June that taking the seat against the wishes of his party would be “dishonourable.”

In an interview Wednesday with The News, he said that belief changed after the Lieutenant Governor determined a Greeen/NDP partnership to be a legitimate government.

The conflict between Plecas and the BC Liberals had been stewing for months.

On election night, Plecas said he hoped the results would lead to a “humbler” party that did more on social issues. And although he told The News in June he wouldn’t help prop up a Green/NDP government, he later confirmed that he had told his party that he would quit the BC Liberals if Clark stayed on as leader.

Plecas, who has regularly said that his views comprise an mixture of Green, NDP, Liberal and Conservative fare, told The News last month that he was sick of the “top-down leadership style” of the party. He said he was unhappy about being told what to say about issues close to his heart.

That interview apparently renewed overtures from the NDP and led to Plecas accepting the offer to serve as Speaker

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Adding further complexities to the entire episode is the history of how Plecas came to represent the Abbotsford South riding in the first place.

In March of 2012, the BC Liberal MLA for Abbotsford South, John van Dongen, announced that he was crossing the floor to sit as a BC Conservative as that party’s first MLA. Van Dongen would later leave the BC Conservatives to sit as an independent, but that still left the BC Liberals in search of a candidate to stand in the 2013 election.

Enter Moe Gill, then- and current-Abbotsford city councillor who had been raising money and planning to run for the party. He was moving forward with his plans when BC Liberal party brass swooped into town to tell Gill they wanted Plecas to run in the riding instead. The move triggered the mass resignation of the party’s riding association and sparked criticism both from those who were preparing to campaign for Gill, and from observers beyond Abbotsford.

In the end, Plecas easily won the Abbotsford South seat in 2013, defeating van Dongen, while Gill ran as an independent in Abbotsford West and finished fourth.

As it happens, on Sunday – less than 48 hours after the Speaker surprise – a photo was posted on Plecas’s Twitter account of him smiling beside Gill at the BC SPCA Paws for a Cause walk.

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On Monday, de Jong and Gibson issued a joint press release criticizing the move and saying it will help the governing NDP.

“He may sit as an independent but, in reality, he is now totally aligned with the NDP and their political cousins, the Greens,” Gibson said, while de Jong said he had heard from constituents who felt “betrayed.”

Others have spoken about the possibility of a recall, although such efforts cannot officially begin until next November.

Green leader Andrew Weaver, meanwhile, said he was “thrilled” by the news, describing Plecas as “a principled man of exceptional ethics and high moral standards.” Weaver said he had called Plecas after The News interview in which he criticized his party’s leadership.

From BC Liberals, there has been near-universal condemnation of Plecas, but responses have been mixed from his constituents. Many online commenters have applauded the move as a show of independence, while others have expressed doubt about the motives behind the decision. Some readers also have said that while they aren’t oppose to the move, they were wary about the manner in which it took place.

Abbotsford Coun. Dave Loewen wrote online that Plecas accepting the speaker’s position wasn’t a crossing of the floor but the assumption of a non-partisan position.

But it was Hawes who delivered one of the most full-throated defences of the erstwhile BC Liberal.

“Rather than heaping scorn on Darryl Plecas, I think an internal look at how the disaster of the last few months transpired would be more productive,” he wrote. “A call for accountibility from those responsible for advising the Premier would make more sense than turning on Darryl.”