Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen crossed the floor of the provincial legislature on Monday afternoon – walking away from the governing Liberal caucus and announcing he will sit as the only member of the B.C. Conservative party.
“I don’t have confidence in the leader of the party,” van Dongen told The News in a telephone interview, minutes after his 2:30 p.m. announcement.
“I had hoped for renewal in the party.”
He pointed to the the government’s agreement to pay $6 million in legal bills for former ministerial aides David Basi and Bob Virk, in their corruption case over the sale of B.C. Rail.
“People are concerned about those kind of integrity issues,” said van Dongen.
He said the “final straw” for him was the cancellation of the BC Place naming rights deal with Telus. The government has been heavily criticized for leaving $35 million on the table.
“There is no logical explanation why that deal was cancelled,” said van Dongen.
“There have been other lapses in proper accountability and I expect more to come,” van Dongen told the legislature. “When more and more decisions are being made for the wrong reasons, then you have an organization that is heading for failure.”
The MLA has heard concerns about the Liberal party from many corners, from business people to members of his church congregation, and has been unable to defend them.
After “a lot of soul searching,” he decided to leave the party.
He said the Conservatives represent the best offering of “a credible free enterprise party.”
Van Dongen expects to be called a turncoat by members of his former party, but said “I’m prepared to roll with the punches.
“Everybody has been respectful.”
One of the longest serving MLAs in the B.C. legislature, he has represented Abbotsford voters since 1995. He has held several cabinet posts, including solicitor general and minister of public safety, minister of state for intergovernmental relations, and minister of agriculture, food and fisheries.
In April 2009, he resigned from cabinet as solictor general after his driver’s licence was suspended for four months. He had been cited for driving over the speed limit twice in one year.
Van Dongen has not been given a cabinet post since. Asked whether he feels he has been treated fairly by the party, he responded: “It’s been a tough three years.”
The new Conservative was welcomed into the party at 3:30 p.m. today by party leader John Cummins.
“We’re getting a member who is noted for his passion, his integrity, his honesty and his concern for his costituents. The issues of ethics and accountability, which he addressed in his statement to the house, are the values that he’s bringing. We’re just absolutely delighted that John has chosen to come our way,” he said.
Cummins said he has been talking informally with van Dongen for about a week.
“John will play a leading role on our team, no question about it. He’s got vast experience in the provincial legislature and he’s got vast experience in the issues that we need to address as a party here in B.C. His input will certainly be valued.”
Cummins also feels the move will have an impact on the surrounding communities.
“The signal that he sends by coming to the BC Conservatives will resonate well, not only in Abbotsford but certainly in Chilliwack, Hope and throughout the Fraser Valley,” said Cummins.
The next B.C. provincial election is scheduled for May of 2013 and Cummins said van Dongen will be “a great asset” on the campaign trail.
Van Dongen said his Abbotsford constituency office will be operating normally.
Randy Hawes, Liberal MLA for Abbotsford Mission, said the decision came as a surprise to him, but he knew van Dongen had been unhappy.
“John has been a friend of mine for 20 years … I respect his decision,” said Hawes.
“The people that he is responsible to in the end … are the people who elected him,” said Hawes.
Abbotsford West MLA Michael de Jong said he was disappointed, considering the Liberal party is “in the process of rebuilding.”
“Some people have more trouble sticking around for the tougher days,” he said.
He said since van Dongen was obliged to resign from cabinet, “he has been out of sorts.”