Okanagan MLA doesn’t believe defection will lead to an exodus

MLA John Slater disappointed that John van Dongen "bailed on government"

In the wake of Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen’s quitting the B.C. Liberal Party to join the rival B.C. Conservatives, one local MLA said it isn’t a sign of things to come.

“The team is strong still. It is a little disappointing that John left, (but) we’re pretty sure that it’s not going to be an exodus of several members,” said Boundary Similkameen MLA John Slater.

Van Dongen announced his decision Monday after question period in the legislature. He said he is concerned about the integrity of the government, and cited the decision to pay $6 million in legal fees for former government staffers Dave Basi and Bobby Virk after they pleaded guilty to breach of trust in the sale of BC Rail assets.

“There have been other lapses in proper accountability and I expect more to come,” van Dongen told the legislature.

Slater admits the instability the Liberal party has experienced over the last three years has affected voter perceptions, even at a local level. When people voted in 2009, they voted for a good government, he said, and there are people that think the Liberals haven’t lived up to their expectations.

“And I can’t blame them, to be honest. There are some decisions that we made that were really poor,” said Slater, using the HST as an example.

“The way that we launched it was terrible. People have lost the trust. To get that back is going to be very difficult.”

However, Slater feels that leaving the party is only going to make things tougher for van Dongen. He defines the job of an MLA as making sure he takes care of his constituents, trying to get as many improvements as possible, both socially and infrastructure-wise.

“John is going to have a tough time for his riding, because all of a sudden he has bailed on government,” said Slater. “It’s hard for local people to get improvements if something like that happens. That’s just human nature.”

Van Dongen was first elected in 1995, and re-elected as a B.C. Liberal in 1996, 2001, 2005 and 2009. He has held cabinet positions responsible for public safety and agriculture. It was as minister for agriculture that Slater first met van Dongen — long before his own election in 2009 — working with him on the B.C. Vegetable Marketing Commission.

“John made his decision based on the information that he has,” said Slater. “He is very conscientious, he made his decision for personal reasons.”

At a news conference with B.C. Conservative leader John Cummins, van Dongen said he has hired a lawyer at his own expense to investigate the B.C. Rail legal fees arrangement, and also Premier Christy Clark’s involvement with the sale in 2002-03. He said Clark made “inconsistent” statements when she ran for the B.C. Liberal leadership about what she knew of the sale and the involvement of lobbyists.

Van Dongen will sit as an independent MLA, since four members are needed to be a recognized party in the B.C. legislature. His announcement comes as the B.C. Conservatives run candidates in two byelections set for April 19 in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack Hope, to fill seats vacated by retired B.C. Liberal MLAs Iain Black and Barry Penner.