The next B.C. election isn’t for 19 months, but BC Conservative MLA John Rustad is already running like his political life depends upon it. The former BC Liberal who crossed the floor to become the first Conservative in the legislature in a decade is poised this week to become the party’s leader as well.
The 60-year-old is criss-crossing the province, raising money, holding rallies and searching for candidates — with the ultimate goal, should he win the party’s ongoing leadership race, of fielding a full slate of candidates in the October 2024 election campaign.
“My goal, and certainly as I’ve talked to the party, their objective is, to run 93 candidates in the next election,” Rustad said in an interview. “So obviously that’s a tremendous amount of work, to find those candidates and build that team.
“Our target is to form government in 2024, and obviously there’s a long way to go to get to that, and there’s a short period of time to get there.”
Step one is to win the leadership, which was vacated this month after leader Trevor Bolin stepped down. So far, Rustad is the only publicly-declared candidate, though the cut-off date is not until Tuesday.
Rustad will need to raise $20,000 in race fees to become leader, as well as balance his duties as the lone MLA in the legislature, kick-start party planning across the province, and get riding associations in place to support local candidates.
That means a schedule this week that starts with private members' debate on Monday, a bi-weekly question to the government in question period mid-week, a climate policy speaking engagement Wednesday, a Thursday night fundraiser in Vancouver, back to his Nechako Lakes riding on Friday, a Saturday event in Fort St. James, and a rally in Vancouver on Sunday, all before returning to Victoria for another week of session Monday.
“I’ve had the advantage of doing a lot of touring around the province over many years in terms of the cabinet positions I’ve had as well as other things I’ve been involved in,” said Rustad, a former aboriginal relations and forests minister in the previous BC Liberal government.
“So I’m pretty much familiar with all corners of the province. But in terms of the leadership race and if I’d be so fortunate to be leader, what is going to be needed to build the party is going to mean I need to travel the province.”
Rustad announced his leadership candidacy last week with a heavy emphasis being “the only MLA who has publicly supported the freedom movement in our province.”
“I am proudly pro-freedom and pro-trucker,” he said in his launch press release.
He also demanded the government end vaccine mandate requirements for healthcare workers, a position the BC Liberals have inched towards as well.
“I’m fighting to end mandates and hire back our healthcare heroes,” said Rustad. “The time for wishy-washy, weak leadership is over. We need to fight for British Columbians.”
Both of those groups need a political advocate, said Rustad. “Those are obviously groups that don’t have a home, so I want them to feel like they can be part of what we are trying to build,” he said.
Rustad said he’s happy to take any popularity bump that could come from the provincial party’s brand being confused with that of the federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre (the provincial and federal parties are not affiliated), but he’s also looking to create “a party that is going to stand on principles and have people who are strong, who are independent and who want to fight for their riding and are willing to come together and unite to further a larger cause.”
What are those primary principles?
“The primary principles we're going to be fighting on is supporting independence, and not having parties demanding that their MLAs or candidates parrot the standard policy lines that the party put forward,” he said.
But what if that means one of Rustad’s other 92 candidates breaks with a party position on a key issue and voices a contrary stance?
“That, in my opinion, is a sign of strength in leadership because if you have a variety of people with different perspectives that want to come together and work as a unit, that’s the best you can hope for,” he said.
“You don’t want people parroting lines.”
Though, he added: “Obviously, there might be some things that create problems but that’s what leadership is about.”
So far, Rustad has staked out other positions on eliminating public subsidies for electric vehicles (both because it is unfair to people who can’t afford them, and because the cobalt used to produce the batteries comes from countries with child labour), referenda on any provincial tax increases and a somewhat vague reference to allowing parents to teach their children family values in school.
He also said he intends to continue fighting efforts to reduce nitrogen-based fertilizers, which he said will lead to global fuel shortages. The position, which is part of a larger position critics say amounts to climate change denial, caused Rustad to get ejected from the BC Liberal party earlier last August.
The BC Conservatives only managed to field 19 candidates in the last election, and picked up fewer than two per cent of the popular vote. That was a good showing for the party, which in 2017 only put up 10 candidates and garnered 0.5 per cent of the vote.
Rustad has a long way to go to build the party up to a legitimate fighting force in the province. It will start with working the ridings, pulling away as much support as he can from the other parties and drumming up interest from those dissatisfied with the existing options.
Whether he’s successful remains to be seen. But as of right now, it’s clear the 18-year veteran MLA is putting in the effort to make a solid start.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.