VICTORIA — The political landscape in British Columbia shifted slightly Wednesday with the defection of an Opposition BC United caucus member to the provincial Conservatives, who will now have two members in the legislature.
Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman announced he is crossing the floor to join his friend B.C. Conservative Leader John Rustad, who was turfed from the BC United caucus last year.
Banman's move to the Conservatives gives the party added strength in the legislature as two elected members constitute an official political party.
The Office of the Clerk said in a statement that it appears to be the first time four parties will be represented in B.C.'s legislature with "official status," but it is not the only time four parties have had representatives in the legislature.
The Clerk's statement also said there are currently no specific funding arrangements for a caucus beyond a third party, meaning the two Conservatives will receive money as two private members, but a legislative committee can review the situation.
The four parties at the legislature will now be the New Democrats, who hold a majority, the Opposition BC United, the Green Party of B.C. and the Conservative Party of B.C.
Rustad welcomed Banman to the Conservative caucus, calling the move historic and a reflection of changing political momentum in B.C. as the fall 2024 election approaches.
"You know people in this province are looking for something different," he said in an interview. "They're looking for what we're offering. For Bruce coming over and joining us, obviously it's a very exciting day for us."
Rustad has been sitting in the legislature as an Independent.
Banman, elected in 2020 and a former Abbotsford mayor, wanted to be in a party where he could speak freely on behalf of his constituents, said Rustad.
"With Bruce coming over, I think, he wants to be able to stand up and fight for his constituents," Rustad said. "He wants to be able to make sure he's free to be able to vote his conscience, and he found he wasn't able to do that under the BC United Party."
BC United Leader Kevin Falcon said Banman's decision to switch parties was not entirely unexpected but it betrays those constituents who elected him to serve as part of the BC United team.
BC United is the only party that can defeat the NDP government and act on the significant challenges of public safety, affordable housing and high taxes and fuel costs facing B.C. residents, he said.
"Politics is a team sport and obviously you don't like to have these things happen," said Falcon at a news conference in Vancouver. "I reminded Bruce to look at the history of the MLAs that have done this in the past in B.C. It's in every single case ended up to be political suicide."
Falcon ejected Rustad from the BC United caucus in August 2022 for posting views on social media that questioned the role of carbon dioxide in climate change.
Banman, who was the BC United critic for emergency management and climate readiness, said joining the Conservatives will ensure he is able to bring the concerns of his constituents to the legislature.
"When John Rustad came to me, he said, 'Bruce, I encourage free votes and I encourage a difference of opinion.' It just spoke to my heart," said Banman.
He said his breaking point with BC United came last spring during a debate where the party called for its members to support a vote in the legislature that rejected the efforts of the anti-vaccine-mandate trucker's convoy in Ottawa.
"I was told if you are not willing to vote in favour of this, be out of the building when the vote comes down," said Banman.
He said he left the legislature and did not vote, but ever since he's been thinking about his Mennonite grandparents who fled the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s to come to Canada where they could practise freedom of religion and speech.
"That was the beginning," Banman said.
Now, he said he is joining a political party that does not support the federal Liberal government's carbon tax, refuses to condone B.C. education policies surrounding student identity issues and rejects safe supply of hard drugs.
Rustad said they are building a new coalition based on working for everyday people.
"Half the people in this province are struggling to put food on the table. They don't care about the ideologies and the political rhetoric."
The Conservatives recently placed second ahead of the Greens and BC United in the Malahat-Juan de Fuca byelection on Vancouver Island that was won by the NDP.
New Democrat Ravi Parmer, who was elected in Malahat-Juan de Fuca, said Banman is joining a party that is out of step with the values of most people in B.C., those who trust the science behind climate change and vaccines.
He said in a statement the B.C. Conservatives are a party born of "anti-science ideas."
"At a time when our province has seen back-to-back-to-back extreme weather events, the B.C. Conservatives are the only party opposed to essential emission reduction measures such as the carbon tax."
The party standings in the legislature are now 57 New Democrats, 26 BC United MLAs, two BC Greens and two Conservatives.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2023.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press