After much speculation, MLA John Rustad has confirmed he is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of British Columbia.
The Nechako Lakes representative — who joined the party on Feb. 16 — made the announcement Thursday (March 23) in an email. The party is scheduled to elect a new leader May 28 if multiple candidates are running. Rustad’s announcement comes just days before the nomination period closes on March 29.
Rustad told Black Press Media that he is the first declared candidate to have entered the race as far as he knows, adding the party has received two additional requests for the required paperwork.
He feels confident about his chances.
“I’m optimistic that I will be able to unite the party and bring people into what needs to be a new coalition for this province,” he said. The right-of-centre coalition party that has historically opposed the provincial New Democrats is broken, he said.
Rustad’s run hardly comes out of the blue. He faced questions about whether he would chase the leadership from the moment he joined the party. He previously sat with the BC Liberals until opposition leader Kevin Falcon kicked him out of caucus in August after he publicly questioned the causes of climate change.
The speculation only intensified after Trevor Bolin had announced he would make room for a leadership contest by becoming the party’s interim leader.
Rustad told Black Press Media in early March that he has been talking with his family about running. He has also been speaking to party members in different parts of the province.
His run raises the question of whether he is running for political expediency, having joined the party only weeks ago.
“I have always stood for values, I have always believed that MLAs should represent their ridings first and not just be parrots for political parties and the BC Liberals kicked me out of their party because I dared to stand up for the people in my riding,” he said. “It took me some time to think about the future and what to do, but I came to the realization that this province needs a new coalition party, it needs to change direction and I’m prepared to step up and provide that.”
Rustad said in his email that he is running because the NDP government does not listen to British Columbians, while the BC Liberals don’t measure up as an Official Opposition. British Columbians, he added, deserve a party that fights for British Columbia, not party insiders and elites.
His announcement signals a clear turn to the right side of the political spectrum, with rhetoric not unlike that of federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre.
“I am proudly pro-freedom and pro-trucker, and I’m fighting to end mandates and hire back our healthcare heroes,” Rustad said.
Poilivere had also framed himself as a defender of freedom and expressed sympathy for the 2022 Freedom Convey that shut down Ottawa’s downtown for a month protesting COVID-19 mandates.
Rustad’s statement also struck a populist tone.
“We need to fight for affordability for families; for good paying jobs so British Columbians can work hard and get ahead; for parents rights to teach their children their family values; for our fundamental freedoms to travel, work, attend faith services and live life unimpeded,” he said. “These are things that we can no longer take for granted.”
Rustad told Black Press Media that nobody is currently standing up for the freedoms of British Columbians. He said he supports the Freedom Convoy truckers because they are fighting for choice and freedom.
“They represent a group of people, who are tired of the status quo,” he said. “They want to see change, they want to see differences.”
Rustad added a party under his leadership would stand for more than just supporting the Freedom Convoy.
“Our party is not going to be about — at least from my perspective — left-wing politics or right-wing politics,” he said. “It has to be about what is right and what is wrong.”
When asked abut the rhetorical similiarities with Poilivere, Rustad said the party has no affiliation with any of the federal parties.
“We need to draw from across the political spectrum,” he said. “For example, I have been to a number of events just over the past weeks, where they have been people, who have voted NDP in the last election but now say they want to support me and want to support the Conservative Party.”
Once instrumental in the early history of B.C., provincial Conservatives have gone through various changes over the years, winning a mere 35,902 votes, or 1.91 per cent, across 19 ridings in the 2020 provincial election.
But the party has the potential to play spoiler to the detriment of BC Liberals in competitive ridings.
Consider Abbotsford-Mission, where Conservative Trevor Hamilton won almost eight per cent of the vote. Minister of Agriculture Pam Alexis won that riding by less than three per cent against BC Liberal incumbent Simon Gibson.
An even closer riding was Vernon-Monashee, where New Democrat Harwinder Sandhu edged out incumbent BC Liberal Eric Foster by less than 1.5 per cent with Conservative Kyle Delfing having won nearly 13 per cent.