Whipped: How Abbotsford South became a BC United nightmare
As Abbotsford MLA Bruce Banman bolts to Conservatives, he cites same issues that led Darryl Plecas to go rogue
The BC Liberals’ Abbotsford South curse has outlived the party’s name.
On Wednesday, Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman abandoned the party now known as BC United to join the BC Conservatives. In doing so, he became the third consecutive Abbotsford South MLA to abandon his party, following in the footsteps of Abbotsford South predecessors Darryl Plecas and John van Dongen.
In an interview with The Current Wednesday, Banman said he was dissatisfied with being told how to vote and having to hew the party line (an almost identical complaint to that made by his predecessor). We’ll have more from our interview with Banman in tomorrow’s Current.
The move will give the Conservatives two MLAs and, vitally, official party status. But while it comes after several polls showing the Kevin Falcon-led BC United with extremely low support since changing its name, the provincial ramifications won’t be clear for years. Some previous floor-crossings have signaled new eras in BC political parties. Others have been blips that seemed important at the time, but which didn’t actually change much.
What is clear is that Abbotsford South remains a baffling headache for the BC United Party. It’s extremely rare for sitting MLAs to leave their parties in BC politics, and yet every Abbotsford South BC Liberal/United MLA in the past decade has left their colleagues.
John van Dongen 📷 BC Legislature
Our story starts in March of 2012.
Abbotsford dairy farmer John van Dongen stands in the BC legislature to announce that he had grown disillusioned with the BC Liberal Party and its leaders and would henceforth sit as a member of the BC Conservatives.
Van Dongen had been one of the longest-serving MLAs, spending nearly 17 years representing Abbotsford South. He had also been a prominent politician, serving for years as a cabinet minister. That spell, though, came to an end in 2009. Van Dongen was BC’s Minister of Public Safety at the time and involved in campaigns to curtail speeding. So it came as a shock when it was revealed that his driver license has been suspended for four months because he had twice, in the course of a single year, been ticketed for excessive speeding. He resigned three days after his license suspension was made public.
Despite those troubles, Van Dongen easily won re-election just a month later. But by March of 2012, the BC Liberals had a new leader—Christy Clark—and were down in the polls.
Van Dongen, still sitting in the backbenches, decided to jump ship, citing what he saw as a lack of integrity and accountability with the party. As he did so, he announced he was joining the Conservative Party of BC, a party that had no MLAs but which appeared to be gaining support since Clark’s elevation to leader.
The move was heralded as big news, though it would turn out to be a blip in the fortunes of the BC Conservatives. By the fall, van Dongen would quit the Conservatives and sit as an independent.
But without van Dongen’s departure from the BC Liberals, BC politics may look very different today.
If van Dongen had remained in the BC Liberal fold, it seems likely he would have easily won re-election in 2013 and served out another term.
Instead, van Dongen’s departure required the BC Liberals to find a new candidate to run for the party in the 2013 election. Long-time Abbotsford Coun. Moe Gill wanted the job. Gill had the support of the party’s riding association, but not the party’s backroom leaders. They wanted Darryl Plecas, a prominent University of the Fraser Valley criminologist, to be their man in Victoria.
And while the party’s riding association resigned en masse, the BC Liberal leaders got their way. Plecas—billed as a star candidate and potential cabinet material—easily won the 2013 election, knocking off both Gill and van Dongen, both of whom ran as independents.
Meanwhile, the BC Liberals, despite the early struggles under Clark, won another majority government.
No one could have predicted how spectacularly the decision to intervene in the Abbotsford South nomination battle would backfire on the BC Liberals.
Over the next four years, Plecas served in two parliamentary secretary roles—jobs that are junior to full on government ministers. But he didn’t have the prominent role many had predicted, and by election day of 2017, he had grown clearly discontent with his party.
Following an election in which the BC Liberals failed to win a majority, Plecas said his party needed to be more humble. In the months that followed, he took a key role in pushing for the removal of Clark as BC Liberal leader. He would tell this reporter that he took issue with Clark’s “top-down, small-circle” style of leadership and unwillingness to listen to other viewpoints.
He said he didn’t like that he couldn’t voice his opinions.
“People need to have the opportunity to say what they really think,” Plecas said. “What is the point of having somebody represent a local area, if you can’t speak freely about what you think the concerns are in your area?”
That 2017 election saw the BC Liberals win 43 seats of 87 seats—one shy of the necessary amount to form government. On election night, Plecas spoke of his party’s need to do more on social issues and act more humbly. The BC NDP and Greens had 44 seats between them and would later come to an agreement that would allow them to form government.
While Plecas got his wish and Clark was removed as leader, the recriminations of that battle, however, would linger. It left Plecas alienated from BC Liberal bigwigs. The NDP government, meanwhile, sensed an opportunity; Plecas’ name was floated as a potential speaker of the legislature.
Normally, the designation of a legislature speaker is small news; usually the speaker comes from the party in power and is not under consideration for a cabinet spot. But with legislative power finely balanced—the NDP/Green coalition had 44 members, the Liberals, with Plecas, had 43—the matter of who became speaker could determine the longevity and success of the John Horgan-led government.
Originally, Plecas said it would be “dishonourable” to take that job since it would go against the wishes of party leadership.
So it was huge news when, after months of negotiations, Plecas reversed course and walked into the legislature as speaker. Plecas pointed to the non-partisan nature of the speaker’s gig, but his erstwhile BC Liberal colleagues were furious, called his move a betrayal, and booted him from the party. They were mad because by taking the speaker’s gig, Plecas would free up an extra vote for the NDP, thereby giving the fragile government considerably more breathing room and ability to maneuver. History would prove that assessment right. The government survived without too much political trouble for more than three years. It lasted until 2020 when the NDP, eyeing favourable mid-pandemic polls, called a mid-pandemic election and won a massive majority.
Plecas declined to run for re-election that year, leaving the BC LIberals in search of another would-be MLA.
Enter three prominent candidates vying for the BC Liberal nomination: Markus Delves, Manjit Sohi, and Bruce Banman. (A fourth candidate, Lakhvinder Jhaj, also ran but was not a factor in the race; she had previously ran in the riding for the BC NDP.)
Delves was the candidate of the party establishment. He was an accountant who had served on a variety of local boards, who had been president of the AbbotsfordFirst local political organization, and whose mother runs one of Abbotsford’s largest development companies. He could be seen in close quarters with longtime Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong.
Sohi was a political newcomer with big aspirations and a sizable backing in Abbotsford’s politically active South Asian community.
And Banman was an Abbotsford councillor who had served as a one-term mayor of the city between 2014 and 2018.
Delves was the favourite. But Sohi withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Banman just days before the nomination vote. The move helped Banman win the nomination. Like Plecas and van Dongen before him, Banman had no problem winning the election as a BC Liberal MLA. (The following year, Sohi ran for Banman’s vacated council seat; he finished in third. In the 2022 municipal election he ran for mayor, garnering 30% of the vote and finishing a distant second.)
Bruce Banman 📷 Facebook
Since being elected in 2020, Banman has mostly kept his head down. He has criticized the BC NDP, taken shadow cabinet roles, and generally not made waves.
His most prominent comments came following the 2021 atmospheric river, when he revealed that in meetings during the event, officials seemed unaware that the Nooksack River posed a major threat. Most recently, he served as the BC United critic for emergency management and climate readiness.
Banman’s low profile was not particularly surprising from a first-term MLA for a party that is in opposition and still trying to reckon with what it has become.
His departure Wednesday came as a surprise to many. BC United leader Kevin Falcon does not appear to be one of those, however. He released a statement saying the departure “was not entirely unexpected due to ongoing internal management challenges with Bruce.”
Banman, meanwhile, told The Current he had been considering the move for some time. (He said he wasn’t sure what Falcon was alluding to; he said he voiced his opinions in caucus, but kept his head down and was a team player in public.)
In recent months, polls have suggested the Conservatives have surged in popularity at the expense of Falcon’s BC United, whose name change seems to have had a negative impact. (BC Conservative leader John Rustad was booted from BC United following comments contradicting the scientific consensus that humans have caused climate change.)
Banman rejected the suggestion that his floor-crossing was a case of political opportunism, saying it’s extremely uncertain whether his move to the Conservatives will work in his long-term favour.
Instead, he—like Plecas before him—said he was dissatisfied with BC United’s refusal to allow its MLAs to vote according to their constituents' wishes, rather than the interest of the party.
“The problem with party-line politics in particular was, instead of being able to advocate on behalf of what my constituents really wanted, you were told how you were going to vote on a particular issue.”
He said Rustad has promised that he will be able to vote as he sees fit.
“John said to me, ‘You can vote your conscience, you can take your issues that you have in my riding, and if they’re different from my issues, that’s OK.’”
Banman’s political career traces back nearly a decade. His statements—and the policies he has supported—have generally aligned with the centre-right consensus that dominates Abbotsford politics. But he’s rarely voiced ideas that echo those of more-conservative politicians like Rustad. (Banman described himself as fiscally conservative and socially “centre-right.”)
Prior to his nomination as BC Liberal candidate, Banman did not have a track record of participation in party politics. (Although he mentioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the carbon tax in his statement Wednesday, he has not previously criticized Trudeau in public. He did once meet Trudeau in 2013, at a Liberal Party function when Banman was Abbotsford’s mayor. Trudeau had just been chosen to lead the federal Liberals.)
There are clear throughlines that unite the departures of Banman, Plecas, and van Dongen
All three men all have different personalities and political ideologies. But if the three can be seen to have one thing in common, it is a desire for a larger voice in the legislature. All three brought big personalities to the legislature, but were relegated to bit-player status by their partyNeither van Dongen nor Plecas had the policy influence either man would have hoped to have had before they left their respective parties.Similarly, Banman was used to having a say in the shaping of policy when he was on city council in Abbotsford. He clearly didn’t have that influence in Victoria and chafed at being told how to vote.
“People are tired of the same old partisan politics,” Banman told The Current. “For instance, not all of the ideas the NDP comes up with are necessarily bad. Not all the ideas that the BC United Party come up with are bad. And not all the policies that the greens or whomever [are bad]. I think there’s good to pick from all.”
Banman is much more of a populist than Plecas. Whereas Plecas was a gruff professor and prison judge—and conducted himself in that manner—Banman favours handshakes, smiles and social media posts. If Plecas was an idealist, Banman has always been more of a populist.
But Banman’s words Wednesday were incredibly similar to those made six years ago by his predecessor, Plecas, when he abandoned the BC Liberals.
“We pride ourselves in being a big tent, but operate like we’re in a pup tent,” Plecas told this reporter, while also alluding to worthwhile ideas that came from other parties.
Whether one can have a successful modern-day Canadian party without the modern-day party discipline is another question entirely.
The more things change
In April, Banman posted on Facebook that he wouldn’t be returning to the legislature as a BC Liberal. That line was a tease, setting up a video in which he joyfully declared that the party was changing its name to BC United.
“We said we would change the name and as of Wednesday after Easter, that happens and we become BC United. And I’m super excited about it!”
He closed the 41-second video by gushing even more about his party’s direction.
“I’m super excited and times are changing in British Columbia.”
Only a week ago, he posted a photo on his Instagram page saying BC United was a better alternative than the BC NDP.
On Wednesday, though, Banman says that times did not change enough.
“I had hoped that we were going to go through a massive change within the party,” he said. “That change and that renewal did not happen. All that really happened was a change of name.”
So the BC Liberals are left to find yet another standard bearer in Abbotsford South. They might consider requiring a damage deposit.