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Former Liberal cabinet minister John Rustad acclaimed leader of B.C. Conservatives

BC MLA for Nechako Lakes John Rustad speaks to reporters in Victoria, B.C. on Feb. 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner BC MLA for Nechako Lakes John Rustad speaks to reporters in Victoria, B.C. on Feb. 16, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner
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The newly acclaimed leader of British Columbia's Conservatives whose climate change views prompted his expulsion from the Opposition Liberals says he's building a grassroots coalition for voters who don't support the province's left-of-centre direction.

John Rustad, a former Liberal cabinet minister who has been sitting in B.C.'s legislature as an Independent since last year, said Friday his Conservatives will offer an option to voters concerned about high taxes, freedoms and life's challenges.

“People have a sense that something's not quite right, and whether it's in our health care system or whether it's the crime on the street, whether it's affordability or just people trying to get on with day-to-day life, they are not happy,” he said in an interview on Friday.

“With the two options, which are both basically left-of-centre, the B.C. Liberals and the NDP, they are not really offering the kind of option that I'm hearing from people that they want to see,” said Rustad, speaking by phone from the side of the highway on the way to his home in Vanderhoof, about 100 kilometres west of Prince George.

Rustad, 60, who represents the riding of Nechako Lakes, was acclaimed Conservative Party of B.C. leader as the only candidate in the race.

He replaced former leader Trevor Bolin, who had been serving as interim leader.

“A year ago, I would never have thought that I would be doing this,” said Rustad. “But I must admit I'm very excited about taking on the leadership. I think the potential for a new coalition party in this province is enormous.”

Opposition Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said earlier he dumped Rustad from the party caucus last August for his public statements and social media posts suggesting climate change is not caused by carbon dioxide emissions.

Rustad, who once held cabinet posts in forests and Indigenous affairs in former Liberal governments, announced last month he was joining the B.C. Conservatives, who received less than two per cent of the vote in the 2020 provincial election.

“The reason I'm in this is because the (Liberal) party removed me,” he said. “They kicked me out. We'll see how things go.”

Rustad said he will work to bring people together in an effort to build a grassroots movement of supporters in time for the fall 2024 provincial election.

Political scientist Hamish Telford said the Conservatives in B.C. will likely remain a minimal force, but they could cause political damage in tight ridings where constituencies lean to the right.

“I think it's very unlikely the B.C. Conservative Party is going to become a major player in B.C. politics over the next while and into the next election,” said Telford, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley. “But they don't have to become a very big force at all to be a factor.”

He said in the 2020 B.C. election, where the NDP formed a majority, Conservative candidates siphoned votes from Liberal candidates in tight ridings in the Fraser Valley and Interior that were won by the NDP.

“That suggests there was some vote-splitting going on on the right making life more difficult for the B.C. Liberals,” said Telford.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.

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