Abbotsford MLA Bruce Banman had been stewing about his future in the Opposition BC United for months before the stunning announcement this week he was defecting to the BC Conservative Party.
A growing distance between colleagues, dissatisfaction with the leader and an unhappiness at being told how to vote had left Banman quietly seething. Then, a chance meeting with Conservative leader John Rustad at an Indo-Canadian youth event in Abbotsford last month led to an exchange of phone numbers and the start of official talks in early September.
All of that culminated Wednesday with Banman crossing the floor, giving the BC Conservatives two MLAs and official party status at the legislature for the first time in decades.
Banman said he was angry at being told by BC United brass he had to support a motion in the house to denounce the freedom convoy on April 17.
“I was told that if I was not in favour of that vote, that I should leave the building when the vote happened,” said Banman.
So he walked out.
But Banman said he immediately thought about his grandparents, who escaped the Russian revolution and immigrated to Canada where they often told him they appreciated the freedom to speak their minds without fear of retribution.
“I just thought how ashamed my grandparents would be that here I’d had an opportunity to stand up,” he said. “And I regret the decision. I wish I’d stayed and I wish I had broken party lines and voted against it.”
The freedom convoy motion was all political theatre, a non-binding private members’ motion engineered by the NDP to test whether right-leaning BC United members would break ranks with leader Kevin Falcon’s position against the anti-vaccine protest in Ottawa.
Though it didn’t appear to work at the time, the move clearly had unseen ramifications.
“I've got a lot of diverse opinions in my riding,” said Banman, who was elected in Abbotsford South in 2020. “I found it increasingly difficult to be able to get up and bring those concerns to the floor of the legislature because it may not have fit into what was politically convenient, or even politically correct in some cases. And that, to me, is the hallmark of democracy.”
BC United Leader Kevin Falcon on Wednesday described Banman as “an ongoing management challenge.” Others privately said Banman had grown distant from caucus and was not well-liked by some of his colleagues.
“I would just remind you, as I reminded Bruce, to look at the history of the MLAs that have done this in the past in British Columbia — it has in every single case ended up to be political suicide,” Falcon said of the move to switch parties.
“And I reminded him of that, and that's the decision he made. And that's the decision he'll have to justify.”
Banman is now the third consecutive MLA from Abbotsford South to defect mid-term — giving the riding a bizarre claim to fame in B.C. political trivia.
Previous MLA Darryl Plecas quit the BC Liberals in 2017 to become the NDP government’s Speaker of the legislature. Prior to that, John van Dongen quit to join the BC Conservatives in 2012, and then lost in the next election.
Banman said he’ll accept his fate with voters who thought they were supporting a BC United candidate in 2020.
“They’ll have a chance on whether this was the right move or not,” he said. “They’ll have a chance to put their mark on a ballot and say, ‘You know what Bruce, you did the right thing,’ or ‘You know what Bruce, we disagree with you.’
“And that’s okay, too. That’s democracy.”
In the meantime, Banman said he craves the freedom to speak his mind, without fear he might be punished for contradicting the party leader.
“To think that a bunch of politicians in a room have to agree on everything, or in a party, it’s just crazy, it’s nonsensical,” he said.
Rustad said he’s continuing to welcome any other unhappy BC United MLAs to cross the floor, saying he’ll give them space and room to air their viewpoints. Whether he can lure any more over remains one of the most hotly-debated questions in B.C. politics right now.
Banman’s defection will give the legislature four officially-recognized political parties for the first time in recent memory. It means the BC Conservatives will get access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional funding for staff and research, as well as salary top-ups for Rustad and Banman as the recognized party leader and house leader respectively.
The Conservatives will soon wield the same resources, positions on parliamentary committees, and status as the BC Greens.
Falcon dismissed suggestions Wednesday the departure is a mark against his leadership. But he also held an emergency caucus meeting to try and calm his troops, some of whom were already spooked at last week’s Mainstreet Research poll suggesting enormous gains by the BC Conservatives that are eclipsing BC United.
Rustad and Banman hinted more defections could be possible.
“I’ll tell you this, when it comes to certain issues I’m not the only one that maybe is out of step with some of the ideas of the rest of the crowd,” said Banman.
“The rest of my (former) caucus, I will leave that up to them to decide. All I will say is, hey you want to vote your conscience? Come on over. We got room for you.”
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. [email protected]