‘Dissidents’ behind BC Conservative Party in-fighting

A “few dissidents” have forced a membership vote on John Cummins’ leadership of the BC Conservatives later this month.

A “few dissidents” have forced a membership vote on John Cummins’ leadership of the BC Conservatives later this month.

But why the dissatisfaction with Cummins, a veteran conservative politician elected just over a year ago, remains a mystery, even to party officials contacted by The Progress.

Ben Besler, vice-president of the party and a Chilliwack resident, declined to comment on emails he sent to party members urging them to vote ‘yes’ for a leadership review on Sept. 22.

“It’s an internal matter,” Besler said. “I just can’t comment on it.”

But in one email obtained by The Progress, Besler complained about a $4,000 per month stipend the party is paying to Cummins, in addition to his “extremely high personal income” from his MP’s pension “at a time when we need every resource possible to fight the next general election.”

Besler also said no workshops to train volunteers in election readiness have been held, and that the number of party constituency associations is no longer growing but declining.

Al Siebring, a board director who is running for party president, said the stipend was approved “unanimously” at a board meeting in July which Besler attended.

“Ben Besler voted for it, let me be very clear,” Siebring said.

Only Besler and one other senior party member are calling for the leadership review, according to Siebring and Shannon Kewley, a spokesperson for a Friends of John Cummins group that sprang up after the Besler email was leaked.

“A few dissidents … with little political experience” are behind the review,” Kewley said.

“There’s no sign of a revolt,” Siebring said, among the party membership.

Don Stahl, BC Conservative riding president in Abbotsford/Mission, said only two of the party’s 16 riding association presidents are calling for a review, and every party member he’s talked to in Abbotsford is supporting Cummins.

None of the party members contacted by The Progress expected the call for a review to be approved at the Sept. 22 vote in Langley.

But the question remains why the review was called for — so close to the next provincial election — of a leader who has not been tested in a general election and whose reputation has apparently boosted the party’s standing in the public opinion polls.

Is there another leadership candidate in the wings who could replace Cummins?

UFV political science professor Hamish Telford said anti-HST organizer Chris Delaney and former B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm have expressed political aspirations, but The Progress could not reach them for comment Wednesday.

Former BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen, who rocked B.C.’s political landscape in March when he crossed the floor to join the BC Conservatives, is a possible contender, but Telford said van Dongen is not well-known outside the Fraser Valley.

van Dongen also did not return calls for comment.

Telford agreed holding a leadership review so close to the election is “potentially self-defeating” and could result in wounds that will hurt the party’s election chances.

He said the leadership vote would presumably take place before Christmas or in early January to have a new leader in place for the next provincial budget, and to start campaigning for the May 2013 election.

“That doesn’t give a new leader a lot of time to know the ropes to get into a campaign,” he said, and leadership contests “can be divisive,” he added.

“It frequently takes time for the wounds of a leadership campaign to heal,” he said.

Siebring said he can’t see party members voting for a change in leadership with a provincial election just around the corner.

“Even the Liberals aren’t stupid enough to do that,” he said.

Chilliwack MLA John Les said the in-fighting among BC Conservatives so close to an election is “proof-positive of an outfit not really a serious organization.”

“There’s obviously something seriously askew in the party,” he said.

rfreeman@theprogress.com

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