Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad has proved me wrong and I’m not ashamed to admit that.
When BC United leader Kevin Falcon booted Rustad out of caucus last year for refusing to back down on a climate change stance that didn’t match the party’s, I thought Rustad had made a big, selfish mistake and said so.
I don’t believe that so much anymore.
Since becoming leader of the B.C. Conservatives, Rustad has had nothing but wins, especially after getting BC United MLA Bruce Banman to cross the floor and join him.
Even the roasting he received for a social media post this fall, linking the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI) education program to residential schools, turned out well politically. It earned Rustad a ton of free publicity, identified him to voters across the province who had probably never heard of him before, and forced Falcon and NDP Premier David Eby to hold hands and compete for who could more sternly wage their finger at Rustad the redneck.
And suddenly, in the latest polls, Rustad and the BC Conservatives are running neck and neck with Falcon and BC United. The next provincial election is still more than 10 months away but it’s clear voters looking for something different like what that they are seeing and hearing so far.
What they’re seeing and hearing is half-baked, ridiculous and often outright wrong as that shameful October social media post but that’s exactly what’s clicking. Especially in today’s political environment, voters are increasingly suspicious of polish; too articulate, too intelligent, too carefully worded is too much of a good thing.
But this is not new. B.C. voters have had a long on/off love affair with populist right-of-centre politicians, Christy Clark being the last version. But this is not new in politics, either. Voters across Canada and the world have always voted with their hearts, choosing sincerity, authenticity, and likeability as their ballot barometers.
Remember Bill Vander Zalm? Then and now, voters love the straight-talking candidate with the common touch. Rustad doesn’t have to be anywhere near as charming and energetic as either Clark or Vander Zalm. He just has to be a bit more charismatic than the dull, safe choice Falcon and NDP Premier David Eby project.
And Rustad is no amateur in this game.
He’s been in provincial politics for nearly 20 years, both in government and opposition. As aboriginal affairs minister, he travelled the province and what he saw and who he talked to during that time would have given him deep insight into what B.C. residents actually care about, as opposed to what politicians and the news media tell them they care about.
And he and Banman know who in the BC United caucus would be the most likely to join their cause if their stock keeps rising at Falcon’s expense.
If Rustad can whip up some old Vander Zalm magic in 2024, watch out.
Neil Godbout is The Citizen's editor.