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Clark shores up caucus loyalty over van Dongen's defection

Premier Christy Clark made an unscheduled return to the capital on Monday night for an emergency caucus meeting to deal with John van Dongen's defection, and emerged from that session claiming unity behind her leadership.

Despite Ms. Clark's assertion of loyalty, several other B.C. Liberal MLAs confirmed Tuesday they are weighing whether they will seek re-election under the B.C. Liberal banner.

Ms. Clark, speaking to reporters for the first time on Tuesday afternoon, almost 24 hours after the Abbotsford South MLA announced his departure from her B.C. Liberal government, said she is confident she will lose no other members of her caucus.

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"The only thing that John van Dongen accomplished yesterday is making it a little bit easier for the NDP to get elected in British Columbia," Ms. Clark said. She said, however, that despite the latest polls showing her party still trailing the B.C. NDP, her government can still win re-election – if it stays together.

"We are a coalition of people who don't always agree on everything but we all agree on one thing: We can't afford the NDP in British Columbia." She said Mr. van Dongen, who served as a B.C. Liberal MLA for 17 years, made a "bad decision" to cross the floor and join the upstart B.C. Conservative Party.

Since she won the leadership of the B.C. Liberal Party, three MLAs have left Ms. Clark's caucus. Iain Black and Barry Penner quit politics entirely, although without attacking her leadership as Mr. van Dongen has.

But the loss of Mr. Black and Mr. Penner has generated crucial by-election tests for the Clark government in just three weeks time, when her party will seek to hold onto its seats in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope.

The B.C. Liberals are trailing the opposition New Democratic Party in the polls, and with the B.C. Conservative Party eroding B.C.Liberal support, Ms. Clark needs to ensure that her party doesn't finish behind its rivals on the right of the political spectrum. Victories by the New Democrats would sting, but success by the B.C. Conservatives would be a serious blow for Ms. Clark.

So would any more defections. Already, three Liberals – Kash Heed, Joan McIntyre and Randy Hawes – told reporters they are unsure if they will seek re-election. Mr. Heed said he expects to make a decision on his political future soon, adding that he respected Mr. van Dongen's move.

"I'll make a decision in the near future, like many of us will make decisions," he told reporters.

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Mr. Hawes, meanwhile, said he is struggling to make up his mind about whether he wants to retire rather than face another election contest 14 months from now. He also offered only tepid support for Ms. Clark's leadership, saying that she is doing fine – for someone who is still learning the ropes.

"She has a learning curve, she's in that learning curve – it's a very, very tough job," Mr. Hawes said in an interview. "And it takes some doing to get very, very skillful at it. I don't think anyone is going to assume that job and from day one be completely … conversant with all aspects of what needs to be done."

For the most part, however, the B.C. Liberal caucus closed ranks on Tuesday with the message that their coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives needs to stick together.

Liberal MLAs, speaking on background, confirmed that many members of the caucus were uncomfortable with the way Ms. Clark's team handled the defection. Government House Leader Rich Coleman told reporters Mr. van Dongen's judgment was clouded by personal problems, and suggested he was bitter about being dumped from cabinet in 2009.

Mr. Hawes, a long-time friend of Mr. van Dongen's, painted a different picture. "John has served the legislature a long time with honour," he told reporters. "He's one of the hardest-working MLAs that I know of in this building."

With a report from Wendy Stueck in Vancouver

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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