Politics

Vaughn Palmer: De Jong Ottawa-bound? Bet on it

Opinion: For now, the longtime MLA will only say he’s considering a federal run

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VICTORIA — As Mike de Jong prepares to leave the provincial political arena after 30 years, he does so as one of the longest-serving MLAs in B.C. history.

Yet when de Jong announced Wednesday that he won’t be running in the next provincial election, he was moved to reflect that he was lucky to have a political career of any kind.

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De Jong was first elected in a byelection in early 1994. His opponent was Grace McCarthy, one of the best-known politicians in B.C. and leader of the Social Credit party that had governed B.C. for most of the previous four decades.

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De Jong was a candidate for the B.C. Liberals, the party recently arrived as a major presence in provincial politics after decades as an also ran.

“Putting my name on a ballot beside a party name in the Fraser Valley where the word Liberal wasn’t exactly embraced,” as de Jong put it this week.

Still, he eked out a win by a mere 42 votes out of more than 13,000 votes cast.

“When I say to people look every vote counts, I know that is true,” said de Jong. “It teaches you not to take the outcome for granted. I’ve won elections that people said I was going to lose, and I lost elections that people said I was going to win. Predicting in this province is tricky business.”

When de Jong entered the legislature in 1994, the centre-right opposition to the incumbent NDP government was split among the B.C. Liberals, B.C. Reform, and the remnants of Social Credit.

It took the Liberals seven years and two elections to assemble the winning combination of votes and seats to defeat the NDP. De Jong turned that into a teachable moment this week as well.

He mentioned several periods in the past “when the free-enterprise movement was uncertain as to who was going to carry that banner — and there was an indecisiveness that resulted in a pretty decisive victory for the NDP.”

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Today, says de Jong, “unless that is resolved — and there is a big role for political parties and political leaders. …” He let the thought hang in the air, then said B.C. United must do what it did under the B.C. Liberal banner in the 1990s “and present a suite of policies and ideas that is worthy of support.”

As for de Jong, he is moving on. He jokes that his wife warned him against using the familiar line about wanting to spend more time with his family: “Because if you do, I’m going to call and tell them that I don’t want you around that much.”

She’s French. They have a place in France. And he concedes that he does feel the “beck and call of the bottles of burgundy in the cellar.”

However two years ago, de Jong took out a membership in the Conservative Party of Canada and endorsed Pierre Poilievre in his successful bid for the leadership.

The move earned de Jong a rebuke from Kevin Falcon, leader of the party that was then still calling itself B.C. Liberal.

“We don’t get involved in federal politics,” said Falcon. “He should have known better.”

Thereafter, de Jong kept a lower profile. But he disavowed neither his membership in the federal Conservatives nor his support for Poilievre.

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Today, he’s considering a run for the Conservatives in a seat in the Fraser Valley-Langley region in the next federal election. “It’s a big decision and I’ll take some time to consider what that may look like.”

He’s “troubled by the fiscal state of the country,” a persistent theme for Poilievre as well.

De Jong was finance minister in the last B.C. Liberal government. He has taken some heat within his own party for leaving behind a sizable budget surplus for the New Democrats to spend.

He makes no apologies: “The biggest criticism I seem to get is that I was too stingy or too careful with public dollars. I’ll take that criticism because when COVID did hit, B.C. was in better shape with its finances than any other province in the country.”

De Jong twice sought the B.C. Liberal leadership, finishing fourth in 2011 and fifth in 2018.

He’s well regarded in personal terms on both sides of the house, as Premier David Eby acknowledged.

“Mike and I haven’t agreed on a lot over the years, but the one thing that I’ll say about Mike de Jong is he never made it personal,” the premier told reporters. “He’s a bright guy and he contributed a lot in his time to government.”

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De Jong uses words like “fun” and “joy” to describe his years in the legislature.

“I’ve seen people leave this place bitter. And I’m not,” he said this week.

“Every day I walk in here, I think God I’m lucky to work in this place. It’s an honour and it’s a privilege, and it just feels today, like I’m 60, and it’s time to go seek a new challenge.”

Sounds to me like he’s Ottawa-bound. The wine cellar in France will just have to wait.

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