A united party divided

Two members of the nascent United Citizens Group have been demoted over an ideological rift.

Two members of the nascent United Citizens Group have been demoted over an ideological rift.

Former Liberal cabinet minister Don Roberts and former Liberal MLA Mike McLarnon were purged from the party’s main committees last week by interim leader Willard Phelps.

The differences stem from a recent push by both men to include electoral reform and other political ideas in the party’s platform, which they believe align with the party’s vision.

“I didn’t join this group to be told what to do; I joined this group to be heard,” said Roberts, who spoke from Vernon, British Columbia.

Electoral reform is contrary to the party’s core values, and both Roberts and McLarnon were trying to hijack the party, said Phelps.

“If you want to ride our coattails and usurp what we do, I simply won’t tolerate that kind of stuff,” he said.

“We’re not in this for any other agendas. I’m not doing this for electoral reform.”

Their differences came to a head on April 28, when Phelps kicked Roberts out of the organization’s core group – a half-dozen party founders – and its constitutional committee. McLarnon was kicked out of the constitutional committee. He was not a member of the core group.

It’s not clear whether electoral reform was supposed to be a central plank of the party’s platform.

Roberts says it was, noting he raised it at the party’s inaugural meeting in November. Phelps’ promise of change was impressive, he adds.

“He’d been there and I was kind of drawn by his change or his perceived change—the fact that he wanted change,” he said.

But, even then, he could sense Phelps wasn’t interested in electoral reform.

“He never gave me a straight answer and I didn’t expect him to,” he said. “I wanted him to know where I was coming from.”

Roberts also raised electoral reform during the weekly Skype meetings the core group held.

“And I felt there were some members who felt the same way – that we needed something to distinguish us from the other parties,” he said.

He decided to let Phelps’ tacit disagreement slide, he said.

“I thought, let it be, we’ll see how it comes along.”

Something similar happened with McLarnon’s proposals for changes to the party’s constitution.

During a news conference mid-April, Phelps laid out the party’s recent travails and what people could expect from the party leading up to its June convention.

Towards the end of the conference, McLarnon mentioned to reporters his idea of having cabinet positions elected by the party in power, which hadn’t been officially vetted by Phelps.

The relationship continued to sour after the party’s meeting in Haines Junction last month.

“The question from people there was, ‘What makes your party different?’” said Roberts.

Phelps’ proposal of a big-tent party wasn’t enough for those in attendance, so Roberts mentioned electoral reform.

“At that meeting, I said I was going to bring electoral reform to the convention,” he said.

Just before both men were kicked out from the party’s high command, there was a debate over how open the constitution would be to amendments at the convention.

McLarnon and Roberts sat on the party’s constitutional committee with Phelps’ wife Evelyn. On April 26, McLarnon said his proposals for a party-selected cabinet would be on the ballot.

Two days later, Phelps gave them the boot during a heated meeting.

“I said, ‘We’re not even a party, you’re not even the leader and you’re telling me what I should do and shouldn’t do,’” said Roberts.

“I let him know what you’re doing is no different than what we have.

“I feel it’s the old boys’ club is in charge.”

Electoral reform goes against the party’s belief that a better body politic can be achieved through more honesty and pragmatism, not structural changes to the system, said Phelps.

“I feel the present electoral system can work and I always said that,” he said.

“(Electoral reform) is something the party can do later.”

Phelps, who plans to run for leader at the convention, only wants to get the party started so that it can chug along on its own.

But he won’t ally himself with a belief the current system can work – it’s just the people running the show now who are the problem.

“I’m not coming out of retirement and working hard, spending money and time and effort for something else,” he said.

Roberts felt he had given ample warning to Phelps about the electoral reform ideas, he said.

“He can pretend that he didn’t know about (electoral reform),” said Roberts.

Roberts will continue to work for the party and will bring his electoral reform ideas to the party, but he won’t support Phelps as leader, he said.

And Phelps says both men are welcome to bring their ideas to the convention on June 5.

Contact James Munson at