What The Heck Is Happening With B.C. Politics Right Now, Anyway?

A primer for confused people with busy lives.

June 2, 2017

By Jessica Barrett / Photo: BC NDP

If you’ve been having trouble keeping track of the moving target that is provincial politics these days, count yourself in good company.

Even as one who fancies herself something of a political junkie, making sense of who might ultimately end up running the province—and for how long—has been making my head spin. So if you haven’t been keeping hourly tabs on the news (read: you actually have a life and keeping track of politics is not part of your job) here’s what you need to know to sound reasonably informed when talk turns to politics at your weekend beach barbecue, while hiking the Grind, or whatever else it is normal people do in the summer.

Minority Government 101

OK, this one you’ve probably figured out. The May 9 election was too close to call, and, after many recounts, resulted in about as close to a tie as you can get under our first-past-the-post electoral system. The BC Liberals wound up with 43 seats, the BC NDP with 41 and the Greens with three. No single party has enough seats to form a majority in the 87-seat legislature. (The cut off for that would have been 44 seats—so close, Christy Clark, yet so far…)

So what we’re left with is a scenario with two possible outcomes: a minority government where the party with the most seats forms government, but requires the support of opposition parties to pass legislation. Or, a coalition government, where two opposition parties agree to work together to form a government—that’s the option we could be headed for in B.C….sort of.

The Gentlemen’s Agreement

You’ve likely been hearing about the budding friendship between NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver. In a magical twist of first-past-the-post fate, the Greens, with their three seats ended up being the power brokers in the aftermath of this election. Whoever they agreed to back would have enough votes to pass legislation, and hence form government. That had both the Liberals and the NDP aggressively courting the Greens for the last few weeks (although rumour has it the Liberals actually spent more time trying to lure some of the opposition MLAs to cross the floor), and after Weaver and Horgan hit up a rugby game last weekend, they found the will—no doubt through the unifying power of sport—to set aside the personality clashes they’d experienced along the campaign trail and join political forces.

Horgan and Weaver, newfound BFFs!

Their plan isn’t a formal coalition but rather a “Confidence and Supply” agreement laid out in a 10-page document that outlines that the Greens will support the NDP in a minority government on a number of issues, but most notably on confidence votes—those are the big-ticket items like budgets and throne speeches (the government’s agenda) that have to pass for a government to remain in power.  Under the agreement, John Horgan would be premier, but the Greens would continue to be able to advocate for their own agenda.

While there was some angst over whether the Greens would ally themselves with the NDP, the outcome isn’t really a surprise. The Greens have a lot more in common ideologically with the NDP than they do with the Liberals. And as an added win for democracy, this scenario would actually reflect the popular vote in B.C., which saw the majority of people who cast a ballot vote for not the Liberals, so it would be a refreshing change from most of our elections, where a minority of the popular vote usually results in a majority government.

And speaking of our electoral system, under an NDP-led-but-Green-supported government, we could see that all change. Their shared agenda includes a referendum on proportional representation which would be carried out in 2018—the success of which will probably depend greatly on their ability to get along and actually govern the province. We would also see some pretty big policy changes for B.C., including the introduction of $10-a-day child care, the introduction of a basic income pilot project, and a likely war with the federal and Alberta governments over the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Pipeline, which both parties vehemently oppose.

So are we all good to go with a government now? Um…not so fast.

Over To You, Premier Clark

While we’ve got this NDP/Green government waiting in the wings, there’s the small matter of the fact that, technically, we already have a premier. Her name is Christy Clark. Under Canadian law, the incumbent premier in a minority scenario must be given the right to form government and demonstrate she’s got the confidence of the legislature by introducing a confidence motion—most likely a throne speech. And that is precisely what Clark says she intends to do (the alternative is that she could just resign as premier, but bowing out gracefully has never been Clark’s MO).

Christy Clark is nothing if not a fighter.

So it’ll be up to Clark to recall the legislature at some point, likely in the fall. But with this NDP/Green deal, it’s highly unlikely anything her government introduces will pass, and that will put B.C.’s fate squarely in the hands of our Lieutenant-Governor, Judith Guichon. (You remember learning about the Lieutenant-Governor in, like, high school, right? She’s the actual head of state.) In the event a Clark government falls on a confidence vote it’ll be Guichon’s choice whether to call an election or hand the reins over to the NDP and the Greens to give this don’t-call-it-a-coalition thingy a shot. But it may be months until we get to that point, as Clark could end up taking her sweet time to recall the legislature, and then once there, spin her wheels a little longer by delaying introducing a throne speech in the hopes that the NDP and Greens will have a falling out or that her party manages to coax an MLA across the floor.

A Tenuous Grip on Power

No matter what ends up happening in the interim, a likely outcome is that British Columbians will be back to the polls in a matter of months. Even if the NDP does get the chance to form government, its margin of error is virtually nil. Together with the Greens the two parties would have the slimmest of majorities, just one seat between them and the Liberals, meaning all it would take to lose a confidence vote is one MLA out sick with a cold, delayed on a ferry, or hit with a sudden ideological change of heart. One of the parties also has to cough up someone to act as Speaker, a post that usually sees the occupier refrain from voting except in the advent of a tie—which would be pretty much every vote in the legislature in the event the NDP/Greens have to sacrifice one from their ranks to the post.

So there you have it. The ultimate outcome of this election is still about as clear as mud. But one things for sure: politics at the moment is anything but boring.

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