David Mitchell

Hang­ing by a Thread: Bri­tish Columbia’s NDP Mi­nor­ity Gov­ern­ment

Policy - - In This Issue - David Mitchell

Among the other ef­fects of Bri­tish Columbia’s re­cent im­prob­a­bly close elec­tion is that the prov­ince is liv­ing through the rare ex­pe­ri­ence of mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment. Be­cause of the pre­car­i­ous­ness of the NDP’s con­trol of the leg­is­la­ture, the pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios for the prov­ince’s pol­i­tics have been mul­ti­plied ex­po­nen­tially. For­mer MLA David Mitchell games out the fu­ture.

Here’s a skill-test­ing ques­tion: How many NDP pre­miers has Bri­tish Columbia had? Can you name them?

This is a sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult quiz, even for most Bri­tish Columbians. Ever since 1933, when the NDP’s pre­de­ces­sor, the CCF, be­came Bri­tish Columbia’s of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion, the left-lean­ing op­tion has been the prov­ince’s would-be al­ter­na­tive. But it’s a trib­ute to the po­lit­i­cal ef­fec­tive­ness of a va­ri­ety of anti-so­cial­ist coali­tions that the NDP has served as the gov­ern­ing party for only 13 years.

Now that they’ve se­cured one of their rare chances to gov­ern this di­vided and po­lar­ized prov­ince, ques­tions re­main: how long will they last? And can they find a way to con­vert their mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment into a ma­jor­ity at the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion?

With such a ten­u­ous grip on power—41 seats to the Lib­er­als’ 42 and de­pen­dent on the sup­port of the three elected Green party MLAs—it will be fas­ci­nat­ing to see what they do with the op­por­tu­nity.

Given that it’s been 16 years since the NDP last gov­erned in Vic­to­ria, you’d be for­given for puz­zling over the ques­tions posed above. The truth is John Hor­gan has now be­come the sixth NDP pre­mier of the prov­ince, pre­ceded by: Dave Bar­rett, Mike Har­court, Glen Clark, Dan Miller, and Uj­jal Dosanjh.

To­day, the only Cana­dian NDP gov­ern­ments are lo­cated in the two west­ern­most prov­inces. And at present, the gov­ern­ments of B.C. and Al­berta seem to have as many pol­icy dif­fer­ences as sim­i­lar­i­ties. How­ever, there are nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of pre­vi­ous NDP gov­ern­ments in our coun­try that can serve as use­ful ref­er­ence points for Pre­mier Hor­gan. While the party has never been vic­to­ri­ous in a fed­eral elec­tion, the NDP has ac­tu­ally gov­erned in a ma­jor­ity of Cana­dian prov­inces. In ad­di­tion to B.C. and Al­berta, they in­clude Saskatchewan, Man­i­toba, On­tario, Nova Sco­tia and the Yukon. So, the new B.C. gov­ern­ment could model it­self on the sta­ble ap­proaches of Al­lan Blak­eney or Roy Ro­manow in Saskatchewan or Gary Doer in Man­i­toba. Or it could burn it­self out like the one-term ad­min­is­tra­tions of Bob Rae in On­tario or Dar­rell Dex­ter in Nova Sco­tia.

Closer to home, will Pre­mier Hor­gan po­si­tion him­self as a mod­er­ate leader, like for­mer B.C. Pre­mier Mike Har­court? Or will he let the pent-up am­bi­tions of his long-serv­ing op­po­si­tion party get the bet­ter of him, like the prov­ince’s first NDP Pre­mier, Dave Bar­rett?

In the B.C. con­text, what is truly re­mark­able is how John Hor­gan fits into a note­wor­thy pat­tern

that crosses party lines and which has con­sis­tently seen dra­matic per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences in suc­ces­sive elected lead­ers. The prov­ince has long been known for elect­ing flam­boy­ant, con­fi­dent, larger-than-life pre­miers, whose per­son­al­i­ties have of­ten over­shad­owed their party’s poli­cies or ide­ol­ogy. Less com­monly noted is that in or­der to re­cover from the ex­cesses of the pol­i­tics of per­son­al­ity, Bri­tish Columbians have un­fail­ingly found respite in rather bland and colour­less per­son­al­i­ties in their sub­se­quent choice of pre­mier. In this sense, the rather un­der­stated Hor­gan is a per­fect an­ti­dote to the gar­ru­lous and out­go­ing Christy Clark, just as she served as a coun­ter­point to the tech­no­cratic Gor­don Camp­bell who, in turn, fol­lowed the fire­breath­ing par­ti­san­ship of Glen Clark. In­deed, one could pur­sue this his­tor­i­cal trail of elected B.C. pre­miers back in time with sur­pris­ing con­sis­tency. If the pat­tern holds in the fu­ture, Hor­gan will al­most cer­tainly be fol­lowed by a more colour­ful pop­ulist pre­mier who fits this well-es­tab­lished B.C. tra­di­tion. But it’s worth not­ing that the big-per­son­al­ity B.C. pre­miers, such as Bill Van­der Zalm, have gen­er­ally not served for as long in of­fice as those who were less colour­ful, like Bill Ben­nett.

In the mean­time, the fledg­ling NDP mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment faces nu­mer­ous pol­icy and gover­nance is­sues. Fol­low­ing the in­de­ci­sive elec­tion re­sults, the for­ma­tion of the gov­ern­ment ac­tu­ally pro­vided a good civics les­son for Bri­tish Columbians: it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the party that wins the largest num­ber of seats or most votes that forms a gov­ern­ment; rather, it’s the party that can com­mand the con­fi­dence of the leg­is­la­ture. For as long as the NDP main­tains that con­fi­dence, it will need to demon­strate an abil­ity to pro­vide a steady ap­proach and sound pub­lic pol­icy.

How the gov­ern­ment is able to man­age a mine­field of is­sues, in­clud­ing the pro­posed ex­pan­sion of the Kinder Mor­gan pipe­line, the fu­ture of the Site C dam project on the Peace River and the com­mit­ment to the Greens of pur­su­ing the seem­ingly cursed goal of elec­toral re­form, will pro­vide key tests for the NDP.

We know that mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments can be pro­duc­tive; there’s of plenty of ev­i­dence of this in other parts of Canada, in­clud­ing at the fed­eral level. But B.C. doesn’t have much ex­pe­ri­ence with mi­nor­ity ad­min­is­tra­tions and of crit­i­cal im­por­tance is the role of the Greens in hold­ing the bal­ance of power.

Some ob­servers have sug­gested that the elec­toral break­through for the Greens has her­alded a trans­for­ma­tion of the party sys­tem in B.C. Based upon par­lia­men­tary ex­pe­ri­ence else­where, how­ever, ju­nior part­ners in gov­ern­ing coali­tions or al­liances of­ten suf­fer po­lit­i­cal mis­for­tune. It’s just as pos­si­ble, there­fore, that the Greens will end up as ei­ther a passing fancy or as po­lit­i­cal road­kill in the next gen­eral elec­tion if B.C. re­turns to its tra­di­tional po­lar­ized model. Christy Clark’s res­ig­na­tion as leader of the Lib­eral party and as an MLA has given the NDP a bit of breath­ing room, for a few months at least. In the short term, the gov­ern­ment won’t need to count on the Speaker to cast a de­cid­ing vote on all mat­ters that come be­fore the leg­is­la­ture. But a by-elec­tion to fill Clark’s va­cant seat can’t be long de­ferred and a new leader of the Lib­eral party may be keen to try to de­feat the NDP gov­ern­ment at an early op­por­tu­nity.

The av­er­age du­ra­tion of mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments in Canada is ap­prox­i­mately 18 months. With that in mind, Pre­mier Hor­gan al­most cer­tainly has his eye out for an exit ramp lead­ing to the next pro­vin­cial elec­tion. And he would be well-ad­vised to study the for­tune of the only other mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment in B.C. his­tory.

Fol­low­ing the in­de­ci­sive 1952 pro­vin­cial elec­tion, W.A.C. Ben­nett be­came pre­mier of B.C.’s first So­cial Credit gov­ern­ment. Lack­ing a ma­jor­ity of seats in the leg­is­la­ture, the wily Ben­nett knew that his in­ex­pe­ri­enced ad­min­is­tra­tion couldn’t last for long. He there­fore worked hard on a strat­egy to en­gi­neer his gov­ern­ment’s de­feat on an is­sue he could suc­cess­fully take to the peo­ple in an elec­tion cam­paign. The is­sue was a com­plex ed­u­ca­tion fi­nanc­ing mea­sure that favoured ru­ral school dis­tricts. Ben­nett’s strat­egy paid off; his gov­ern­ment was de­feated in the House and he went on to win his cov­eted ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment in the 1953 elec­tion, less than a year af­ter he had be­come pre­mier. He would re­main in of­fice as pre­mier for two decades.

David Mitchell is a po­lit­i­cal his­to­rian, for­mer B.C. MLA and cur­rently serves as Pres­i­dent & CEO of the Cal­gary Cham­ber of Vol­un­tary Or­ga­ni­za­tions. dmitchell@cal­gar­ycvo.org

Will Pre­mier Hor­gan po­si­tion him­self as a mod­er­ate leader, like for­mer B.C. Pre­mier Mike Har­court? Or will he let the pent-up am­bi­tions of his longserv­ing op­po­si­tion party get the bet­ter of him, like the prov­ince’s first NDP Pre­mier, Dave Bar­rett?

To­day, the only Cana­dian NDP gov­ern­ments are lo­cated in the two west­ern­most prov­inces. And at present, the gov­ern­ments of B.C. and Al­berta seem to have as many pol­icy dif­fer­ences as sim­i­lar­i­ties.

BC NDP Flickr photo

Pre­mier John Hor­gan’s mi­nor­ity NDP gov­ern­ment will have a bit more breath­ing room in the leg­is­la­ture now that Christy Clark has stepped down as Lib­eral leader and also re­signed her seat.

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