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How the BC NDP Won the Battle for Green Support

An excerpt from a new book reveals the stomach-churning details of backroom negotiations after the 2017 election.

By Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman 19 Mar 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Rob Shaw is a columnist with the Vancouver Sun and Richard Zussman is a reporter with Global News BC.

[Editor’s note: The 2017 British Columbia election was the closest in the province’s history. The BC Liberals tallied 796,672 votes, just 1,566 more than the 795,106 votes cast for the NDP. But it was the third party, the BC Greens, that held all the power. The Liberals had fallen short of a majority with 43 seats, the NDP with 41 and the king-making Greens with three. In a new book, A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC, Vancouver Sun columnist Rob Shaw and Global News BC reporter Richard Zussman tell the behind-the-scenes story of the final days of negotiations between the Greens and the two other parties, the rise and fall of Christy Clark and the path John Horgan took to become premier.]

Sonia Furstenau hadn’t been eating well. And the stress of the negotiations was getting to her. It had been more than a week since the final results came in from Courtenay-Comox, and negotiations with the Liberals and NDP over who would form the next government were still seemingly far from an end. She missed her kids. She missed her home. And, above all, she hated the BC Liberals.

Furstenau’s disdain for the governing Liberals was well known. Both Premier Clark and Environment Minister Mary Polak had failed for years to visit her home community of Shawnigan Lake and explain why permits were given to dump toxic soil in a quarry near the community’s drinking water source. The issue had ignited a political fire within Furstenau and driven her to run for provincial office. The idea of now negotiating with Clark, Polak, and the party that had treated her neighbours so terribly was weighing heavily on her mind.

Furstenau had tried eating some sushi earlier in the day but found she couldn’t eat much. As she arrived back at her hotel room in Victoria, she could feel the anxiety and pressure on her growing. She couldn’t take it anymore. She raced to the bathroom toilet. And vomited.

The Liberals didn’t know it at the time, but their chances of securing a deal with the Greens were flushing away. Furstenau would prove to be the deal breaker within the Green caucus, the MLA who simply could not be brought onside to consider any type of deal that would allow the Liberal government to spend one more day in office.

Ironically, her leader, Andrew Weaver, had actually worked well with Premier Clark in the past. They got along. The Liberals had more seats (43 compared with 41 NDP) and offered a stable partner. And the Liberals hadn’t launched an online campaign of bullying and harassment against the Greens during the election, like the NDP had. If anything, Weaver was leaning toward a deal with the Liberals.

But Furstenau could not be persuaded by Weaver or anybody else. Her inability to (literally) stomach the thought of helping the Liberal regime had the serious potential to end 16 years of Liberal rule in BC.

*****

The Liberals had heard Weaver’s press conference on Friday, with his statement that a deal was close. Now the party was scrambling. On Saturday, (Liberal lead negotiator) Brad Bennett called (Green chief of staff) Liz Lilly, saying they wanted to bump the scheduled Monday meeting up to Sunday evening. The Greens agreed.

“We are really close to full a proposal that we think you will be crazy not to take,” Bennett told Lilly.

But before the Liberals could get their audience with the Greens, the NDP had a chance to seal the deal. On Sunday morning, the parties got down to business, and more parts of the agreement were hashed out.

Proportional representation was agreed on, with a promise of a referendum. A carbon tax increase starting in 2018 of $5 per tonne. A review of the Site C dam by the BC Utilities Commission, but not a full cancellation of the project as the Greens had promised in the election.

Then Horgan offered an invitation. He was heading to watch the women’s sevens rugby tournament that afternoon in Langford with the city’s mayor, Stew Young. Horgan wanted to know if Weaver would join him for the game. The pair had grown closer over the two weeks of negotiations. They were similar in more ways than made them different. Both grew up in the Victoria area — Weaver went to Oak Bay High, Horgan to Reynolds Secondary in Saanich. They both loved sports, including rugby.

The two met at the rugby field and settled into conversation about rugby and Canada’s team. One of the top teams in the world, the women had clinched a trip to the tournament finals with a 17–10 victory over Australia. The two insist they didn’t talk politics at the game. And they didn’t have to. What most people didn’t know was that their staff were busy hammering out the deal behind the scenes. While the fans cheered Canada on, Lilly and Dewar were typing up the language of the confidence and supply agreement. The document would be ready for the Green caucus to review the next morning.

Weaver then headed back downtown to meet with the Liberals. The vibe was different. This time the Liberals had stocked the liquor cabinet for the meeting in the penthouse. They had even found a two-floor suite with views of the harbour for Olsen and the Greens’ staff to wait in nearby. But before any celebratory drinks could be placed on the table, there were issues to be dealt with, and the Greens and the Liberals were still a long way apart. The Liberals were not willing to move on Kinder Morgan and Site C.

The meeting started with Weaver unloading on the Liberals in a long rant. How could we possibly do a deal with you people when there’s no way we can agree on Site C and no way we can agree on Kinder Morgan, he asked the Liberal team. For effect, he regurgitated a line he’d used frequently in the election campaign about the Liberals being too focused on liquefied natural gas and promising a unicorn in each and every backyard. When Weaver had finished, Furstenau piled on, asking why the Greens should believe the Liberals now, after years in which they hadn’t promised any of these changes.

Where do we go from here, asked Bennett. Weaver apologized, saying he hadn’t meant to take the air out of the room. All sides decided they would meet again the next afternoon.

The Liberals intended to show up Monday with their big gun, Clark, in tow to hash out the final details. The Greens, meanwhile, never intended to meet again at all.

Weaver’s outburst made one thing clear: the part of him that had wanted to support the Liberals was gone. He walked out of the negotiating room and into the giant suite where Olsen and some staff were waiting. Head in his hands, Weaver expressed his frustration over the Liberals’ insistence that the Site C dam was good for the province’s climate policy. Weaver got into politics because he saw Campbell’s climate policies being cast aside by Clark. Now he was on the verge of ending Clark’s reign.

The group decided that night that they were going to go with the NDP. A phone call was booked for Weaver, (Adam) Olsen, and Furstenau for the next morning so they could sleep on the agreement and make a final decision.

The Monday morning call was short. The decision had been made. The Greens were good with the deal. The MLAs logged off the call and Weaver went to the University of Victoria. The politician was set to be part of the PhD defence for his last student. She had started with him years before, while he was still balancing a political and academic career. The professor was a long way from looking like a political kingmaker. Wearing his blue and green Hawaiian shirt, he was in his element, detached from the world with his phone off and his attention solely focused on his final student.

While this was unfolding, Weaver’s chief of staff, Liz Lilly, grabbed her phone to call the Liberals’ Bennett. It was only half an hour before the two sides were set to meet again, and Bennett was taking a final walk around the legislature to clear his mind.

“I hate to be the one to break this news, but we’ve met and we’ve come to an agreement with the NDP,” Lilly told him. “So there’s no point in us meeting.”

“That’s too bad, Liz,” said Bennett, through gritted teeth. He made one final pitch, arguing the numbers were better with the Liberals to get things done over the next three or four years. But it was too late. The Liberals felt sandbagged, as if the Greens hadn’t been honest with them from the start. Bennett walked into the premier’s west annex, where the rest of the negotiating team was ready to head to the hotel to meet the Greens. They took the news hard.

Chief of staff Mike McDonald had his feet up on his desk. He’d just finished printing a final package to be presented to the Greens, which had required him to stay up until 3:30 that morning cramming to get it done. Included in the deal that they’d never get a chance to present was a new government ministry that would involve BC Hydro and be charged with transforming B.C.’s economy to a clean one, with more electrification and use of the power grid rather than fossil fuels. The Liberals felt it was a good olive branch to offer the Greens on use of Site C’s power, even though both sides disagreed as to whether the dam should go forward. The Liberals had also slotted in more than $1 billion on child care spending over four years, with increases beyond that. An increase in the carbon tax of $5 per tonne per year to $50 per tonne by 2022 was on the table and had been approved by caucus. In addition, the Liberals were willing to move on banning the grizzly bear trophy hunt. And a host of other ideas had been pulled from the Green platform.

McDonald felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. He and de Jong asked if there was anything they could do to salvage a deal.

“I’ve got to get Christy on the phone,” Bennett told them.

He dialed the premier and told her what happened. “You should phone Weaver again and have a conversation,” he told her.

As soon as Weaver had finished his UVic duties, he headed straight back to the legislature. The Green leader knew he had to change into something more formal before announcing his big deal with the NDP, so he was scrambling to get inside and get his suit on before meeting Horgan. With a suit bag in one hand, he powered on his phone. He looked down and noticed Clark had been trying to reach him. Time was running out; a press release was less than 30 minutes away. He didn’t call back.

Weaver hustled into the office and spoke to press secretary Jillian Oliver. He exchanged a few text messages with Clark, but it was too late. The decision was made. The deal was done.

Back in Vancouver, Clark stared at the phone in frustration. She knew exactly what she planned to say if he’d answered: “What are you doing? Don’t walk your party off to electoral oblivion,” had been her intended message.

Clark never got to deliver her last-minute presentation to the Green caucus, nor was she able to get Weaver on the phone to plead with him to call off the NDP deal. It had been a contentious decision for the premier not to attend the negotiations in person. Though a highly divisive figure, she also possessed the interpersonal skills to, more often than not, at least partially defuse her critics face to face. But the negotiating team didn’t want to use her until there was a path to a deal. And the path never materialized.

Clark doesn’t regret not going. She thought her appearance at the table would have just aggravated Furstenau. Some Green negotiators believe Clark missed a key opportunity by sitting on the sidelines. Others on the team think her presence wouldn’t have made a difference. Either way, it was a gamble.

While Clark was stewing, Horgan and Weaver were walking to the golden gates in front of the B.C. legislative chamber. Weeks of waiting were about to end. Before they went out to meet the press, Weaver joked with the NDP leader.

“Now I get to pass this boulder off my shoulders and onto yours,” he said, in reference to the pressure he felt.

A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC by Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman (Heritage House, $22.95) is available in book stores and online. The authors will hold a Vancouver launch on April 4, 6-7:30 p.m., at SFU Vancouver, 515 West Hastings St. Event details and free reserve tickets are available here.  [Tyee]

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