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BC Election 2020
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BC Politics

We Asked Smart People If the NDP Should Call an Election

Here’s what 15 politically savvy British Columbians told us.

By David Beers, Paul Willcocks and Robyn Smith 18 Sep 2020 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers was founding editor of The Tyee and is its editor for initiatives. Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and an editor with The Tyee. Robyn Smith is editor in chief of The Tyee.

Rumours that the NDP led by John Horgan will call a snap election are reaching a fever pitch, and the prospect is controversial, to say the least.

Criticizing the impulse in the Victoria Times Colonist, Norman Spector pointed to the law setting out a fixed election date next fall and Horgan’s signed personal commitment in the agreement.

“Reneging on that signature would be inconsistent with the norm of good faith that underlies our democracy,” wrote Spector, a former advisor to premier Bill Bennett and prime minister Brian Mulroney who advised the Greens in their negotiations to reach the confidence and supply agreement with the NDP.

Or, as Martyn Brown, who was top aide to former BC Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, put it in the Georgia Straight, “Dear John: You know I love you, but if you want me to remain faithful, quit screwing around and just honour your vows.”

Over at the political website the Orca, run by former BC Liberal premier Christy Clark’s speechwriter Maclean Kay, more alarms were raised. The NDP “see polls saying they should move now,” Kay said in a Sept. 15 podcast, “and that is the only reason why this is happening.” Podcast mate Jordan Bateman of B.C.’s Independent Contractors and Businesses Association predicted the NDP would lose, in part because the party won’t be able to rely on its usual support from teachers who are mad over their contract deal, or health-care workers who are “too busy with other things.”

But a canvassing of a wide range of savvy political observers by The Tyee found more than a few saying it makes sense for the NDP to go for it. Here’s what we heard from a range of perspectives.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip: ‘More than appropriate.’

“I believe it is more than appropriate and timely to call a provincial election now, given the evidence that demonstrates we will soon be facing a very severe second wave on the COVID-19 pandemic. We need a strong stable government to deal with the evolving situation.

“The BC NDP has proven their willingness to walk the talk on recognizing our inherent title and rights, and they are the only government that has enshrined UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] in provincial legislation. They have also consulted with B.C. First Nations on a whole range of issues during a strong relationship.

“I support the NDP in calling an election and we’re hoping for a strong majority NDP government. I think they have done a good job.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Shachi Kurl: Don’t forget Adrian Dix’s doomed campaign.

“Any election call is a risk. Yes, even with polling that shows a 19-point gap over your main opponent, the reason people spout the cliché that campaigns matter is because they do. In 2013, Christy Clark outworked and outperformed Adrian Dix to lead the BC Liberals to victory, despite what had seemed at the beginning of the campaign a certain defeat.

“Both in terms of policy and performance, the BC NDP and John Horgan are not without areas of vulnerability. Housing affordability continues to be a problem. Deaths from opioid overdoses continue to be a crisis. The pandemic has put to the backburners on simmer issues that threatened the left/progressive flank: the TMX pipeline, Site C and its cost overruns, LNG.

“I’ve watched John Horgan’s career for 15 or more years, since his time as a Vancouver Island backbencher. He’s grown as a politician in all the ways that count. But he continues to have trouble taking a political punch. He still sometimes displays exasperation and irritation when criticized. These traits could trip him up in a debate.

“Ultimately though, elections aren’t just a referendum on the government of the day but also a sizing up of the opposition. It’s possible, although perhaps not probable, that Andrew Wilkinson will have the campaign of a lifetime. What’s more likely is new BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau will perform better than anyone expects her to.

“Horgan begins this campaign with a comfortable lead. But running fast and running scared, as though you were behind, remains the best formula to win.”

Shachi Kurl is executive director of the Angus Reid Institute.

Nicola Spurling: ‘The timing is awful, taxpayers will have to foot the bill.’

“British Columbians don’t want or need an election right now. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, we have an opioid crisis, we need to protect jobs and business, and schools are reopening with all of the uncertainty that brings. Now the BC NDP may throw another wrench into the equation, temporarily leaving the province without solid leadership.

“Not only is the timing awful, but we’re already struggling financially, and taxpayers will have to foot the bill for an early election. Then come the safety risks of attempting in-person campaigning and collecting signatures for Elections BC. Finally, consider the inequity aspect. Who has the money and time to drop everything they’re doing and run in a snap election? Certainly not low-income and/or marginalized people.

“The confidence and supply agreement has provided us with a stable government thus far and can continue to provide us with stability until next fall, when we reach the fixed election date. The BC NDP are clearly trying to capitalize on their polling numbers, which are a result of how well Bonnie Henry handled the early stages of the pandemic, but case numbers are rising and we don’t know what the future will hold. Are the BC NDP prepared to risk a BC Liberal Party majority in their greedy quest for more power? If a snap election is called, it will display just how self-serving and out-of-touch the BC NDP really are.”

Nicola Spurling is the Lower Mainland representative on the BC Green Party's provincial council, a political pundit and an LGBTQ2+ advocate.

Sonia Theroux: ‘It risks being perceived as a power grab by the electorate.’

“Whether it’s a good idea for the BC NDP to call an election now depends on who you ask, who stands to gain and who stands to lose or be harmed. As a strategist, I can see how it makes a lot of sense from the BC NDP’s perspective to leverage the ‘rally around the flag’ effect from a perceived successful response to the pandemic into a majority. They’ve just seen this happen successfully in New Brunswick, where the Progressive Conservatives successfully replaced their minority with a majority.

“The difference, of course, is that the N.B. government no longer had majority confidence to govern. That is not the case in B.C. where, while adjustments must be made to legislation to gain support from the BC Greens, they are not prevented from governing. There is no lack of mandate to do the work they are so capably doing to respond to the pandemic. So, the case for it is thinner. It risks being perceived as a power grab by the electorate, for which they could be punished. It’s a gamble they’re likely willing to make given the unreadiness of the other parties.

“Meanwhile, the work that is so urgently needed across many areas will be put on pause, as government and much of civil society redirects their resources to an election campaign at the expense of other more pressing issues.”

Sonia Theroux is co-executive director of Leadnow.

Kai Nagata: Three things the NDP brain trust ‘should be worried about.’

“If I were an NDP strategist, I would be worried about three things: Indigenous resistance, climate breakdown and COVID-19 infections. Any of these could flare up into an ‘October surprise’ that undermines the government’s image of competence and control.

“Earlier this year we saw militarized police forces raid Wet'suwet'en territory on behalf of a cabal of foreign fracking companies. Many NDP voters were outraged. Solidarity blockades shut down ports, rail lines and the legislature itself. With Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink gearing up for pipeline construction this fall, the government could find its base split again.

“Students are another X-factor. The organizers of last year’s massive climate strikes and rallies are still waiting for politicians to treat the climate emergency seriously. Meanwhile, the government has increased subsidies to oil and gas companies to $1 billion a year. Even if they’re not allowed to vote, young people could convince their parents to treat the climate crisis as a ballot box issue.

“Finally, the province’s back-to-school plan carries a lot of political risk. If parents feel their kids are being used as guinea pigs, or rolling school shutdowns disrupt everyone’s lives, that blame will land at the feet of the government.

“The NDP’s pitch to voters is ‘don’t change horses in the middle of a stream.’ They need to project confidence in the face of all these overlapping crises. If things get out of their control, or the government’s plans seem inadequate to the challenges we’re facing, there’s no telling how voters will react.”

Kai Nagata is communications director for Dogwood BC.

Trevor Bolin: ‘The timing politically speaking is perfect. Take the politics out of it.’

“I understand why Premier Horgan would be toying with the notion of a snap election. Let’s face it, in recent polls his approval ratings are probably the highest of any NDP leader in B.C. (premier or not). The Conservative Party of B.C. with me as its leader for the last year have been busy fielding candidates, and the timing politically speaking... is perfect.

“However, let’s take the politics out of it and look at it on the personal side. Businesses are struggling to stay open, B.C.’s unemployment is higher than it should be, our energy sector is still struggling from the 2015 downturn, our forestry sector is still in shambles with too many mills still closed, and the last thing that British Columbians should have to worry about in 2020 is a provincial election.

“If the premier is truly listening to the people of this province, he would inform them that although the opportunity presents itself, his focus is on the health of this province and the great people that make B.C. what it is.”

Trevor Bolin has been the leader of the BC Conservative Party since April 2019, and is a long-term city councillor in Fort St. John. The Conservatives have about eight per cent support in recent polls.

Stuart Parker: ‘I guess the joke is on us.’

“If the NDP’s sole purpose is the perpetuation of its own power, calling an election right now is brilliant. Every opposition party in the province is weak and in disarray, and the New Brunswick election shows that the ‘rally around the flag’ effect during COVID-19 is a real thing that can be counted on at the ballot box. Folks like Geoff Meggs [the premier’s chief of staff] will see this as a slam dunk.

“And it will also make sure that the BC NDP continues its transformation into a content-free winning machine. As with the school reopening plan and declaring the hospitality industry an essential service, it will certainly result in a few more people losing their lives to COVID. But then, as polls show in Ontario and Quebec, the ‘rally around the flag’ effect actually gets stronger the more people die. So there is no downside to risking people’s health gratuitously (other than to the people whose lives might be lost).

“Similarly, the NDP signed a piece of paper, a formal agreement with another party to co-govern for another 13 months. They have realized that repeatedly violating the agreement in both letter and spirit won’t cause the timorous Greens to vote against them in the legislature; so they have just torn it up. It will be the Greens who pay for looking weak and humiliated; our province’s sycophantic press will praise this as an act of strength and boldness, not dishonour. What, after all, does a contract mean in the Age of Trump?

“They have caught us flat-footed and divided. I guess the joke is on us that the NDP’s definition of victory is to continue the government agenda of Christy Clark. If elections are just about who gets to frack the gas, build the LNG plants, ship out unprocessed logs, flood the Peace Valley, welcome Uber to congest our streets and punish teachers with austerity and unsafe working conditions, then the NDP has done all the right things to achieve some kind of victory.

“But maybe, just maybe enough people will see the profound cynicism and nihilism of this tactical masterstroke and transform it into something else on election day. I live in hope of that.”

Stuart Parker was BC Green leader from 1993 to 2000 and is acting leader of the BC Ecosocialist Party.

Will McMartin: ‘The facts clearly have changed.’

“A famed economist, asked about an alleged inconsistency in his views, is said to have replied: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’

“(The quote usually attributed to John Maynard Keynes, although it may have been made by Paul Samuelson.)

“So, despite British Columbia having a fixed-election date law since 2001 — amended in 2017 to move elections from the spring to the fall of every fourth year — rumours now abound that Premier John Horgan may pull the plug and call an early election about a year before B.C. voters are scheduled to go to the polls in October 2021.

“Has the COVID-19 pandemic caused the facts to change in B.C.? It would appear so. For one thing, the provincial economy has been flattened. The number of British Columbians without a job has tripled since the beginning of the year. Think about it: the number of people out of work this spring was equal to the entire populations of Victoria, West Vancouver, Chilliwack, Salmon Arm and Prince George — combined — and still remains above 300,000.

“For another, B.C.’s fiscal picture has dramatically darkened with the modest surplus projected back in February transformed into a gargantuan shortfall of $12.8 billion. The province’s total debt by the end of the fiscal year now is forecast at $87.9 billion.

“The NDP will argue that the economic recovery plan they unveiled yesterday requires a mandate for implementation from voters. And that means an early trip to the polls to allow B.C. voters to have a say in determining our collective future.

“Moreover, let us be truthful with ourselves and acknowledge that human-made laws can be and often are amended, repealed or ignored.

“Recall that when the BC Liberals first enacted the province’s fixed-election date law, they also passed legislation that required the province’s annual budget to be in balance — making it illegal for expenditures to exceed revenues over the course of a fiscal year.

“Despite taking effect in fiscal 2004/05, the balanced-budget law was set aside a short time later as BC Liberal governments led by Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark racked up a series of multi-billion dollar deficits from 2009/10 to 2012/13.

“The facts clearly have changed in 2020. And if British Columbians are obliged to go to the polls this fall, they will decide — as it should be in a democracy — if an early election was necessary or not.”

Will McMartin is a public affairs consultant and lobbyist, once active with B.C.’s Social Credit party. He’s provided political analysis for news media including The Tyee, where he is a long-time contributor.

Max Cameron: ‘This would threaten to politicize the pandemic response.’

“When British Columbians elected a minority parliament in 2017, there were many commentators who expressed misgivings about the implications for governance. I argued at the time that Canadian history provides many examples of successful minority governments, and that the imperative to co-operate in forming a government, in this case by creating a supply and confidence arrangement with the BC Greens, would actually ensure that we had a government that would be responsive to voters and would set aside some of the excessive partisanship that we often find in B.C. politics.

“As we look back on the last three years of this minority parliament we can see that while it has not always been easy, our government has been very stable and, in fact, quite productive. What is more, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been exceptionally competent. Not only have our elected officials listened to public health officials, but both government and opposition have done an excellent job of not politicizing the pandemic response. In many ways, our province is modelling how parliament is supposed to work.

“In a first-past-the-post system, there is always going to be the temptation to seek to parlay a minority into a majority government. At the moment, the premier is riding high in the public opinion polls and so must be tempted to wonder whether a snap election might allow him to look forward not just to another year in office but to four more years — without the necessity of the BC Greens. I would like to think the temptation might be resisted.

“An election would almost certainly become a referendum on the government’s performance, and this would threaten to politicize the pandemic response. The internal balancing that the BC Greens provide through the supply and confidence arrangement might well be lost. My sense of the mood of the public is that few people outside the government are feeling the need for change at this time, particularly as we struggle to maintain social distancing while returning to school and facing the next flu season. Other jurisdictions have postponed elections due to COVID-19. Why would we accelerate the electoral timetable?

“The answer is that it serves partisan interests. Before placing partisanship above governance, however, the premier would do well to consider the fate of leaders who have called snap elections only to find that the public mood shifted against them. Federally, the John Turner government comes to mind (you don’t recall it? That’s my point); provincially, David Peterson in Ontario offers another cautionary tale. I have never been a fan of fixed election dates, and I recognize that the premier has the power to dissolve the legislature, but I suspect that most people feel little enthusiasm for a fall election.”

Max Cameron is a professor of political science at UBC.

Bill Tieleman: ‘Absolutely call an election.’

“Premier John Horgan should absolutely call an election, because with COVID-19 creating both an unprecedented health and economic crisis, British Columbians deserve to have a government with a strong mandate to implement its plans. It’s up to voters to decide whether it should be the BC NDP, the BC Liberals or the BC Greens in charge. Whenever an election is called, it’s voters who decide, not politicians or parties.

“The BC NDP government can and will be judged on their response to this devastating pandemic; the other parties will put forward their criticisms and plans and British Columbians will democratically choose which is better.

“The election will be conducted safely, with minimal in person contact, few public events and socially-distanced voting. B.C. has much successful experience with binding mail referenda — my involvement with both the 2018 proportional representation vote and the Harmonized Sales Tax ballot showed me that mail voting is secure, with good participation and lower costs than in-person polling stations on a single day. It’s for those reasons that Washington state and other jurisdictions conduct all their ballots by mail.

“This election will also be a referendum on which party can best deal with COVID-19 and its aftermath. That places the BC NDP in a good position thanks to Health Minister Adrian Dix putting his faith in medical science and due to Premier John Horgan’s strong leadership.

“BC Liberal opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson faces a difficult challenge overcoming some of his early leadership mistakes and lack of public or media attention to his party. After 16 years in power, the BC Liberals seem to have run out of innovative ideas, but an election is their best opportunity to put forward a new vision.

“Internal differences are also a significant factor, with the possibility of a post-election political divorce between the federal Conservative and federal Liberal wings of the party.

“The BC Greens have even more difficulties than the BC Liberals with the loss of former leader Andrew Weaver and his ongoing criticism of his former party, which is now led by Sonia Furstenau. Weaver’s endorsement of John Horgan continuing as premier adds significantly to their woes.

“All in all this promises to be one of the most unusual elections British Columbia has ever seen, with the results potentially determining the political futures of all parties for the next decade.”

Bill Tieleman, a former columnist for The Tyee, is president of West Star Communications, a strategy and communications consulting firm, providing services for labour, business, non-profits and governments for the past 13 years.

Matt Price: Voters will ask: ‘Why are you putting lives at risk?’

“It’s inevitable that the first week of the campaign will be ‘Why are you putting lives at risk calling an unnecessary election during a pandemic?’ If the NDP want to move beyond that, they’ll need to put something new in the window, reasons why they want another term. What’s the program?

“And, if that’s thin (‘more of the same?’), then they may well face a challenge not from the BC Liberals who still seem tired and out of ideas, but from the Greens who won’t be scared of putting things out there to drive the news cycle.

"Meanwhile, our skies are filled with apocalyptic smoke. If any of the parties campaign on the canard of LNG being good for the climate, I’ll join thousands of others shouting angrily at our TV sets."

Matt Price, based on Vancouver Island, is co-ordinator of For Our Kids. He authored 'Engagement Organizing: The Old Art and New Science of Winning Campaigns' with UBC Press.

Shannon Daub: BC’s challenges are ‘only amplified by COVID’

“B.C. heads into a (likely) election from a position of relative strength thanks to the provincial government’s bold pandemic response measures that dealt with both the public health crisis and its economic impacts.

“It is increasingly clear, however, that we will not ‘recover’ from the pandemic or its economic impacts anytime soon (in any jurisdiction) — COVID will be with us for some time and is reshaping our lives in ways we are only just beginning to grasp. The challenges our province faced going in — access to affordable housing and child care, precarious jobs without adequate benefits like sick pay, the opioid crisis, racial injustice, poverty and homelessness, economic insecurity in many communities outside B.C.’s southwest — are only amplified by COVID. And while environmental concerns took a back seat temporarily, we’re all breathing a smoky reminder that the climate emergency doesn’t stop for a pandemic.

“Tackling these challenges is a tall order, but if recent times have taught us anything it’s that our governments, imperfect as they may be, can move with remarkable speed and purpose and we’ll need to see a lot more of that over the coming months.”

Shannon Daub is director of the BC Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

David Moscrop: ‘British Columbia can wait a year for its next election.’

“I’m hard pressed to think of a better governing party in this country than the BC NDP; indeed, my sense is that British Columbia is the best-governed province in Canada. While the government has made some serious mistakes, such as its support for the LNG industry and its botched attempt at electoral reform, on balance, residents of the province are better off than they were in past years and stand to end up better off still in years to come.

“However, there’s still a year to go before the fixed election date, the government is doing well generally and in its response to the pandemic, and so there’s no need for an election — in fact, calling an unnecessary election right now is irresponsible and risky.

“British Columbia can wait a year for its next election, and so can the NDP. But political cynicism endures. It must be hard for the backroom lot to ignore the party’s popularity and high approval ratings. But it would be more responsible to use those numbers to pursue ambitious climate action and more generous pandemic supports than to roll the dice on an early election call.

“Waiting a year would give the province more time to prepare for a safe election. It would give Elections BC more time to prepare. It would take us, at least, closer to a vaccine, closer to figuring out and adopting best practices, closer to a safe vote. Before Premier Horgan calls an early and unnecessary election he ought to be asked how many COVID-19 infections and lives he’s willing to risk right now for a majority government and four more years in power. The acceptable answer is ‘none.’ and thus he should wait until the fixed election date in October of next year.

“Nonetheless, if an election is called, the NDP would still be the right choice to govern the province. “

David Moscrop is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow in the department of communication at the University of Ottawa, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and the author of 'Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones.'

Alex Shiff: ‘Hubris has brought down many a government.’

“An early election would needlessly inject partisanship during a time when the public wants the government laser-focused on the coronavirus pandemic — especially when all signs point to a worsening pandemic in the fall and winter months. Hubris has brought down many a government, and I think the BC NDP should be cautious in how they judge the appetite of British Columbians for an early election.

“While polling might show Premier Horgan currently with a commanding lead, BC politics often shows us that public sentiment can shift in an instant. How an unnecessary snap election would impact the mood of voters remains a significant risk for the BC NDP.”

Alex Shiff is a senior consultant at Navigator Ltd., a public strategy firm. He previously served in the former BC Liberal government of Premier Christy Clark.

Patti Bacchus: ‘John Horgan would be a fool not to call one.’

“I’m in the please-no-election-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic camp, but I think John Horgan would be a fool not to call one. It will irritate a lot of people, but I doubt that will change much at the ballot box, which is what counts.

People will call it a power grab, but let’s face it, politics is all about power and you can’t do the things you believe need to get done without having the power to do so. What the public doesn’t see is the daily grind of trying to govern when you’re in a minority. It’s a lot simpler when you don’t have to maintain a relationship with another party. I can see why Horgan and his inner circle crave a majority.

“Horgan risks spending some of the immense amount of political capital he’s accumulated if he calls an election that voters see as a self-serving political move, but that’s a smaller risk than waiting until the pandemic gets worse, the economy sputters and stalls, and we start seeing regular COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, which I suspect we will.

“Overall Horgan’s government will get high marks for managing the pandemic, at a time the BC Liberals seem to be in disarray. The schools plan is probably their biggest weakness, and I imagine the sooner they have an election, the less damage that will do them.”

Patti Bacchus was the Vancouver School Board's longest serving chair and was elected to the board three times — in 2008, 2011 and 2014 — topping the polls in each time.  [Tyee]

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