B.C. politics are always perilous. But these are remarkably dangerous times.
The Greens, Liberals and New Democrats are all weighing the possible gains from alliances. They’re also considering the big risks.
The chance to govern, or influence government in the Greens’ case, is enticing.
But the parties are focusing on the next election, not just on who will form government today. Minority governments tend to be short-lived, and decisions made now will be critical to the next campaign.
So while Christy Clark is keen on continuing to govern, the BC Liberals also have to manage the risks in any pact with the Green Party.
If the Greens insist on political fundraising reform as a condition for their support, the Liberals lose the corporate donations they depend on. If Clark accepts other conditions — a carbon tax increase, say — she risks alienating supporters who might not vote for the party in the next election.
The risks are similar for the New Democrats. Making the Greens a partner would hand a lot of power to the party’s three members. The Greens could claim credit for the government’s successes, and dodge for failures.
And they could also have a chance to decide when the government would fall, and on what issue, pulling their support when the party in power is most vulnerable.
Of course, the Greens would face similar risks. Joining the NDP as a junior partner in a minority government would be much like signing on as the lone rabbit in a wolf pack, based on the online comments of New Democrat supporters. It’s hard to collaborate when your partner wants you dead.
The three parties don’t just have their rivals to worry about. The election result has created new risks from within the ranks of MLAs and party supporters.
If the Greens support the BC Liberals, the coalition will have 46 of 87 votes. Three defections on a confidence vote brings down the government.
The Green platform made much of the importance of free votes for its MLAs. So next February, if the Liberals introduce a budget that goes ahead with a planned 6.4 per cent cut to environment ministry funding, it seems reasonable that two Green MLAs might vote no.
That would leave the Liberals with a one-vote margin — and hand considerable leverage to any Liberal MLA who felt ill treated, or questioned the party’s direction.
That’s a big change. MLAs largely toe the party line, repeating the party talking points and following instructions. I once asked a Liberal MLA, a former corporate executive, about an obviously inaccurate letter to the editor published under his name in his local paper. Not his problem, he said. He was told to sign it, and he did. The premier or opposition leader will still control assignments and perqs — the chance to work on an important issue, a cabinet post, a plum assignment. (The last time I checked, 44 of 48 Liberals were receiving extra pay on top of their $103,000.)
But in a minority government, MLAs have their own leverage. They can’t be shushed; alienate them and the government falls. They’re freer to speak their minds and challenge authority.
That’s true for both the NDP and the Liberals. But the perils might be greater for Clark.
UBC political science professor Richard Johnston noted the election brought big changes to the Liberal caucus. The Liberals’ poor showing in the Lower Mainland, where they lost 10 seats, gives the 20 MLAs from the Interior and North a stronger voice.
“The caucus that Christy Clark will have to work with is dominated by people from the places that used to elect Socreds,” he said. “They don’t like Vancouver very much and they probably don’t like her very much, frankly.”
Clark has another problem. Her leadership rests on claims to good political instincts and campaign skills, not her vision or command of policy. This election was a blow to her brand. Possibly a fatal one.
Clark was oblivious to public concern about corruption and special treatment for big Liberal donors. She was painfully slow to respond to the housing affordability crisis. Her handling of the health ministry firings was appalling.
And her reputation as an effective campaigner, based on the 2013 come-from-behind win, is badly damaged. Liberal support fell by 61,000 voters this election. (NDP support was stable; Green support doubled.) Clark’s dismissive encounter with Linda, a non-supporter, turned into a campaign moment and highlighted her casual regard for facts. Clark seemed out of touch, every bit the premier who took a $50,000 party top-up to her $200,000-a-year pay and sold access for donations to the Liberal party.
So Clark is vulnerable, a damaged brand. And that means would-be successors are looking more boldly to their own advantage.
Some of these factors will change if recounts or absentee ballots give the Liberals the extra seat needed for a majority, but the dynamic is still dramatically changed. A single disgruntled Liberal MLA could bring down the government.
The plotting is already well under way. And it’s as much about the next election as it is about who will form government.