Opinion

Why a BC NDP-Green Government Will Last Longer than Pundits Think

Predictions of doom, trickery and legislative stalemate are all wrong.

By Bill Tieleman 6 Jun 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. Email him at weststar@telus.net see Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds.” — Samuel Adams, American revolutionary 1722-1803

The coming BC NDP government to be led by John Horgan and backed by the Green Party is going to last a lot longer than the BC Liberals and some pundits think.

Despite the narrowest majority — just one vote when the combined 41 NDP MLAs join with three Green MLAs versus the 43 BC Liberals — the predictions of doom, trickery by outgoing Premier Christy Clark to stay in power, and legislative stalemate over the speaker are all wrong. Here’s why.

First, majorities truly matter, even the thinnest. And a strong majority of voters chose progressive change over more of the same from the BC Liberals after 16 years in office.

Second, while every piece of legislation will likely be decided by one vote, relatively few bills will be what are called confidence or supply votes — the only ones that could defeat the government.

B.C.’s legislature sat for only 51 days in 2016 and 36 in 2013. While it will sit more frequently in future according to the NDP-Green agreement, votes that could defeat the government won’t be a regular occurrence.

Third, any desperate attempt by Clark and the BC Liberals to thwart the electoral results would backfire into a disaster.

And the Liberal caucus knows that Clark isn’t the person to lead them into the next scheduled election in 2021 or a snap election long before then.

In fact, the leader with the shortest political future and biggest problems isn’t Horgan or Green leader Andrew Weaver — it’s Clark.

It was only hours after the election that Clark’s most powerful internal BC Liberal foe, former finance minister Kevin Falcon, criticized her government.

“For the BC Liberals, they really got hammered particularly in the Lower Mainland, and I think that reflects frustration over a number of issues, campaign finance, lack of progress over transportation projects, and just a little too much politics and not quite enough policy initiative,” Falcon told the Vancouver Sun.

“I think the perceived ethical issues, the campaign finance issues that were never really addressed, I think that really gnawed away at people, and it bothered them and that was reflected in a negative vote,” Falcon continued, pointing out the obvious, but not oblivious to the fact that his comments would hold more weight than criticism from outside Liberal ranks.

Given Falcon’s close second-place finish to Clark in the BC Liberal leadership contest of 2011 and the fact that 19 MLAs supported his bid to just one for Clark, his comments are an early indication that her grip on power is slipping fast — and that Falcon may be ready to return to politics.

Falcon’s criticism is based on facts: Clark had every advantage going into the May 9 election and still lost her majority along with four cabinet ministers.

After the final count, the BC Liberals only had 1,566 votes more than the BC NDP, the closest election result in provincial history.

But the BC Liberals went into the election with Canada’s strongest economy; an enviable four balanced budgets; party coffers filled with an astonishing $21.3 million raised in just the last 17 months, with huge corporate donations; and having spent $15 million — double the budgeted amount — on pre-election government advertising that was clearly promoting the BC Liberals.

And yet they came up short. The reason — voters really don’t like Christy Clark.

A post-election Insights West poll, before results were final, asked British Columbians their preferences for the next government.

The results were bad news for Clark. The poll showed a divided province — 48 per cent supported an NDP minority government led by Horgan or an NDP majority government.

The same number supported a Liberal minority government — if it was led by someone other than Clark. When the pollster asked about BC Liberal minority led by Clark, only 38 per cent responded positively.

Those results echo a pre-election Angus Reid Institute poll that showed 62 per cent of voters disapproved of Clark’s performance as premier.

And another Reid poll in March determined that 76 per cent of respondents agreed that the BC Liberal government is “only interested in helping its political donors and big business.” Clark wore that self-created albatross through the campaign.

Given all this, it’s highly likely there will be a BC Liberal leadership contest soon, and the Liberals won’t want a snap election without a leader.

In fact, they won’t want an election until a new leader is established and leading in the polls, leading to significant stability in the legislature. Their leadership process would probably take at least 12 months and up to two years to conclude.

Speaker issue isn’t really an issue

Some commentators have claimed the narrow NDP-Green majority means the legislature will not be elect a Speaker, and that will lead to a quick election. But despite the hair-splitting of academics and journalists, it’s not that complicated.

The most definitive guide to British parliamentary procedure around the world states it succinctly:

“If the numbers in a division [a vote] are equal, the Speaker, who otherwise does not vote, must give the casting vote. In the performance of this duty, he is at liberty to vote like any other Member, according to his conscience, without assigning a reason; but, in order to avoid the least imputation upon his impartiality, it is usual for him, when practicable, to vote in such a manner as not to make the decision of the House final," wrote Erskine May in his 1844 guide to parliamentary practice.

And if that isn’t sufficient, Section 49 of Canada’s Constitution Act (BNA Act), 1867 states: “Questions arising in the House of Commons shall be decided by a Majority of Voices other than that of the Speaker, and when the Voices are equal, but not otherwise, the Speaker shall have a Vote.”

And we have a recent example in Canada, where then-speaker Peter Milliken, a Liberal Member of Parliament, held the post for three minority governments and cast five tie-breaking votes.

While it would be better if the BC Liberals agreed to put forward a Speaker in order to avoid a New Democrat or Green Speaker breaking ties regularly, there is no question that would be both proper and legal.

“It is not a matter of law. It is a political rule that can’t be enforced by the courts, that simply has to be accepted by political actors in order to ensure the proper functioning of the Constitution,” says Philippe Lagassé, a Carleton University professor who is an expert on Canada’s parliamentary system of government.

And the extra pay and honour of being Speaker might prompt one BC Liberal to sit as an independent and be elected by the NDP-Green majority.

Don’t expect treachery

Lastly, the rumour that the BC Liberals might entice a Green or NDP MLA to cross the floor and support a Clark government is unsubstantiated, possibly illegal and highly improbable.

Technically speaking, it is a criminal offence to offer an inducement to an elected official to do anything, even though occasionally one changes parties and sometimes ends up in cabinet.

More practically, every NDP and Green MLA publicly signed an agreement to form or support an NDP government — imagine the reaction in that MLA’s riding if they switched sides before the legislature could even sit.

Think back to when then-Liberal MP for Vancouver-Kingsway David Emerson went from being “Stephen Harper’s worst nightmare” before the 2006 election to one of his cabinet ministers months later. There was ferocious anger and protests in his riding at what was seen as an opportunistic act of betrayal. (In February, Clark named Emerson B.C.’s special envoy in the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S.)

Any NDP or Green MLA would become an exile in their own community for accepting Liberal entreaties to join their insufficient ranks in order to keep Clark as premier.

Without question B.C. politics can be the wildest and most unpredictable in Canada, and the new NDP-Green agreement is yet another example.

But the odds of a stable NDP government for 18 to 24 months is a decent bet — and a far better one than Christy Clark still being BC Liberal leader by then.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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