While the final seat tally is still not yet resolved, one outcome of the 2017 British Columbia election is clear: there are uncertain policy waters ahead. This is particularly true for BC’s resource sector, and Canada’s resource industries that depend on access to global markets through Canada’s Asia Pacific gateways on the coast.
As of May 12, 2017, the seat distribution in the 87-seat legislature stands at 43 seats for the BC Liberals, 41 seats for the New Democratic Party, and three seats for the Green Party. With only two seats separating the Liberals and the NDP, there are three ridings facing recounts that could either confirm the status quo, provide Christy Clark a bare majority mandate, or, even though there’s a small likelihood, result in an NDP win.
On election night, in Maple Ridge‑Mission, the NDP candidate was declared the victor, with a mere 120-vote margin. In Coquitlam-Burke Mountain, the Liberals were declared elected with a 170‑vote margin. Meanwhile, in Courtenay‑Comox, the NDP candidate was declared the victor with a margin of just nine votes.
While the final seat count in the legislature may be a couple of weeks away, it is clear that the outcome of the election will cause a policy shift in the province that few expected at the start of the campaign. Political finance reform will likely come early, with a probable ban on both corporate and union contributions to parties, and local campaigns being the likely outcome. Housing affordability and access, a dominant issue throughout the campaign, will likely continue to be a central issue of consideration by the government. Transportation priorities, including working with Lower Mainland mayors, will likely have to be re-imagined in light of what some local governments view as the misaligned project priorities and funding models proposed by both the Liberals and NDP.
But the one policy area that is most unknown going forward in a possible minority legislature is the future of resource development. From the perspective of the BC Liberals, the aspirations are quite clear given their 16‑year track record: they want growth and expansion of the resource sector. Their election platform has a goal of establishing eight new mines in the province by 2022; to have three new liquefied natural gas plants under construction by 2020; to complete the Site C dam and promote electrification of oil and gas fields; and contribute $5 million annually to pursue market access for BC lumber products to the Chinese and Indian markets.
From New Democrats, the public should expect full non-cooperation. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, NDP Leader John Horgan will lead the NDP into the next election campaign. The NDP gained seats under his leadership, they are united behind him, and he is just a couple of seats short of becoming Premier. Whenever the next election occurs, the “time for change” NDP message versus a five‑term Liberal government that will be seeking a sixth term, will likely be even more attractive with the public. So, the public can expect New Democrats to take every opportunity to deny Liberals success, offer alternative solutions to every challenge, and try to present a credible, “ready to govern” team and tone throughout the coming months and years.
Specifically, on the resource and energy sectors, the NDP has been absolute in their opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, as well as their desire for a halt to the Site C dam project. In fact, John Horgan has said that he would use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop the Kinder Morgan, Trans Mountain project. The NDP’s base won’t tolerate any softening of this position, and Mr. Horgan’s strategic effort will be to either co-opt the Greens, or to expose and stigmatize the Greens as being passively complicit in allowing these projects to be approved.
New Democrats tried to moderate the perception that they’re opposed to any resource development by suggesting they would work to more effectively engage indigenous communities in BC on resource development projects, and that they would even accelerate the approval process for new mines. However, don’t expect much cooperation from New Democrats on much of the Liberals’ resource agenda under Premier Clark.
The great unknown going forward, is the impact of the now three Green Party MLAs on public policy, should they have the balance of power in the legislature. What this will mean to the government’s agenda when it comes to resources development and environmental protection is uncertain.
On forestry, their campaign commitment to the public includes introducing a new forestry act, with a focus on wildlife habitat, as well as the establishment of a new Natural Resources Commissioner and Board that will set new sustainable harvest levels for forestry in BC The Greens want a limit on log exports, and want the BC Government to invest in “innovation for non-traditional uses of wood and wood fibre.” They also want a commitment to develop a “BC Old-Growth Forest Inventory” to manage and protect old-growth forests.
There are areas of agreement and overlap with the Liberals when it comes to pursuit of global market access, promoting value-added industries, support for forest research and keeping taxes on the industry low. The Greens even want to see the Provincial Sales Tax removed from purchases of machinery and equipment in sawmills and wood processing.
The Greens have called for a moratorium on tankers carrying diluted bitumen on the BC coast, but Green leader Andrew Weaver has said that he would consider supporting moving refined product along the coast. They have also called for reform of the BC Oil and Gas Commission to “remove conflicting interests within the Commission.” They also want to have maintenance requirements for pipelines made clear and enforceable, and “require the adoption of international efficiency standards.”
Politically, the Green platform is full of boutique proposals that could find support from the Liberal government in a way that would allow a Liberal-Green agenda to succeed in the legislature without offending many BC Liberal voters, while at the same time allowing the Greens to be seen to be an effective faction in the legislature. To be sure, there are some areas of broad philosophical and practical disagreement between the Liberals and Greens, but there are measures in the Green platform that could reasonably see cross-party alignment and, more importantly, public support. Green Party initiatives include: expanding the network of charging facilities for electric and low emission vehicles; continued incentives to purchase low/no emission vehicles; support for ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft; working with TransLink and local governments to configure commuter routes that are friendly to cycling and pedestrians; greater funding for public transit; establishing incentive programs for retrofitting commercial buildings to greater environmental standards; and investing CA$80 million over four years in “green transportation infrastructure, building efficiency incentives and other initiatives.”
When you add this list of initiatives to larger proposals like campaign finane reform, it is possible to envision a Liberal agenda that is free enterprise friendly, environmentally-progressive-based, and in sync with public opinion, which could provide some political stability for the province for a few years.
Christy Clark has every incentive to stabilize her government with an agenda that has the support of the legislature, and the Green Party has every incentive to prove to the record number of British Columbians who voted Green in this election that their vote resulted in meaningful outcomes for a cleaner and stronger British Columbia. In the months ahead we will see if cooler, practical political leadership emerges on an agenda of cross-party support, or whether the broader philosophical disagreements on matters like pipelines, fracking and tankers, prevent BC’s first minority legislature since 1952 to see any success at all for British Columbians.
The BC election presents new legal, policy and advocacy challenges for resource and infrastructure projects. Dentons looks forward to assisting our clients in addressing these challenges. Please contact members of our Government Affairs and Public Policy group in Canada, James Moore and Lori Mathison for further inquiries.