With the signing of a detailed agreement that covers dozens of areas of public policy over a 10-page accord, British Columbia’s New Democratic Party (NDP) and Green Party have aligned to form the next government in British Columbia. Incumbent Premier Christy Clark, with a slim lead in the number of seats in the legislature and a plurality of the popular vote on her side, will be unable to win a confidence over her coming Throne Speech in the BC Legislature. Consequently, the NDP-Green Party coalition government would then present their majority-seat alternative and, barring unforeseen challenges, form the Government of British Columbia in the coming weeks.
For all the players involved, these are unchartered waters in BC politics. Québec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and the Parliament of Canada, have all seen minority legislatures in recent years, but this dynamic has not been seen in BC since 1952. Added to the instability of the inexperience of all the players in managing a minority legislature, is just how narrow the difference is between the two parties.
British Columbians elected 43 BC Liberal MLAs, 41 NDP MLAs, and three Green Party MLAs. If one MLA from the NDP-Green coalition is elected Speaker of the Legislature, the seat tally becomes 43-43. So, in effect, on all confidence matters (as well as in legislative committee votes, one assumes), the Speaker would have to break every tie vote, and every government MLA would have to be in attendance, without exception, to avoid a failed confidence vote and possible subsequent election. This instability would only be exacerbated by the unforeseen challenges managing 87 different MLAs, from across a vast province, with travel schedules, family needs, health needs, eccentric personalities, local pressures, personal piques, and all other forms of pressures and instabilities one can imagine that will face the MLAs over the coming term in office. Put more simply, British Columbia is facing the most unstable governing dynamic possible.
Premier Clark will table a Throne Speech in June; it will be debated, voted upon, and likely defeated. The NDP and Greens would then present an alternative government to BC’s Lieutenant Governor, and would be asked to form a new government likely by the end of June. The BC Legislature will not sit over the summer months, which would allow the new cabinet ministers to acquaint themselves with their portfolios, departments, senior officials, hire necessary staff and travel across BC to establish their presence with the public, media and stakeholders. Announcements throughout the summer by Premier Horgan would be likely regarding progress towards key election promises to demonstrate results for the new government. In the fall, the BC Legislature would be recalled, and that’s where the coalition government’s unity will be tested.
An NDP-Green Government would be absolute in its opposition to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Edmonton through to Burnaby. What is not clear are the tools they could or would use as government to stop or impede the project given that both Kinder Morgan and the Government of Canada are determined to see the project move forward. Construction is planned to start in September, it has received approvals from the National Energy Board and the Government of Canada, and they have obtained a BC environmental certificate. The NDP Government of Alberta has warned that an NDP Government in BC cannot stifle Alberta’s economic engine and that they expect the Government of Canada to exercise their considerable power to ensure the pipeline is built. So far, Prime Minister Trudeau has held firm, but this project, and its legal and political complexities, will only intensify in the months to come.
Site C dam
An NDP-Green Government would “immediately refer the Site C dam project to the BC Utilities Commission on the question of economic viability and consequences to British Columbians,” according to their governing agreement. However, construction of the project will not be stopped while the review is underway. Once the review is over, it is not clear that the current Green Leader Andrew Weaver would react to an NDP-controlled government, allowing the project to proceed in spite of his absolute opposition.
An NDP-Green Government would agree to hold a province-wide referendum in concert with the fixed-date municipal election of 2018. The referendum question will ask British Columbians what form of “proportional representation” they would like to see implemented in the next provincial election. This will be an interesting area to watch, because, as Prime Minister Trudeau found out when he pledged to end Canada’s existing electoral system, it is incredibly challenging. Further, given that only 33 percent of British Columbians voted in the 2014 municipal election, it is hard to imagine that as few as 17 percent of British Columbians (half of 33 percent) could vote and change a central pillar of our democratic life, and for that to be a legitimate mandate for change. Even further, I am suspicious that the NDP actually want proportional representation. Historically, the NDP has never received more than 50 percent of the vote province-wide, yet they are currently only a couple seats short of a majority government with full control of the agenda and without the need of a coalition. The NDP really wants power in a majority government and the ability to deliver for their base, and it is certainly the ultimate desire of their most fervent partisan and ideological backers, not proportional representation. Add to this the fact that no NDP provincial government in Canadian history has ever implemented proportional representation despite promises to implement it (including Alberta’s NDP government lead by Rachel Notley), and you can see how this coalition commitment might be one that could lead to real acrimony.
A ban on corporate donations, union donations and non-BC resident donors would likely be enacted. New limits on individual donations will be put in place, and a broader review of the campaign finance and the Elections Act will take place to align BC’s campaign financing rules with the rest of Canada.
An NDP-Green Government would seek to implement a new minimum wage of CA$15 per hour with regular rate reviews. They would bring in a carbon-tax increase of CA$5 a tonne per year, beginning on April 1, 2018. It is not clear what would happen with tolls and road pricing, as the NDP campaigned on eliminating tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears Bridges, while the Green Party supports tolls and road pricing. To address the policy gap, they punt the issue by promising in their agreement to “work with the Mayors’ Council consultation process to find a more fair and equitable way of funding transit for the long term.”
Through the 10-page coalition document, there is very little in terms of economic initiatives. There is a great deal about expanding government-mandated benefits; government-mandated wage increases; and government-mandated expenditure increases in almost all areas, but almost no mention of economic development and growth.
The 2017 BC provincial election has created instability and uncertainty that we haven’t seen in two generations. The NDP-Green coalition agreement, in its opening paragraph, commits to “four years” of government to the Lieutenant Governor and British Columbians. This may well be the most challenging promise to keep given the one-seat margin on every vote, the instability of minority parliaments at the best of times, coming battles with Ottawa over resources, disagreements with mayors over tolls and road pricing, and, of course, the unexpected challenges that strike governments on a persistent basis. Instability will reign, and British Columbians, businesses, investors and all stakeholders will have to prepare for an uncertain ride.