Liberals cling to minority government after B.C. election 2017

The Greens emerge as the true winners, with a three-seat balance of power and their best-ever showing at the polls

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd following the B.C. Election in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The ultimate make-up of British Columbia’s next government remains up in the air, but no matter the outcome of Tuesday’s nail-biter of an election, the Green party will hold significant power in the legislature for the first time in the party’s history.

The Liberals and NDP sat in a near-dead heat—43 and 41 seats respectively, and three for the Greens—as the vote count staggered to an end after midnight local time. At least one riding, Courtenay-Comox, will go to a recount after the New Democrat candidate won by just nine votes over her Liberal opponent.

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For now, that means B.C. has a minority Liberal government—it’s first minority since 1952—while the Greens hold the balance of power. Even though her party failed to win a majority, Christy Clark remains premier unless she informs B.C.’s lieutenant governor she no longer holds the confidence of the legislative assembly and steps down.

In a speech to supporters, Clark signalled that she intended to try to govern. “I will work with the other parties to do what needs to be done to fight, to preserve, to protect jobs for working people in British Columbia,” she said.

Suffice to say, both the Liberals and NDP will heavily court the Greens for support, be it in the form of an informal alliance in the legislature, or a formal coalition that might include a seat for the party’s leader Andrew Weaver at the cabinet table. On paper, the more likely partnership is between the Greens and the NDP: the parties share several key policy planks, including support for electoral reform, opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline and completion of the Site C dam project.

Related: In B.C. election 2017, the Green Party could be kingmakers

But Weaver clashed with New Democrat leader John Horgan during the campaign, at one point suggesting he thought Clark would be the easier leader to get along with. Either way, it’s a significant advancement for the Green political movement: for the first time in a Canadian legislature, one of its parties will be wielding real power.

“What a historic day for British Columbia,” Weaver said in his own post-election speech. “People across B.C. have shown that they’re ready for politics to be done differently in this province. We offered them a change they can count on and British Columbians accepted that change tonight.”

The tense election night reflected a close, at times contentious, campaign. Just two weeks before the election, polls were predicting a clear NDP win, ending 16 years of Liberal reign in the province. By the eve of the election, though, the Liberals and NDP were tied in the polls, each party with 39 per cent.

Horgan earned praise from the party’s base early in the campaign for his commitment to make housing more affordable, to axe the annual Medical Service Plan premiums, and for championing environmental protection with promises to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, gradually increase the carbon tax, and impose stricter CO2 reduction targets.

Related: John Horgan’s roller-coaster B.C. election night

“British Columbians have waited 16 years for a government that works for them, and we’re going to have to ask you to wait a little bit longer until all the votes are counted and the final results are in,” he said early Wednesday. “The majority of British Columbians voted for a new government and I believe that’s what they deserve.”

But he was up against an incumbent premier with a strong affinity for her base, especially in the province’s Interior ridings. The Liberals edged out he New Democrats in the popular vote on Tuesday, pulling 40.9 per cent to the NDP’s 39.9. Early in the vote count, former NDP premier Mike Harcourt acknowledged to Global TV: “I think the issue is Christy is one hell of a campaigner.”

Indeed, Clark managed to fight her way back from scrutiny on the campaign trail around accepting questionable corporate donations, and for her tactless handling of a voter’s disapproval that went viral when the party groundlessly accused the critic of being an NDP plant.

If she does in fact pull off a comeback, it won’t be the first time. The 2013 election run started with then NDP leader Adrian Dix leading Clark by 17 points in the polls, only to hand the Liberals their fourth term as government. Similar to the 2017 campaign, Clark began winning over voters with the promise to strengthen the economy and create more jobs—goals which, she recently acknowledged, she fell short of in her last term.

The turning point in the campaign for Clark’s popularity, however, was arguably when she went after President Trump’s protectionist intentions. “I am not going to be a sucker for Donald Trump and accept the bad deals the Americans have offered us so far,” Clark said at a media event in North Vancouver shortly after Trump announced plans to impose new import duties on Canadian softwood lumber. Clark then threatened tariffs on U.S. thermal coal coming into to B.C. if the U.S. pushed forward with their softwood lumber plans. While it’s unlikely the B.C. government would have any sway over Trump’s decisions on the matter, Clark’s message, which reinforced her rhetoric around protecting Canadian jobs, likely resonated with her base and some voters on the fence—though clearly not enough to secure a majority.

Meanwhile, the Green party roughly doubled its popular vote from the last election to 16.5 per cent at the time of publication. Perhaps more than in any other election, the Greens were seen as a real threat to the Liberals and the NDP who both rightly feared losing centre-left voters to the province’s third party. Horgan campaigned in battleground ridings until the eleventh hour, trying to convince voters, particularly those fed up with the Clark government, that a vote for the Green party was a vote for the Liberals. The message echoed the party’s call for strategic voting which they stressed in a campaign video called “Don’t Split the Vote.” Weaver called the rhetoric “pure fear-mongering.”

Courtenay-Comox may not be the only riding subject to a recount, meaning it will be days or even weeks before the outcome of the election is clear. It could be a pivotal interregnum, giving the respective parties time to consider how to cooperate, or at least compromise, in the legislature.

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