Why approving Site C is the B.C. NDP's first serious political blunder - Macleans.ca

Why approving Site C is the B.C. NDP’s first serious political blunder

John Horgan’s government faced a no-win situation yet, politically, it chose unwisely. Let us count the ways.


Anti-Site C protestors demonstrate in Victoria in November (Chad Hipolito/CP)

On Monday, the New Democrat government announced its decision to go ahead with the Site C dam, a hydroelectric megaproject first approved by the B.C. Liberals three years ago during their tenure in office and criticized by the orange team and its captain. In 2014, John Horgan, then NDP Opposition leader, argued against the project on the grounds that it was opposed by Indigenous peoples, that it was unnecessary given projected energy needs, and that it was environmentally dodgy because it would flood a considerable amount of arable land. By 2016, Horgan was fully hedging on the project, waiting on more information. That’s all easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy when you’re in opposition, but when you’re the government, you have to decide—that’s when life becomes difficult.

Well, welcome to 2017—or late 2017, anyway—the point at which the B.C. NDP has made its call and its first serious political blunder—not that the choice they faced was going to be easy, popular or rewarding either way. The government was stuck, like Buridan’s Ass, between choices. Except rather than water or hay, they faced the prospect of selling out Indigenous peoples, farmers, environmentalists and many of their own supporters on the one side, and wasting $4 billion while causing a rise in hydro rates on the other.

READ: Why John Horgan deserves credit for going ahead with Site C

Faced with this choice, Premier Horgan went with the sunk-cost fallacy (i.e. “because we’ve spent a pile of money we should keep spending”) and approved Site C. Now, they face the political consequences, which while unlikely to be catastrophic, are going to make a precarious situation—the NDP governs with a slim minority in the legislature and support from the anti-Site C Green Party—even more untenable for months, perhaps years, to come.

The first problem with the decision is that some Indigenous groups oppose the project. At the same time, the B.C. NDP has committed itself to doing better on working with Indigenous peoples, guided by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Site C choice is a bad start to that journey, further harming the government’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples, which is the last thing that relationship needs.

Next, the decision will depress some NDP support, perhaps hurting donations, volunteer time and morale while pushing some voters towards the Green Party. Not everyone in the NDP’s electoral coalition will care about this issue, but those who do will care a lot. It could also discourage NDP supporters from backing the party in the upcoming vote on proportional representation, which is already a mess. If the megaproject—the most expensive in B.C.’s history—becomes a boondoggle, the issue could indeed remain on the minds of folks for years to come and make life difficult for the NDP during the next election. While that drop may be offset by support from those who see the NDP as no longer “anti-development,” I’d bet those who back the decision are more likely to vote Liberal anyway.

The same challenge the NDP faces with supporters can be seen with caucus. Some members of the government side oppose the dam and, conceivably, the NDP could lose one or two MLAs over this decision. Even some in Cabinet oppose the project—or did until recently. Michelle Mungal, the minister of energy, mines, and petroleum resources, who stood beside Horgan as he announced the decision (looking rather unenthusiastic), has criticized the project for years. Again, perhaps she changed her mind recently (winning power has a funny way of doing that to people), but she has some explaining to do either way. Sensing weakness, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver has called for a recall election against her (this itself is a cynical move, but let’s stick to 10 problems at a time). Caucus management—already tough—will now be tougher.

RELATED: What the B.C. NDP-Green deal means for rest of Canada 

Substantively, even if the dam ends up being good policy, the payoffs won’t be fully realized for years. The target completion date for the project is 2024. Political cycles tend to be short term compared to massive projects. So, the NDP is making a big bet on Site C that they may not be around to collect on. And, of course, if it turns out to be bad policy, it will be an albatross around their necks. Unfair? Sure. That’s politics? Definitely.

Finally, the decision puts a lot of pressure on the NDP to perform on other issues, especially the other central environmental issue for them: the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which they oppose and have promised to fight. Perhaps the Green Party, which is propping up the NDP, will forgive them for Site C, but they can’t forgive them forever without looking (and being) entirely feckless. The same can be said for likely-NDP voters. The government will now be under even more pressure to deliver on its other major campaign promises: proportional representation, housing affordability, affordable childcare, a $15 minimum wage and scrapping medical care premiums.

Despite the Site C decision, the B.C. NDP will live to fight another day. Because of it, though, that fight will be harder—which is the last thing the government needed while in a shaky minority parliament in which every vote counts. Poor old Buridan’s Ass strikes again; and while the NDP chose not to starve to death, they might end up dead anyway.


Why approving Site C is the B.C. NDP’s first serious political blunder

  1. “And, of course, if it turns out to be bad policy, it will be an albatross around their [NDP] necks. Unfair? Sure. That’s politics? Definitely.”

    That’s letting the previous Liberal government off lightly. The Liberals green-lighted Site C without a British Columbia Utilities Commission review. The NDP have since had the review done and it shows that Site C is far from being a slam dunk – in fact, the BCUC refused to make a recommendation on how to proceed now, due to the variableness of input parameters (e.g. electricity demand). From what I gather there is no obvious way forward and you could almost toss a coin to decide. So, in my books, the lion’s share of blame for this mess belongs to the previous Liberal government for not having the review done in the first place.

  2. The BCNDP government did not have a “tough” decision. They had committed to the review and recommendation by the BCUC which clearly said kill it. Suggesting that it’s a split decision is like saying the science on climate change is still in doubt. No – Horgan capitulated to a gang of old dinosaurs who, it appears still run the show at the BCNDP. The party gave up on democracy a number of years ago and the hegemonic inner circle took over. Many of these folks are old big union activists, who don’t even have the smarts to realize that the few jobs they are saving are not benefiting BC workers. This is a clear case of the inner circle fighting for power and control. The “James Gang” is back in charge of the BC UnDP and Horgan’s capitulation is a serious mistake which will cost the party many many votes. John campaigned to be “BOLD” but his first major opportunity resulted in wissy-assed capitulation to internal cronies. A very bad move.

    • The BCUC review did not clearly say to kill Site C. It explicitly does not recommend either terminating or completing Site C (although it does implicitly recommend against suspending it). From reading the summary, the conclusion is that it’s currently not possible to make a reliable decision.

      The full report is at: h$$p://www.sitecinquiry.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/A-24_Final-Report_Errata.pdf

      This is the summary from the report:
      We have not been asked to make recommendations or to identify which option has the highest cost to ratepayer or more significant implications than others. Nevertheless, we have provided our view that not only is the suspension scenario the greatest cost to ratepayers of the three scenarios, it also has other negative implications.

      We take no position on which of the termination or completion scenarios has the greatest cost to ratepayers. The Illustrative Alternative Portfolio we have analyzed, in the low-load forecast case, has a similar cost to ratepayers as Site C. If Site C finishes further over budget, it will tend to be more costly than the Illustrative Alternative Portfolio is for ratepayers. If a higher load forecast materializes, the cost to ratepayers for Site C will be less than the Illustrative Alternative Portfolio.

      We have provided a discussion of the risk implications of each alternative in order to assist in the evaluation.

  3. They should let people sell back to the grid. The tech is there.

    Another case of short term government thinking. We’re going to need the land.

    What about the people downstream? How about the animals who rely on the Peace corridor?

    Hold a plebiscite. Let BC’ers decide whether they want to eat the costs already incurred.

  4. The green party will support the NDP long enough to change the electoral system to PR and then they will bring the government down. That would be the smart move.