What happens next in B.C. - Macleans.ca

What happens next in B.C.

The Greens and NDP now have a window to change the government of B.C.—but it’s about to slam shut.

B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver is joined by elected party member Sonia Furstenau to speak to media in the rose garden following election results in Victoria, B.C., on Wednesday, May 14, 2017. British Columbia entered a new stage of political uncertainty Wednesday as the final vote count from an election held more than two weeks ago confirmed the province's first minority government in 65 years. But with the balance of power firmly in his grasp, Green Leader Andrew Weaver indicated he wants to end the confusion that has gripped the province since May 9 by trying to reach a deal with either the Liberals or the NDP on a minority government by next Wednesday. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

Andrew Weaver says he wants to end the uncertainty over who will govern B.C. by reaching a deal with either the NDP or Liberals by Wednesday. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

So the recounts are over in the super-tight British Columbia provincial election, with no changes to the seat count: 43 Liberals, 41 NDP, 3 Green. It’s obvious that (Greens + anybody else) = viable majority in the 87-seat legislature. So now what?

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, no fool, is speaking to both parties, trying to maximize his advantage. Liberal leader Christy Clark says she’ll advise the lieutenant-governor by Wednesday whether she intends to try to form a government. I’d be astonished if she didn’t try: she has more seats than any other party, and is said to be politically ambitious. And she’s talking like someone who plans to tough it out: “With 43 B.C. Liberal candidates elected as MLAs, and a plurality in the legislature, we have a responsibility to move forward and form a government,” she said in a media release.

But Weaver is also talking to NDP leader John Horgan. And in a statement Wednesday, he said he looks forward to working “with both other parties,” which sounds, for the time being at least, like the distinct absence of a preference between them.

Now here’s what I need you to understand: the two cases—Greens+Liberals and Greens+NDP—are not symmetrical. The next government is not a coin toss or a Schrödinger box. There is, indeed, no “next government”—there is, still today, a Liberal government in B.C. Christy Clark gets to keep governing as long as she’s able. And the other parties have a very narrow window for replacing her without another election.

This is what’s meant by people who say the incumbent head of government has the right to “test the House” (or I guess the legislature, this being provincial politics). The government dissolves the legislature, a strange thing called an election happens and then everyone comes back in and the government gets to govern some more— unless in the interim, the government resigns and lets another government have its chance.

Now, it’s almost always so obvious who’s won an election that the resignation happens on election night or in the days after. Stephen Harper could have returned from the 2015 federal election and tried to present a Throne Speech and a legislative agenda, but pretty soon the Liberals would have said, Hey now, we outnumber you 184 to 99, stop that. Even in narrower cases, the loser still loses. Paul Martin was still the incumbent prime minister on the night of the 2006 election, and his Liberals plus Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc would have outnumbered the Harper Conservatives, but that was ridiculous and Martin resigned on election night.

RELATED: Why the B.C. Green party should be wary of a coalition

It’s when things are very close that this notion of “testing the House (or legislative assembly)” starts to matter a lot. Take Quebec in 2007. Jean Charest’s Liberals lost 28 seats and wound up with 48 to 41 for Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique. The PQ had a great big 36-seat balance of power. It would have been easy for the PQ to withhold confidence in Charest’s government and cook some deal to make Dumont the premier. Easy, but galling for the prideful PQ, so they passed, and Charest got to keep governing.

Well, surely at some point the PQ could have changed their minds and withdrawn support for Charest? Yes— but the convention, or deeply entrenched habit of things, is that opposition parties don’t have forever to get their acts together and propose an alternative government. In fact, they don’t have very long at all. They basically get one chance to propose an alternative to the incumbents and test that alternative in a confidence vote. And they don’t even get to decide when that vote happens, because it happens immediately whether they’re ready or not.

This is a little more confusing, so it helps to remember the odd events after the 2008 federal election. Stephen Harper won a plurality of the seats, again, as in 2006. Liberals plus NDP plus Bloc, together, outnumbered him, although their hand was so weak that it took almost all of those three caucuses to do so. Jack Layton tried to persuade his opponents in the other opposition parties to do something bold, fast. They shrugged him off. It wasn’t until five weeks later that they decided to co-ordinate.

But by then it was already too late to simply write to the Governor General and replace Harper with Stéphane Dion. As the Conservatives immediately started reminding everyone, the opposition parties had voted in such a way as not to defeat the government on its throne speech. So they had effectively acknowledged its legitimacy to govern.

Harper promptly asked the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, to prorogue the House rather than holding the confidence vote Dion was demanding. She obliged. Even though what he was asking was highly dubious and entirely self-serving.

FILE--NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe shake hands as Liberal leader Stephane Dion looks on after signing agreements on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Mon Dec. 1, 2008. Whether you're talking about the Conservatives' partisan, stink-bomb-laden fall economic update or the unlikely and unloved opposition coalition it helped spawn, risk, recklessness and uncertainty are the orders of the day as our federal politicians lurch into 2009. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

From left: Layton, Dion and Duceppe after signing their agreements to co-operate in December 2008. (Adrian Wyld/CP)


People who never liked Harper are still mad at Jean for doing his bidding. But it is the GG’s job (or the LG’s job in a provincial capital) to do what the head of government asks. It’s called responsible government. We had a whole crisis over it in 1849. Ask your kids.

So can Clark govern forever without a worry? No. Her government can fall at any time to a confidence vote, but if it falls any time after the very first few days it governs, convention demands that the legislature be dissolved and the question be put to the voters in a new election.

That’s why the anti-Harper coalition fell apart by early 2009: its leaders knew they couldn’t defend what they were doing in an election, and the GG had already signalled she wouldn’t hand power to them without a new election.

But the best demonstration of this notion is the Ontario provincial election of 1985. The province’s eternal Progressive Conservative government, now in the hands of cheerful Frank Miller, fell to 52 seats. The Liberals under David Peterson had 48—so close. The NDP under Bob Rae had the whip hand with 25 seats. Miller prepared to govern. Naturally assumed he’d be able to govern with no problem. But the Liberals and NDP cooked a deal whereby Peterson could govern as premier and the NDP would promise not to withdraw confidence in this new government for two years.

What’s crucial to remember is that the deal was concluded immediately, before Miller could present a throne speech, and that while Miller managed to avoid holding a vote in the legislature for several days, the first vote on amendments to the throne speech was the chance Liberals and NDP needed to vote against the Conservatives. And David Peterson became premier. Miller had threatened to call an election, but decided against it.

So the window for replacing an incumbent government without an election is very short. It is probably measured in a small number of weeks, and in a single vote in the legislature.

RELATED: The next few days in B.C. politics will be strange and fun

People who don’t like the incumbent government will assume the lieutenant-governor’s job is to figure out some way to stop it. But don’t blame Judith Guichon, the LG of B.C. I’ve never met her, but I can tell you how she will order her priorities. She will take her counsel from the premier. If it isn’t clear who the premier is, she will take her counsel from the legislature. If the legislature can’t decide very soon, she will take her counsel from B.C. voters.

And she will have no patience for an extended round of futzing about, because like every modern LG and GG, she will view a new election as vastly preferable to any improvised solution she might dream up. A new election won’t hurt anyone; we have elections all the time in Canada. An Erector-Set government cooked up in Mom’s basement by an improvising viceroy might.

What does this mean for Andrew Weaver? It means that if he wants to work, over any extended period of time at all, with “both other parties,” then he will be working with a Liberal government and an NDP opposition.

If he prefers an NDP government, he needs to make that decision before next Wednesday. He and Horgan need to inform the LG that they are prepared to govern, and at the first vote on any matter in the legislature, they need to vote together against the Liberals. Guichon would take that as her cue that the election actually changed the situation, and she would invite Horgan to form a government. But that would be Horgan’s only chance, until the next election, whether that came in two months or four years.

There are no guarantees. But the strong advantage is Christy Clark’s.



What happens next in B.C.

  1. This shows the ineffectiveness in our present system of voting. The people spoke clearly, with 60% wanting a different government and only 40% satisfied with Christy Clark and her Liberals. She may think she has the right to form (or try to form) government, and constitutionally she may have that option, but it is still not democratic. When the majority of the voters want change, she is out to lunch with her corrupt corporate supporters who must indeed be cringing now.

    • Your interpretation of the election is pure rationalization. The lion’s share of reelections in this country, provincial or federal, were won with less than 50% of the electorate voting for the government. In many cases, governments have won reelections with majorities despite getting less than 40%, including Harper in 2011 and Chretien in 1997 federally, Wynne in 2014 in ON, and Glen Clark in 1996 in BC. It’s simply irrelevant that the majority voted for someone else. People don’t get to vote against something; they have to vote FOR something – a credible and legitimate alternative – because someone needs to govern. The simple fact is that Clark’s BCLs won the plurality of the popular vote and seats, so more people were willing to give her the chance to govern than any of the other parties. If the 40% popular vote matters, it should also be pointed out that nearly 60% voted against the NDP, who won a lesser vote share than they did in 1979, 1983, 1986, 2005 or 2009 when they also lost. Even though it’s irrelevant, I don’t think it can be said that 60% “clearly” wanted a different government. Some like myself voted Green strategically in a South Island district where the BCLs had no chance; in some cases, the Greens were our first choice but we’d prefer they work with the BCLs. I’m sure many others held their noses and voted BCL despite wanting a change. What matters is we voted FOR viable candidates and parties. And the MLA’s have to decide what is in the best interests of and what best reflects the will of the electorate.

    • How is this process not democratic?

      If 60% truly want a different government, then the opposition parties clearly have the number of seats necessary to defeat the Liberals in a matter of days. The problem is that this 60% do not agree who should form the next government, and therein lies the problem.

      Over 300,000 British Columbians decided to give the Green Party the power to decide who the next government will be. That’s the definition of representative democracy.

  2. The historical context is interesting, but there are a lot of conclusions here that are contrary to Weaver’s explicit statements yesterday. He said he recognizes the electorate does not want another election and is looking for a long-term agreement of at least 2 years, indicated willingness for 3 or 4. He also said he’s been inundated with messages from the public advising the Greens what to do (not to mention the 25000 signatures requesting an NDP-Green coalition), and that he hopes to have a deal in place with one party by next Wednesday. Horgan was confident the NDP can make an agreement with the Greens, expressing common ground on the 2 deal-breaker issues for the Greens – electoral and party finance reform. I don’t see how any of this translates to a strong advantage for Clark. If she wants to govern, she needs to come up with a better deal with the Greens than the NDP can offer, which probably means pretty much abandoning the entire BC Liberal agenda and offering proportional representation without a referendum (the NDP will probably play hard ball over the referendum). If somehow this all crumbles and there’s another election, I suspect the Greens lose a lot of support for playing their hand wrong, and the Liberals continue to falter under Clark’s questionable leadership. The finances favor the Liberals, but the NDP could probably scrounge up the cash to challenge for a majority in a couple months, whereas the Greens have limited fundraising capacity if they wont take union or corporate donations. The balance is complex, but if anyone has an advantage, I’d say it’s the NDP.

    And what the heck happened in 1849 in the United Province of Canada? Google gives me nothing of note regarding the GG and responsible govt. King-Byng was in 1926…

    • The Rebellion Losses Bill of 1849. A significant number of people pressured Lord Elgin, the Governor General at the time, to deny royal assent to the bill. Despite his own opposition to the bill, he provided royal assent. It was the first big test of Responsible government, affirming that the province had the right to internal self-government (and that the governor general is bound by convention to act on the advice of the government).

  3. If Mr. Weaver props up the corrupt BC Liberal regime he has effectively gutted much of the support within his own party.
    I do anticipate a coalition of any sort here but rather an NDP-green working agreement for one or more years.

    • Weaver is a pragmatist. If he chooses not to form a coalition or enter into an Accord with Horgan’s NDP, then it’s probably due to a lack of mutual trust, respect or concession. The entitled attitude that “60% voted against the government” or threats that the Greens will suffer if they don’t prop up the NDP probably work against any sort of deal. It ultimately takes two sides to reach an agreement, and the NDP are giving Weaver plenty of reasons not to.

  4. Krusty ambitions are to run for the Federal Liberal Leadership once Canadians catch on to J T … she figures if the the rest of Canada is as stupid as the BC voter..she’s a shoe in to be the next Canadian despot..sorry PM

  5. These election results clearly demonstrate the polarity of BC politics. Time is ripe for a middle of the road party. The Liberals are to tied to big business, the NDP to the unions and the Greens are to green. The province needs a political approach that will incorporate all three side into one unified approach to managing BC. Any takers?

    • Please explain. Do you mean a party that is anti-big business, anti-union and anti-green, or a party that is pro-big business, pro-union and pro-green?

      • You gave very poignantly hit the nail on the head. A middle of the road party would be neither for or against business, union or green political agendas. They would consider the value of any proposal and make a decision based on various criteria that is funded by neither big business, unions or ecological ideologies. But what is good for British Columbians now and in the future.

  6. We need to get the pipeline built. Pipeline is the safest way to ship oil. The oil will be shipped in any case, in trains or trucks, both of which are far more dangerous to the public and environment than a pipeline. Those who are so opposed to petroleum do not realize how much we use it every single day in our lives. Think plastic, and look around you at all the plastic you use each day. Plastic uses petroleum.