The distinction between politics and the political is subtle. But sometimes an issue or policy proposal will bring the difference between the two into stark relief. Take, for example, the recent chatter about housing policy in British Columbia. As elected officials scramble to address the overheated housing market, the latest supposed policy miracle comes from B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, who recently suggested a ban on foreign real-estate buyers. He argues that a foreign buyer’s tax is insufficient to curb the effects of money on the housing market, and the province should take the road that New Zealand has recently decided to travel.
Weaver rather smartly pointed out that housing ought not to be a commodity. He’s been on this message for months, and his commitment to the matter is, no doubt, genuine. In October, in the legislature, he peppered Finance Minister Carole James with questions, and one interrogation included a compelling preamble: “There’s a lot of foreign capital out there looking for a safe place to park money in these tumultuous times. Foreign investors have turned to our real estate sector, thereby turning our houses and land into commodities for investing in speculation, not living in or working on. Our residents are paying a social cost, as they can’t afford to live in the places that they work.”
James indicated that she and the minister of housing were looking at “both the demand and the supply side” of the issue, noted that speculation needs to be dealt with, and deferred to February when the budget comes out.
That was October. This time around, when Weaver floated the idea, Premier John Horgan replied with a rather bizarre and tone-deaf rejoinder: banning foreign buyers sends the wrong signal to investors, and besides, he, Horgan, is…the child of an immigrant. Pardon me?
That was a few days ago. Since then I have searched for the specific connection between foreign buyers and immigration. Weaver’s proposal is not to ban immigrants from buying homes. Indeed, boxing out new British Columbians from the market is precisely contrary to the point of the proposed ban. The idea is to make affordable housing available for those who live here.
That was me trying to make sense of the matter by thinking about it as merely political. Something is political when we disagree about what ought to be done, which is often. In a pluralist and free society, we will disagree all the time. We will disagree on how to address problems. Hell, we will disagree about whether problems are even problems in the first place. Taking the political seriously is how you help get good policy based on reflection, evidence, and deep public buy-in.
But there’s more to our democratic life, as well there should be. At some point, when an issue is a problem, there is an urge to just do something. In a partisan democratic system, this is where we meet the negligible-seeming but important difference between what’s political and what’s politics.
In the case of something being political, we’re talking about how we want to live together. That includes disagreement, conceptions of the good, ideas about freedom and responsibility, and so forth. When we’re talking about politics, we’re referencing something closer to the partisan struggle over praise, blame, reward, punishment, winning, losing, bargaining, framing, party identity, what’s possible, what’s impossible, and all the trappings of the ongoing game of Orange versus Green versus Red. Naturally, we mix politics and the political all the time. Understanding the terrain of a province or country, however, requires understanding where the two diverge and where they converge, and how and why they do.
After the election last May, the B.C. Liberals held a minority of seats in the legislature, tried to form government, failed, and were replaced by the NDP who were—and remain—supported by the three-member Green caucus. This gives the New Democrats a precarious grip on government. In that election, the Greens went from one seat to three. Now, they have their eyes set on becoming a permanent greater-than-one-member fixture in the legislature. Part of their long-term survival depends on building the party and, one imagines, that requires forestalling an election—for now. That means the Greens must support the NDP on some important legislation while extracting as much value from them as possible, in a relationship not dissimilar to that of a parasite and a host, except in this case, the host needs the parasite. (Come to think of it, perhaps both sides are parasitic upon one another.)
But the Greens must also distance and distinguish themselves from the New Democrats. The Green and Orange brands can’t be mixed, lest we get some admixture that no one can identify. There is a standing agreement between the two parties—a confidence and supply agreement, or CASA—that sets out the terms of support and cooperation but leaves plenty of room for the Greens to remain, as they are, an opposition party. For their part, the NDP needs to maintain its independence. The party can’t be seen as kowtowing to the Greens. They have to own key issues, such as housing. They have to stamp such things with the NDP brand. Enter: politics.
If you’re Andrew Weaver, and you recognize that housing is a controversial and persistent policy area, you see an opportunity. You seize upon a dramatic potential solution, and you do something and you keep at it. You continue to go to that well, because it’s where you find the water needed to prolong your life, and you once again raise the idea of a ban on foreign buyers—which to many on the Pacific coast is racially charged code for “Chinese”—just days before the premier and a delegation fly to Asia on a trade mission. You do that whether it’s the best policy or not.
If you’re John Horgan, you do whatever it takes to avoid upsetting any orthodoxy that might make you unpalatable to centrist voters. You hog the middle and you tweak this or that and hope you can get something done without becoming…scary. You make sure that the best ideas are your own or, at least, perceived to be your own. From time to time, perhaps, you pat the Greens on the head, as if they were your quirky but precocious younger sibling. But you don’t ever hand them a major policy win.
Perhaps the foreign-investment ban is a good idea. Perhaps not. There is insufficient data to know at this point what such a change would mean for B.C., especially since we don’t yet know what will happen in New Zealand. But, for now, that’s beside the point. Because, today, that’s politics.
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