Featured image via Chad Hipolito, CP.
By Richard Forbes.
Seated together at Westhills Stadium, the BC NDP’s John Horgan and the BC Green’s Andrew Weaver watched New Zealand beat Canada, 17-7, at the World Rugby Sevens Series this Sunday. The topic of the hour between Horgan and Weaver? Not politics, we were assured. An assurance that was hard to believe then and harder still the next afternoon when it was announced the BC Greens had agreed to support Horgan’s NDPs in a minority government, effectively setting the stage for the toppling of Premier Christy Clark and a dramatic end to sixteen years in government for her BC Liberals. “In the end, we had to make a difficult decision,” Weaver explained to journalists, defending his party’s choice to support the NDP over the Liberals.
This quagmire is a result of last month’s tantalizingly close election in British Columbia. With Christy Clark’s BC Liberals winning 43 seats to the NDP’s 41, Clark has the right to the first opportunity to form government but the BC Greens’ breakthrough in Vancouver Island – delivering them three seats in total – gives the Greens the balance of power in parliament. A balance of power they’ve chosen to exercise in supporting the NDP.
To reach such a four year arrangement, the BC Greens and NDP have struck a deal – the details of which have trickled out over the course of the week. Perhaps the most sensational of those details is the agreement of both parties to support a third BC referendum on electoral reform to take place next year and to campaign together in support of a proportional electoral system that’s been mutually agreed upon; this electoral system, along with receiving the approval of both parties, is expected to be the product of considerable public consultation and input.
For those aware of the history behind the past referendums in the province, such a deal should ring as melodious as a symphony. Even in the case of the first referendum, when 57.69% of BC respondents voted in favour of BC-STV (less than 3% shy of the binding threshold), the referendum was mired by a reluctance on the Campbell government’s part to campaign in favour of the proposed changes. Undoubtedly, a referendum where the government and its partners are actively in favour of the proposal will bring a different tone to the conversation than in the 2009 and 2005 referendums or indeed any Canadian electoral reform referendum.
A breakthrough for electoral reform in BC could mean breakthroughs for electoral reform across the country at the provincial, federal and municipal level. Successes for electoral reform have often shown to be politically precarious, with the Trudeau Liberals backing out of their electoral reform pledge earlier this year, PEI dismissing the results of a provincial referendum last year (in which mixed proportional representation won), and Toronto city council reversing its plans unexpectedly to adopt a ranked ballot. Given the unique circumstances of this situation, however, cooperative activism on the part of the BC Greens and the NDP could bring about a solid execution on electoral reform that’s until now remained elusive elsewhere in Canada.
Beyond electoral reform, the BC Greens and the NDP also have their collective sights set on introducing a ban on corporate, union and foreign donations to political parties while placing limits on personal contributions. A democratic overhaul fit for the government it seeks to replace. Under Christy Clark’s tenure as premier, BC has earned itself a new epitaph in the New York Times, “The ‘Wild West’ of Canadian Political Cash.” Indeed, recounting all of the scandals attributing to the BC Liberals would be impossible here.
Just in the past few months alone, some $477K in corporate donations to the BC Liberals have been attributed to American softwood lumber (Weyerhaeuser) and land developers ($236K from Malaysia’s Holborn Holdings, reportedly – plus $400K from Peter Wall), the BC Liberals have also been accused of favouring donors over non-donors for road maintenance contracts by as much as two to one, and a recent court petition has accused the BC Liberals of accepting $560K in political donations from Kinder Morgan and oil shippers related to the prospective Trans Mountain project.
Now certainly, the arrangement this bargain seeks to establish carries with it complications. From an intergovernmental perspective, together the BC Greens and the NDP will challenge the careful weave of interests that’s be tied between the federal government, BC, the oil and gas industry and its neighbor, Alberta, in their opposition to the Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain extension (which has already been federally approved) and their hopes to forward the Site C hydroelectic dam project to the B.C. Utilities Commission for review. From a constitutional perspective, the lack of a non-NDP or Green house speaker could also be problematic because if a speaker follows conventional practice in abstaining on legislation, the NDP and the Greens would be tied with the Liberals: 43-43. That is, if a BC Liberal doesn’t accept the speaker position.
However, those accusing Horgan and Weaver of playing fast and loose with the political rules in toppling Clark’s minority government ought to first consider the extent to which the premier herself has exploited the vacuum of the kind of political finance rules central to a functioning democracy. Whereas, Horgan and Weaver are – broadly speaking – following through with a legitimate application of Westminster governance in minority situations and practicing democracy as it was meant to be practiced, Clark and her party have participated over the years in a painful mockery of how an “open” democracy is practiced: that is, open to people, not cash. On Clark’s part, proposing an independent panel on political financing only after winning an election on those same rules was a comically insufficient response to the public’s concerns. If a lesson in constitutional practices – a cross-party bargain – is necessary to salvage the province’s democracy, so be it. The source of inspiration for this democratic reform deserves everything it’s sowed politically, including its stillborn minority government.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.