Martyn Brown: The state of play in B.C. politics

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      Desperate times call for desperate measures. Such is the state of play for the B.C. Liberals as 2017 rapidly rolls to a close.

      The poor buggers. It’s bad enough they blew the election and humiliated themselves with the ludicrous “clone speech” that cost Christy Clark her job and punctuated their tortured march to the ignominy of opposition.

      Yet the real rub is this: after five months in office, despite some relatively minor missteps and the slow pace of progress on some key files like housing, child care, and the $15 minimum wage, Premier John Horgan’s NDP government has mostly exceeded expectations.

      So has its working relationship with Andrew Weaver’s B.C. Greens. They have also performed admirably, in holding the government to account in opposition, while proving themselves to be constructive and compelling partners in a legislative alliance that is building public confidence in B.C.’s first minority government in the last 65 years and 17 elections.

      It’s still early days, I know, to be rushing to judgment on the new government’s performance. The real test will come soon enough, with next year’s budget and legislative session, with a new Liberal leader in place, and with the referendum next fall on electoral reform.

      Nevertheless, Horgan has been a model of principled, pragmatic leadership, ably supported by a mostly impressive cabinet.

      His government has thus far projected all that its partisan opposites claimed the NDP would never offer: intelligence, competence, strength, stability, pragmatism, professionalism, experience, prudence, compassion, and perhaps above all, humility.

      Most of those adjectives would equally apply to Team Weaver, which has already done more to institutionalize the Green Party as a smart, viable, and refreshingly cooperative force for progressive change than any of its Canadian counterparts have done.

      To most British Columbians and Canadians, Horgan’s New Democrats have come across as anything but the starry-eyed, job-killing, tax-happy, fiscally irresponsible, “socialist radicals” that the Liberals had long branded them as being.

      If anything, the Horgan administration has been innately cautious and consultative—arguably, to a fault. Its tepid first steps on the lobbyist rules and restrictions, for example, appear to be more concerned with protecting the advantages of NDP insiders than with promptly acting on the specific reforms that the Registrar of Lobbyists long ago recommended. 

      Andrew Weaver and John Horgan have held things together in B.C.'s first minority government in 65 years.

      Like any new government, the NDP has missed the mark on a few measures, from its glacial response to the affordable housing crisis, to its pseudo “ban” on grizzly trophy hunting, to its broken promise on the role of public subsidies in campaign finance reform. (See related stories.)

      It reneged on its election promise to bring ride-hailing to B.C. by the end of this year. And although the NDP has honoured its commitment to facilitate a provincewide vote on proportional representation, its shoddy referendum process has been rightly and widely criticized by academics and pundits alike.

      The chickens may yet come home to roost on those issues, along with its imminent decision on the Site C dam, whichever way it goes, and with the unpopular changes that will have to be taken to put ICBC back in the black. The pot file is also a tough one, guaranteed to generate criticism, however deftly the NDP continues to manage that transition to legalize nonmedical cannabis, next July.

      As new governments go, however, the NDP’s first crack at governing in 16 years has mostly gone swimmingly. And all the more so because of how it has defied the Liberals’ low expectations, as it has also put the lie to their false claims about the NDP and exposed their own ineptitude on everything from the blight of foreign money laundering to ICBC’s current path to insolvency.

      For the most part, the GreeNDP alliance has offered new hope to the 57 percent of voters who supported those parties. Most of us are elated that the NDP is methodically honouring the election promises that formed the basis of its power-sharing agreement with the Greens.

      Even many traditional Liberal voters are happy with the NDP’s early actions on a wide array of issues that begged for government leadership. They include the following:

      • Raising income assistance rates.
      • Banning big money in provincial and local politics.
      • Eliminating tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges.
      • Fighting the environmentally reckless Kinder Morgan project.
      • Standing up for B.C.’s forest industry on the softwood lumber dispute.
      • Restoring the Human Rights Commission.
      • Temporarily freezing Hydro rates.
      • Strengthening environmental assessments.
      • Minimizing this year’s unavoidable ICBC rate hikes.
      • Restoring free Adult Basic Education and English Language Learning.
      • Cutting MSP premiums by 50 percent, effective January 1.
      • Restoring the annual B.C. Bus Pass, through a new $52 per month disability-assistance supplement.
      • Closing the loophole on fixed-term leases, to limit rent increases and to restrict the abuse of vacate clauses.
      • Increasing funding for the Residential Tenancy Branch, to better protect renters’ rights.
      • Boosting education funding by $681 million over three years.
      • Working with Metro Vancouver mayors to advance their transportation and public transit priorities.
      • Hiring 3,500 more teachers.
      • Combatting distracted driving, with tough new penalties.
      • Boosting support for rural communities and for wildfire recovery and prevention initiatives.
      • Cutting the small business income tax rate by 20 percent.
      • Aggressively supporting B.C.’s technology industry.
      • Embracing and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to promote real reconciliation.
      • Dedicating $322 million to fight the devastating fentanyl crisis. 
      • Renewing B.C.’s leadership on climate action and the carbon tax.
      • Ending all grizzly bear hunting in the Great Bear Rainforest.

      All of that and more has been initiated within the context of a balanced budget that has bolstered job creation, maintained B.C.’s triple-A credit rating, and strengthened investor confidence in B.C.’s economy, which continues to be among the strongest in Canada.

      Politically, whatever fallout ensues from the NDP’s Site C decision, I predict it won’t do much to diminish that progress in most voters’ minds. For much as it might pain the very vocal detractors of that project, if it is given the green light, or pisses off its mostly passive supporters, if it is given the red light, either way, it’s a decision that is unlikely to be a major vote-changer in 2021.

      Heresy! I know, for the passionate tweeters and others who have fought so hard to convince Horgan of their position, with all manner of political threats and arguments. Yet the fact remains, whatever its very real material import, the fate of Site C is not an issue on the scale of others, like affordable housing or the NDP’s promises on childcare, that is a burning concern for the masses.

      B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Sam Sullivan once referred to Christy Clark as "God".
      Yolande Cole

      Even if Horgan approves Site C, as I expect he will, most voters who want a centre-left government won’t be dissuaded from re-electing the GreeNDP when push comes to shove. And more than a handful of soft Liberal voters might welcome that decision.

      To the extent that those swing voters are otherwise content with the NDP’s more socially progressive policy agenda, they may well flock in even greater numbers to support the Horgan government. If an election were held today, the NDP would slaughter the competition and win a massive majority.

      All of which must be really rotting the Liberals’ tattered, red Christmas socks. Especially since their party leadership contest has done so little to generate public interest or attention.

      At this point, none of the six leadership contenders look like the answer to the Liberals’ prayers. They are all about as convincing as Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character, staring diffidently into the mirror, repeating their daily affirmation, “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”

      Sam Sullivan, anybody? Ah…no. Don’t think so. Not the guy who once gushed that Christy Clark was “God”; the man who so bombed as Vancouver’s mayor, he promptly lost his bid to lead the NPA a second time to a challenge from a fellow councillor within the NPA. In any case, he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the leadership contest.

      Michael Lee? ZZZZ.

      Wait, who’s that? Oh yes, the Vancouver Langara MLA of mostly backroom fame, as a former lawyer and one-time aide to Canada’s infamous and decidedly unLiberal, Progressive Conservative prime minister, Kim Campbell.

      He is the “outsider” whom über insider, Mark Marissen—Christy Clark’s ex-husband and political Svengali—is pushing as a fresh face. Doesn’t exactly scream “new” to me, having Clark’s guru at Lee’s side, however formidable Marissen’s organizational skills are once again showing to be. Plus, Lee voted for Clark’s “clone speech”, so anything he or his elected Liberal colleagues say must be taken with a grain of salt.

      Vancouver-Langara MLA Michael Lee is being marketed by old political warhorses as a fresh face in the B.C. Liberal leadership race.

      What about Surrey’s Queen Conservative, Dianne Watts? By all accounts, she is bombing badly as a Liberal, with nary a Liberal caucus member supporting her bid to become Christy Clark 2.0.

      “Waffling Watts”, as she has been fairly dubbed, wasn’t even a party member until she was convinced by a senior Tory contingent that Clark’s abdicated crown would be hers for the taking. Sorry Norman Stowe and Patrick Kinsella, but this time your old, backroom black magic won’t work.

      Watts has already shown that she is in way over her head on virtually every policy field at the provincial level. Platitudes about “vision”, when she so obviously lacks one, might be enough to win the B.C. Liberal leadership, however less likely that now seems. But Watts lacks the other qualities necessary to successfully compete with Horgan, at least at this stage.

      Christy Clark won on charisma, energy, “star power”, and the semblance of vision on LNG, dishonest as it was. Watts’s low-wattage leadership effort is by comparison pretty dim and readily ignorable.

      In the end, perhaps Watts’s greatest contribution will be to indirectly help federal Liberal candidate Gordie Hogg to replace her in Ottawa. My guess is he will win that South Surrey-White Rock by-election in a landslide, as Trudeau sweeps all four of the December 11 by-elections.

      Mike de Jong? I must admit, he’s the candidate I know and like the best on a personal level, so I’m more than a bit biased.

      Whatever one thinks of his ideological approach to government, in my firsthand experience over 13 years, he was probably the most principled, consistent, rational, reasonable, and politically astute minister at Gordon Campbell’s cabinet table. And a load of laughs, to boot, as anyone who has heard his Karaoke rendition of "Mac the Knife" can attest.

      He easily mastered every portfolio he was assigned—forestry, Aboriginal relations and reconciliation, labour and citizens’ services, attorney general, and under Clark, health and finance.

      As a lawyer with a keen eye for detail, de Jong actually read his briefing materials and the new laws that government was proposing, which is more than I can say about many cabinet members. He was a superb chair of the government’s legislative review committee.

      Former finance minister Mike de Jong's legendary frugality didn't endear him to the left, but he has handled several cabinet portfolios with competence.

      Stuart Smalley’s got nothing on “Michael”, as his leadership campaign initially marketed him, for some weird reason. Although I gather he’s reverted to just “Mike” again. Glasses or no glasses, in any venue or political forum, he truly is good enough, smart enough, and people can’t help but like him. Hence his impressive supportive cast of characters from caucuses past and present.

      Full confession: though I stayed completely out of the Liberals’ last leadership contest and have never before indicated my preference on its crew of candidates, de Jong is the guy that I would have supported in 2011, if I had not been a deputy minister at the time. He has most of the attributes needed to be a great premier, of that I am sure.

      De Jong is also easily the Liberals’ most capable opposition critic and demonstrably skilled parliamentarian. The fact that he is perceived as essentially a so-called Socred “retread”, who is too long at the tooth to revitalize his party, is really his biggest drawback. That and his notorious frugality, which some party members contend cost the Liberals the election.

      As a fiscal hawk, de Jong is divisive, no question. His spending priorities were not and never will be the left’s cup of tea, least of all for those living who are on the fringes, or on income assistance, or for persons with disabilities, all of whom pleaded for needed funding he denied. He is also physically awkward at times and is perhaps too wedded to his own conservative values and old ways to widely resonate in our increasingly progressive political culture.

      But in the house or on the hustings, de Jong would give Horgan a huge run for his money. And as the latter himself proved, the “newness” card is vastly overrated if what really matters most is enough to win the day. When it comes to changing a government, any alternative becomes “new” to some extent.

      Under our existing first-past-the-post electoral system, de Jong would be no pushover as a nouveau “old schooler” who can wow the Liberal party faithful with his colourful homilies, with his hokey “hockeyisms”, with his deep policy knowledge, and with his 5-0 record of balanced budgets.

      That string of rising budget surpluses might mean more in future years, if the NDP’s fiscal management becomes an issue and it’s always a badge of competence for most Liberal swing voters.

      Which brings me to Andrew Wilkinson, a guy I also know fairly well from his time as the Liberal party president and through his various stints as a deputy minister in the Campbell government.

      Like de Jong and Todd Stone, he too has a significant support base from across the province. And like all of the contestants with the exception of Watts, he too must carry the stinky baggage of his past record in government, including voting for Clark’s "clone speech".

      In my experience, he is surely good enough on a professional level to do almost any job. He is certainly smart enough, as he is the first to let you know, in so many ways that make you feel “Smalley” by comparison. His command of policy and all things intellectual is not in doubt.

      But a populist, Andrew ain’t. And doggone it, people do like him, if they can get to know him. But that is no small feat.

      Andrew Wilkinson hopes B.C. Liberal party members swallow his attempts to portray himself as a small-town doctor.

      He is not the type of “people person” that Horgan has shown himself to be, nor a natural leader. As a loner myself, I liked and totally respected the guy, despite his undeniable elitism. Think Pierre Elliot Trudeau without the cape or red rose. But remember his middle finger.

      Wilkinson may look like he is a made-for-TV politician, but he always strikes me as being one quote away from a nuclear meltdown of Kim Campbell-ian proportions.

      What was it she said in her disastrous 1993 campaign that obliterated her Conservative party? “The election is not a time to discuss serious issues.” Wilkinson was probably the only one clapping at the time.

      Proceed at your own risk, Liberals. He does have a strong sense of the province. He is an impressive policy wonk. And he would be the smartest guy in the room at any first ministers’ meeting in Canada. But he would first have to win an election to prove that point. Which would in turn require him to win the hearts and minds of the indifferent masses who will not easily warm to his “ah, shucks, I’m just a rural doc at heart” pitch.

      That leaves Kamloops MLA Todd Stone, the B.C. Liberals’ former transportation minister and one-time junior aide to Gordon Campbell. He is the one who I think will likely triumph on February 3 and who I believe is ultimately his party’s best hope for generational renewal and regional strength in numbers.

      Yes, he would have to answer for his record in government, especially in respect of the Clark government’s failures on rapid transit. But for most British Columbians, he will be an even “newer” face than Horgan was last spring, when he first introduced himself to the casual political observers who really only tune in at election time.

      Again, “newness” is not what matters most, given that only a tiny minority of voters could identify almost any MLA beyond the premier and perhaps their own local representative. Believe me, after only one term in government, only a fraction of B.C. voters knows or cares who the hell Stone is, or who or most of the other Liberal leadership contestants are.

      Name recognition or experience in any past ministerial portfolio is not necessarily determinative of how any of those candidates might fare in a provincial election four years hence.

      What matters most is relatability: the capacity for forging human connections through all forms of communication—physical, verbal, visual, and otherwise. That is the eternal key to winning voter trust and support, along with a compelling vision and message.

      Todd Stone represents generational change, which some B.C. Liberals might see as an asset against John Horgan.

      I predict that Stone will win the Liberal leadership, firstly, because he is well-organized and broadly supported in every region of the province. That is critical to winning the Liberal leadership race.

      The party's leadership voting system provides 100 “points” apiece to each of the province’s 87 ridings. Those points in each riding are allocated to each of the leadership candidates in proportion to their share of the vote (e.g. a candidate with 30 percent of the vote would get 30 points—something the proponents of proportional representation would do well to remember in next fall’s referendum!)

      A preferential ballot system further provides all party members the right to also register their second, third, or other choices, in the event that no candidate wins 50 per cent + one vote on the first ballot.

      If no one passes that majority threshold after one vote, the voters’ second choices are distributed on a second ballot. That process continues for as many ballots as necessary to elect a candidate who has won a majority of points.

      To win, a candidate needs to earn the most points of the 8,700 total allocated points across B.C. Winning a single region, even the densely populated Metro Vancouver region, is not enough to win the Liberal leadership. The victor will need broad geographic and diverse demographic support, which usually favours longtime party stalwarts, not party newbies like Watts.

      I will bet that Stone will earn the edge, if his get-out-the-vote effort is up to snuff. With his own organizational background and his strong contingent of young B.C. Liberals and rural volunteers, I like his odds.

      Put simply, Stone stands out from the rest of the pack and contrasts well with Horgan. His regional and generational appeal are strong assets, as is his past success as a technology company founder and entrepreneur. His brand screams “new economy” and resource development, even if his pedigree and politics ooze “business as usual”.

      His website is a testament to his communication skills. Within a few clicks, anyone interested can see the many faces of his support network, his clear positions on many issues, and something most of his competition fails to communicate: his reason for running for the job.

      Best of all, from my perspective, he was the first Liberal candidate to put his party’s money where his mouth is on campaign finance reform. To his credit, Stone has vowed that if he is elected party leader, the Liberals won’t accept “a penny of the NDP’s planned taxpayer subsidy”.

      As I have argued before in previous columns in the Straight, this could be a major vote-winning issue in the Liberals’ bid to reject proportional representation next fall.

      More than any of his fellow leadership contestants, Stone also knows a thing or two about marketing. He is adept at getting media attention and his largely populist agenda is more in touch with the times than any of his competitors’ platforms, or lack of same (Watts’ up, Dianne?).

      Could he beat Horgan? Not if proportional representation wins the day, in the referendum next November. But quite possibly if an election is called before 2021, or if it is fought on our current electoral system. Stone is hands-down the B.C. Liberals’ most telegenic, relatively youthful, and best communicator, which in this day in age is nine-tenths of the battle.

      In short, the GreeNDP should hope the Liberals don’t choose Stone, or perhaps even de Jong, and that they ultimately opt for Wilkinson or Watts.

      The latter, in particular, would have a tough time keeping her party united after how she has played up the inside-vs.-outside divisions that have so alienated the B.C. Liberal caucus.

      If Christy Clark thought she had a rough go in caucus in the run-up to the 2013 election, it was a cake-walk compared to what would await Watts. Especially if proportional representation passes, which will surely work to splinter the Liberals’ dubious coalition.

      The main thing that kept Clark’s forces united was the power they held. Watts would have few tools to consolidate her hold on those disgruntled caucus members and small-l liberals who aren’t keen on her, for any number of reasons.

      Hell, she might not even manage to find anyone willing to surrender their seat in the legislature, to facilitate her election. And as things stand, it would have to be a very safe Liberal seat indeed for her to win it.

      As I said at the outset, desperate times call for desperate measures, and no one looks more desperate right now than Watts appears as her candidacy has unravelled, largely by her own hand. The Liberals, too, are desperate for cash, and will become more so if Stone prevails.

      Indeed, they must be in deep doo-doo to think that I, of all people, would want to cut them a cheque. I mean, I haven’t exactly been their greatest cheerleader over the last five-plus years; yet they still keep sending me fundraising letters and asking me for money.

      The latest appeal arrived in my mailbox this week. For a split second, I thought it might be a Christmas card from interim Liberal leader Rich Coleman, for not writing anything about him or his deposed party in quite a while. Nope.

      But you can credit that letter for motivating this long missive.

      “A letter from the next B.C. Liberal leader”, its headline announced. It was laser-signed by all six leadership candidates, with Wilkinson’s signature conspicuously in blue ink and the others in black. An innocent oversight, no doubt.

      “Each of us is competing energetically to be the next leader of the B.C. Liberal party,” the letter continued, “But on February 3rd, we will all be standing united behind the individual chosen by party members to lead us forward.”

      United on voting day? What a team! But after that? Sure. It’s as safe a bet as investing in any cryptocurrency.

      The letter went on:

      “Our party needs to take on the NDP, earn the trust and support of British Columbians in every region, and decisively win the next election. Only then can we begin the critical work of getting B.C. back on track—restoring strength to our economy, kick-starting job creation, and making investments that will ensure every British Columbian can succeed and thrive.”

      “We cannot do any of that without your support”, it pleaded in bold type.

      Wow. Who knew that I was so crucial to their cause?

      I hope that is the case, since I have no intention of giving the Liberals a plug nickel. Not as long as the NDP government is performing as well as it has been.

      “Until December 31st, you can make a personal contribution of any amount that will give the new leader the resources they need to fight for B.C.’s future.” Any leader will do.

      I guess the message is, never mind that the B.C. Liberal party is still subject to the RCMP investigation “into indirect political contributions and other potential contraventions of the B.C. Election Act”.

      Have faith in the party, dear donors, and in the special prosecutor’s verdict, if he is called upon to render one of any question charge-approvals. They ultimately come down to an assessment of what is in the public interest and whether anything alleged or found might pass the acid test of “a substantial likelihood of conviction”.

      Dig deep while you can, before the NDP’s new ban on big money shuts down our gravy train, the Six Musketeers all implore with their signatures.

      The more things change in that party, the more they stay the same, or so it seems.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at