Martyn Brown: Recall on Site C, Andrew Weaver? Seriously? Careful what you wish for

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      So, the deed has been done: Site C is officially once again a “go”. It was as predictable as rain in Vancouver—a cold, wet reminder of our winters of discontent, which we must console ourselves are still better than the alternative.

      The only ones unhappier about Premier John Horgan’s green light for Site C than its passionate detractors are the B.C. Liberals. They were also hoping for a red light that they desperately imagined would help lead them back to power.

      Don’t kid yourself. In their political heart of hearts, every one of the Liberals’ six leadership contenders secretly wanted the NDP to deep-six Site C.

      It would have been manna from heaven, to prove their claims that the NDP’s “forces of no” are controlling the government, killing jobs, hurting working families, and wasting $4 billion of taxpayers’ money in sunk and site-remediation costs.

      Today, truth be known, the Liberals are truly the biggest political losers.

      They won’t have Horgan to kick around as the “idiot” who gave over 2,000 Site C workers and their families only pink slips for Christmas. They won’t have the NDP to blame for sticking B.C. Hydro ratepayers with a 12.1 percent rate hike that would have been required to pay off billions for the defunct project’s dead-weight debt.

      Tough as the Site C decision was for the NDP to make, given its own internal resistance movement, it was the most politically prudent course of action. It was also consistent with its election platform and with the GreeNDP alliance’s power sharing agreement, neither of which ever promised to kill the project and only vowed to review it.

      Completing Site C will certainly help the province meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets, with gobs of new clean, renewable power that will also help its electrification goals and imperatives. It will give the government some new “pro-development” street cred to ramp up its more politically salient antidevelopment fight against Kinder Morgan.

      It will also bolster the NDP’s critical support from organized labour, and the argument for “B.C. first”, pro-union, project-development agreements that drive the Liberals nuts. The new $10.7-billion budget and related benefits for local communities, First Nations, and apprentices should make the project more palatable.

      Whatever Site C’s ultimate cost overruns ultimately prove to be, they will be laid squarely on the Liberals’ doorstep and they won’t materially impact Hydro ratepayers until well past the next election or two.

      Moreover, by not cancelling the project, the province will avoid the downgrade to its coveted Triple-A credit rating that would have been virtually otherwise assured. That will also save B.C. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in higher borrowing costs that would have robbed funding for other crucial spending priorities.

      It is a responsible decision that further positions Horgan as a strong leader who is capable, calm, and decisive under internal political fire. To say that he really had no other choice is a stretch, but not by much.

      He could have invited all those instant political, economic, and fiscal downsides that the Liberals prayed would prove his party’s undoing. He could have also ignored the public opinion polls that suggest there is actually stronger public support for Site C than is indicated by the more vocal minority that opposes the project. You would not know that from its opponents’ dominance in social media.

      Environment and Climate Change Minister and Energy Minister Michelle Mungall flank Premier John Horgan.

      Horgan could have been persuaded by the many cogent arguments for cancelling the project, whatever instant hits that entails to the budget, to Hydro rates, to B.C.’s investment climate, to Site C’s workers, to B.C.’s energy security and self-sufficiency, and to the NDP’s appeal to the soft-center swing voters who are so crucial to winning elections.

      He could have discounted the hard evidence and advice about the true financial implications that were presented to his cabinet and are detailed in one of the three backgrounders the government released in furtherance of its decision.

      But that would have obliged him to go against everything that his spidey senses told him was ultimately in the interests of the province, of his party, of working families, of the environment, and of B.C. ratepayers.

      As someone who knows the energy file better than most, and who was always more supportive of Site C than not, every fabric of Horgan’s being told him that he was obliged to say “yes”, however reluctantly, all things considered.

      To the extent that that defines his leadership and frames the debate for sustainable economic development, the NDP should today be breathing a sigh of relief.

      It shows that Horgan means business—figuratively, literally, and assuredly. As such, the Liberals can toast their Pyrrhic “victory” with false bravado that will do little to dampen their unspoken strategic sorrows.

      By the same token, Andrew Weaver’s B.C. Greens are also quietly just fine with the way the whole issue has so far panned out.

      They can claim to be outraged; but they are mostly content to marshal whatever public anger Horgan’s decision engenders, as a wedge issue to rally disaffected New Democrats to their cause.

      All those tweeters who vowed to never again vote for the NDP if it approved Site C will soon enough be swearing their new allegiance to the Greens. Or they will be threatening to sit on their hands in the next election.

      Maybe, more than a few of them might even follow through with those threats. Though I doubt it. Most angry partisans’ bark is usually worse than their bite, when it stands to make them even more vulnerable to those who truly mean to do them harm. This, too, shall pass.

      Four years from now, punishing the NDP for this decision will not be top-of-mind for many voters. Nor will it be reason enough for most New Democrats to further risk electing the Liberals by abandoning the NDP in droves. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is never smart. Even today’s angriest N-dippers surely aren’t that stupid.

      Besides, truth is, Weaver could have stopped Site C dead in its tracks if it he had been truly committed to that outcome.

      The Greens could have made its cancellation a precondition for their legislative support for Horgan’s minority government. They didn’t. It just wasn’t a make-or-break issue for them, then or now.

      Don’t think for a second that the New Democrats would not have bowed to the Greens’ demands to tube Site C back in May, if Weaver’s wonders had ever insisted upon it as their price for power. Weaver, of all people, knows he had them by the short and curlies, and that they would have acceded to almost anything to win his party’s support to tip the balance of power.

      As someone who so visibly supported Site C when it was first officially launched by then premier Gordon Campbell, back in early 2010, Weaver has always been conflicted in his newfound opposition. One wonders whether he would have stuck with his endorsement had he not joined the Greens. Methinks he would have.

      Don’t imagine that somehow his three-member caucus will now find its holier-than-thou moral compass, or its missing-in-action political backbone to bring down the NDP government for its “unconscionable betrayal” of a promise that never was.

      No, when push comes to shove, Site C is more about politics for the Greens than it ever was a righteous hill to die upon. Its approval is as much a political blessing as it is a principled curse.

      Nothing demonstrates that more than Andrew Weaver’s widely reported tweet advocating the recall of NDP energy minister, Michelle Mungall.

      He wrote this:

      “Let's have a look what our energy minister said about Site C on July 9, 2016:… I would suggest a recall campaign in Nelson-Creston would be in order if Site C is approved on her watch as energy minister.”

      I take it he likely sent that with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. If so, it was a reckless gesture that minimizes the seriousness of recall as a tool to force the removal of an elected member.

      If not, it raises some interesting questions about the Greens’ standard for justifying a recall effort. It is also worth thinking about how Weaver’s suggested recall campaign might play out, if anyone actually ran with the idea.

      Fact is, of all parties, it is the Greens—not the NDP or the Liberals—that stands to lose the most by any serious attempt at recalling NDP MLAs.

      As a skilled chess player, Weaver should know that he is playing with fire by advocating that tactic to supposedly punish Michelle Mungall for doing as he did, and changing her personal position on Site C, albeit in the opposite direction.

      Under the Recall and Initiative Act, any member can be recalled by a petition signed by more than 40 percent of the total number of individuals who were registered voters in the member’s electoral district at the time of the last election, and who are registered voters in that district on the date that they sign the petition.

      Bear in mind, “no application for the issuance of a recall petition may be made during the 18 months following general voting day for the last election of the Member.”

      That means that the earliest date that any MLA could be subject to a recall campaign would be November 2018—smack dab in the middle of the referendum on proportional representation.

      How very interesting.

      Weaver suggests recalling Mungall. Why not then, at the earliest opportunity?

      And what if the Liberals also embraced his recommendation to achieve the same end, by also targeting one or more other rural NDP MLAs for recall while they are at it?

      Assuming the Liberals’ Ben Stewart wins the February by-election in Christy Clark’s vacant seat in Kelowna West, it would only take two more seats to topple the GreeNDP alliance.

      Mungall, Weaver is suggesting, might as well be one of them.

      Seriously? Is that what he and his party want? With their cherished new system of proportional representation hanging in the balance?

      Checkmate, I say.

      The Liberals have essentially been given all the “moral” licence they need from Weaver to recall almost any NDP MLA they think might be vulnerable. They could only pray for an apoplectic Site C opponent to launch that recall petition in Nelson-Creston, as Weaver has suggested.

      No matter who wins the Liberal leadership, he or she will be hell-bent on defeating proportional representation.

      One of their strongest arguments will be how that system affects rural communities and ridings. It will dramatically increase the size of already huge ridings and it will demand multimember constituencies that might further reduce local representation and MLAs’ accountability to their constituents. And it will certainly even more strongly advantage Metro Vancouver.

      In addition to Mungall, the Liberals might target sitting NDP MLAs like Katrine Conroy (Kootenay West), Doug Donaldson (Stikine), Scott Fraser (Mid Island-Pacific Rim), Jennifer Rice (North Coast), Nick Simons (Powell River-Sunshine Coast), and Claire Trevena (North Island).

      Ronna-Rae Leonard (Courtenay-Comox) would be the most obvious target, as the one who essentially deprived the Liberals of their majority by “stealing” their long-held seat, by a winning margin of only 189 votes.

      To be clear, I am certainly not advocating any such recall effort. I am only pointing out the hazards for those on the left who might see it as a way of meting out justice to any NDP MLA for their role in supporting their government’s decision on Site C.

      The Liberals would not rely on Site C as their rationale for recall, of course. But they might well pin their initiatives on the NDP’s widely disparaged process for deciding how our votes count.

      They could target those rural or other even more vulnerable NDP MLAs for recall, citing an egregious abuse of democratic process. The GreeNDP’s deeply flawed legislation to facilitate that otherwise welcome vote on electoral reform has no shortage of critics.

      It will allow a simple majority of those casting ballots to decide the fate of the rural residents who will be most materially impacted by any model of proportional representation. Those votes will be numerically swamped by the population dense areas in Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria.

      Unlike the last two votes on electoral reform, in 2005 and 2009, there will be no requirement for a double majority to pass.

      Those votes required any change to adopt STV to garner the support of at least 60 percent of all voters’ support provincewide. To pass, they also required STV to win a majority in at least 60 percent of the province’s ridings.

      As we all know, STV fell just short of that mark the first time around, with 57.69 percent support. It was well short of the winning threshold the second time, with only 39.09 percent support.

      Importantly, in 2009, STV only won a bare majority support in eight of B.C.’s then 85 electoral districts. None of those ridings were outside of Metro Vancouver or Victoria.

      All of the seats that might be ready recall targets noted above voted emphatically “no” in 2009. Yet this time around, the GreeNDP is content to let those constituents’ regional voices be easily overwhelmed by the vast majority of eligible voters in Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria.

      Supported by Weaver’s Greens, the NDP introduced and passed its politically self-interested law with absolutely no input from any British Columbians, with no regard for rural communities, and with no minimal threshold for voting turnout.

      No matter how many voters ultimately cast their mail-in ballots, a bare majority of all votes provincewide will be all it takes to win the day. Likely with a multiple-choice ballot that even further advantages some form of proportional representation.

      It will be one vote for first-past-the-post, with all second choices only going to one form or other of p.r.

      That’s not right and it’s not fair. And for many British Columbians, me included, it is a much, much bigger deal than the NDP’s logical decision to proceed with Site C.

      If all that is not enough to give Andrew Weaver pause to reflect on his suggested recall response, there is also the issue of public subsidies for political parties.

      As I have written before on these pages (see related stories), that broken NDP promise is also one that the new Liberal leader will be able to exploit in his or her fight against proportional representation. Todd Stone especially.

      It could be one more reason cited by Liberals to push for recall, as a deliberate strategy to nuke proportional representation, either before or after the referendum.

      Don’t forget, the new law prescribes that a new electoral system would not be put in place until 2021, if it passes in the referendum. Between that time, next November, and the next set election, on October 15, 2021, there will be three years to organize recall efforts.

      If only two of those recall campaigns were successful, the government would fall. And Weaver has already supported one of them.

      Now think of this: what if John Horgan’s NDP is doing well in the opinion polls?

      What if Horgan determines that his odds are good of winning a majority government under the current electoral system, knowing that he will never be able to do that under proportional representation? After all, it would virtually guarantee that the best that the NDP could ever hope for was a minority government.

      Bizarrely, even Horgan might secretly welcome a recall effort on one or more of his MLAs, as an excuse for short-circuiting his GreeNDP alliance and for triggering an election that is ostensibly aimed at earning a clear mandate.

      He would never let a recall effort succeed, if he actually thought it stood a remote chance of drumming his party out of office, tail between its legs.

      If the Greens go sideways, and go after one of his cabinet members in a recall campaign, he could legitimately say, “All deals are off. You did that, Andrew Weaver.” And drop the writ.

      And if the Liberals try to launch their own recall efforts to head off the referendum on proportional representation, Horgan could respond: OK, let’s test that point. Let’s cut to the chase, let’s avoid the recall “fun and games”, and let’s have a provincial election. If we, the NDP, win, we will enact our specifically preferred model of p.r. for the next election. Full stop.

      The NDP’s preferred model of p.r. is likely a mixed member proportional system. That would not likely be the Greens’ first choice.

      Wouldn’t it be ironic if Weaver’s push for recall was the inadvertent catalyst that triggered an election he doesn’t want, at any cost, before proportional representation is implemented? One that also risks inviting a new Liberal government, or perhaps a majority NDP government that might either impose its preferred system of p.r. or abandon the idea altogether?

      Such is the folly of attacking the NDP’s prudent decision on Site C with threats of recall.

      Weaver needs to reframe his rash tweet on that score, pretty damn quick, or live with the consequences.

      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