Martyn Brown: A lesson in political strategy from Christy Clark to John Horgan

The power of the pivot can make all the difference

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      Kudos to Premier Christy Clark. At last she made a smart move on the housing file, with her surprising pivot in response to the damning Report of the Independent Advisory Group On Conduct and Practices in the Real Estate Industry in British Columbia.

      Having also called on her government to end the failed experiment of self-regulation in the B.C. real-estate industry, I was pleasantly shocked by Clark’s decision to transfer "all authority from regulation for penalties and rule making away from the real-estate council and put it directly in the hands of the superintendent".

      Not only did Clark embrace all of the report’s recommendations, as anticipated, she outflanked the NDP by going much further than its leader, John Horgan, had demanded in his press conference, only hours before her announcement.

      To my knowledge, Horgan had not come right out and called for the government to do what NDP housing critic David Eby had strongly hinted should be done in response to the IAG’s scathing report.

      Instead, he called for "a multi-agency task force to fight tax fraud and money laundering in the B.C. real-estate marketplace". A task force. Now that’s what I call bold action on housing…not, however sensible that suggestion certainly is, as one small bureaucratic step towards addressing that very real problem.

      Horgan tends to be too cautious and too tentative in his prescriptions for addressing the failures of the Clark government, as I recently suggested in another piece for the Straight.

      That makes him and his party especially vulnerable to the "power of the pivot", a tactic that all smart political leaders use to defy voter expectations and to own populist issues for which they might be easily assailed by their unwary opponents.

      NDP Leader John Horgan lacked Christy Clark's boldness in responding to the independent advisory group's report on the real-estate industry.

      In his new release, Horgan did not call on the government to re-regulate the real-estate industry, as his nemesis has now pledged to do.

      Rather, he just said that the "B.C. Liberals must embrace all of the recommendations of the independent advisory group and take real action to protect consumers and hard-working members of the real estate profession who follow the rules in our province." Huh?

      So once again, the political showdown on the nightly news could not have been starker.

      On the one hand, viewers were confronted with an emphatic premier who was taking tough and decisive action on a problem that should have been laid on her doorstep. On the other hand, they were presented with an opposition leader who was calling for yet another task force, to study and eventually respond to a different problem that also cries out for decisive, immediate action.

      Premier's pivot left NDP in the dust

      That problem of tax fraud and money laundering that Horgan raised, it must be noted, might also be partially addressed by the premier’s decision to restore independent oversight of the real-estate industry.

      Surely, one of the key duties of the newly empowered superintendent will be to put in place the standards, compliance, and enforcement necessary to ensure that realtors and brokers fulfill their legal obligations in helping the government to minimize the potential for tax fraud and money laundering.

      Instead of making that point as one additional argument for demanding the government to take the action it has now embraced, the NDP missed its opportunity to largely neutralize the premier’s pivot.

      NDP housing critic David Eby was left to belatedly endorse the premier’s response as "common sense", albeit with a rather half-hearted jab that rightly stressed the superintendent’s office will need to have adequate staff and resources to properly do its job.

      True enough, but the entire optic for the New Democrats marginalized their critique on consumer protection as essentially "me-too-ism".

      The NDP should learn from that lesson: it must beware the power of the pivot. It must start to firmly position itself as at least being the driving force behind any other 180-degree shift that the Clark government might make in inoculating against its considerable multitude of strategic vulnerabilities.

      NDP housing critic David Eby has been an effective opposition MLA.

      Imagine if Horgan had been loudly and consistently banging the drum for the re-regulation of the real-estate industry.

      Imagine if his party had been the first to expose and capitalize on the myriad shady practices, ethical breaches, and illegal activities that the Globe and Mail—and investigative reporter, Kathy Tomlinson in particular—were instead so instrumental in uncovering. Her work on that account is a credit and tribute to the value of professional investigative journalism that deserves to win a Webster award for its service to the public and for its force of impact on public policy.

      Yes, it is asking a lot of an opposition with limited resources to make such an important dent on the government’s armour. No one said that investigative research was easy for journalists or opposition researchers alike.

      To be clear, in no way do I wish to diminish the extraordinarily effective work that Eby has done in highlighting abuses that were not properly handled or prevented by the Real Estate Council of B.C.

      It must be said, his efforts on the entire housing file have been topnotch. Although it seems that he has been reined-in from saying what I suspect he really believes in regard to the need to restrict unwanted forms of foreign ownership, such as I have suggested. Which is too bad and something the NDP needs to re-evaluate in view of Clark’s pivot on consumer protection.

      NDP should have done things differently

      Still, the NDP could have largely robbed Clark’s pivot of its power if it had aggressively slammed the experiment in deregulation of the real-estate industry, which it had supported in 2004, and if it had been seen to lead the need for greater consumer protection, both by strongly advocating for the action that Clark has now announced, and also by advocating for more of the obvious measures that were recommended in the IAG report,. 

      Had it done that, the NDP would not have allowed Clark to defy expectations in a way that enabled her to come across as a leader who is championing consumer protection.

      She would have looked like she was bowing to NDP pressure and to Horgan’s leadership, instead of just acceding to the media pressure on an issue that was more focused on the industry than on her government’s failings.

      Indeed, if properly pressured in that respect, she may never have made the move at all. She hates being seen as relenting to any good NDP idea, least of all when it points to her own leadership failures.

      It was, after all, her government and the superindentent of real estate that allowed the problems that the Globe and Mail, Eby and others latterly exposed to continue unabated and unchecked for so long.

      It was the Clark government that sat on its hands and did nothing until the media pressure became too intense to ignore.

      The lessons that Horgan needs to draw from this example are clear.

      First, he must anticipate that Clark will pivot whenever she sees an opportunity to flip a vexing issue on its head to her advantage. Like political ju-jitsu.

      Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if this latest move by Clark on the consumer protection issue is only the first pivot of many on the housing file. Watch for her to go much further than most of her critics are expecting in advancing each of the "six principles for affordable housing" that she highlighted for action in her recent You Tube video.

      Christy Clark speaks about housing.

      Although she made no reference to restricting foreign ownership, it is not inconceivable that she will not also act to outflank the NDP by taking some clear action in that regard.

      Heaven knows, she is feeling the heat to do that, including from many her own supporters. Unless the NDP sharpens its message to own that call for action with a concrete plan, Clark might yet easily take a popular step to restrict foreign ownership that the overly cautious Horgan has not pushed for. It could prove to be a fatal political error.

      Second, Horgan needs to take an inventory of those opportunities for Clark to make populist pivots and get out in front of those issues now, with force and clarity. Like he has done with his proposed Speculator Tracking and Housing Affordability Fund Act.

      B.C. Liberals remain vulnerable on housing

      Given Clark’s rejection of Horgan’s proposed property tax surcharge on absentee owners who are not paying their fair share of Canadian income taxes, she cannot really pivot on that issue without looking like she was forced to do so by a strong NDP opposition.

      And that’s the point.

      To get full credit for its leadership on any file, the NDP needs to forcefully lead.

      Preferably, in such as way as to elevate the government’s failures of leadership. It needs to propose tangible solutions that the government will either stupidly and stubbornly resist, or perhaps belatedly embrace, seemingly in deference to its ideas and to its political pressure.

      Horgan has begun to do that on some issues, such as with his clear opposition to the Kinder Morgan project and to the Pacific Northwest LNG project.

      His smart and welcome commitment to phase in a $15 minimum wage by the end of his first term in government was bang-on. Although even that announcement was made to the party faithful in Kamloops, without any accompanying made-for-TV photo op.

      It was not maximized with the type of visual message that Clark is so adept at leveraging for important television and social media coverage that helps brand her and her party with optical statements that are worth as much or more politically as the substance of so many of her announcements. 

      Third, Horgan needs to look for his own opportunities to pivot on issues that are ripe for him to exploit to the NDP’s advantage.

      I spoke about the grizzly trophy hunt in my last piece in the Straight. That is one of several issues that cry out for strong leadership and that would oblige the NDP to rethink its traditional position.

      I know this: Green party leader Andrew Weaver is well aware that his own sometimes confusing position on banning the grizzly trophy hunt needs to be clarified.

      He knows that the NDP, like the B.C. Liberals, have quietly supported that barbaric and indefensible practice, and that many people will vote for his party if and when he comes out clearly in favour of a permanent moratorium on grizzly bear hunting.

      Horgan has an opportunity to pivot on that issue, to own and lead it in a way that the NDP has so far been reluctant to do. It takes guts. It takes confidence. And most of all, it takes putting your own trust as a leader in your own moral compass.

      It is all the more critical that Horgan does that in respect of issues that have the potential to be real motivators for swing voters who might be contemplating casting their lot with the Green party next spring.

      NDP has a multitude of opportunities

      There are so many other propitious issues that are similarly screaming for someone to take hold of and to fully give them their due attention and voice.

      Issues that stand to be owned by the Green Party or even by the B.C. Liberals, if the NDP doesn’t beat them to the punch. Ideas that might begin to define Horgan as someone who stands for something meaningful, emotionally edifying, and most of all, different.

      Saying it’s time for change is one thing. Putting a face on that change you propose is something altogether different and it is what postively drives people to the ballot box.

      Ending public funding for private schools. Requiring mandatory labelling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or so-called GMOs. Imposing a junk food tax on soda drinks and snack foods, to provide more funding for public health care.

      Demanding a national referendum on any proposed model for electoral reform. Ending tax subsidies that are now wrongly benefiting the wealthiest people in our society, such as the homeowner grant, which is annually subsidizing multimillionaires.

      Creating a new environmental assessment process that confers new guaranteed representation for aboriginal peoples and new rights for citizens to be heard. Creating new rules to give B.C. residents new priority over foreign visitors in making camping reservations.

      Lowering the voting age to 16. Changing employment standards to increase minimum paid holiday times and to perhaps decrease the length of the working week by an hour.

      All of these are just a random handful of bold ideas that would require the NDP to revisit its historic approach and to embrace a radically different position than the one it now appears to be taking.

      Whether any of them are ideas that John Horgan might be comfortable supporting, I can’t say, and that is really not too material to my point.

      There are countless other potential policy changes that are out there, just waiting to be tapped, including many that have been proposed by left-leaning think tanks and by so many great environmental organizations and nonprofit societies.

      They are ideas that capture media attention as they also captivate the voters who are hungry for reasons to once again have hope that their democratic choices will really make a meaningful difference.

      Ideas matter most in politics if they motivate and inspire.

      As former premier Gordon Campbell's chief of staff, Martyn Brown (above) saw how the power of the pivot helped the B.C. Liberals win the 2009 election.

      The art of pivoting, as in the martial arts, is about exploiting the energy that is out there and that is coming at you, to marshal it to your advantage and to your opponents’ detriment.

      Believe me, as Gordon Campbell’s chief of staff and public campaign director for his three successful elections, I was well aware of how the art of defying public expectations can be mastered with conscious effort.

      Not many expected Campbell’s pivots on climate action and on the New Relationship with First Nations, which surprised many and helped his party win the 2009 election. It was the right way to make a pivot, putting it all on the line for the people to democratically decide, as opposed to the utterly wrong and politically fatal pivot that he subsequently made on the HST, much to my surprise and chagrin.

      Someone needs to grab Horgan by the collar and show him how it's done, before he gets thrown on the mat by Christy Clark, who has shown once again that she certainly understands the "power of the pivot".

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at