Martyn Brown: Bold strokes for change in British Columbia

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      So that happened. Whatever the final tally after all the dust settles, British Columbians voted convincingly for change.

      Yes, the Liberals won a razor-thin margin plurality of votes and perhaps seats, currently with 17,544 more votes than the NDP and two more seats, now one shy of a majority. It remains to be seen how the absentee ballots and judicial recount(s) will affect that outcome.

      Regardless, some 57 percent voted for change, including the 39.86 percent of the electorate who voted for the NDP and the record-breaking 16.75 percent who voted for the Greens.

      As things stand, it will be tough to envision how Christy Clark can form a viable government without the support of Andrew Weaver’s new three-member Green caucus.

      Even if the B.C. Liberals do manage to flip the NDP’s current nine-point victory in Courtenay-Comox, to win a bare 44-seat majority of the 87-seat legislature, they will not be able to govern long. Not if the NDP and Greens stand together.

      More optimistically, the NDP might yet prevail with a minority government, if the final numbers go the other way in tight seats like Coquitlam-Burke Mountain and Vancouver-False Creek. The nail-biting continues.

      Either way, Clark’s goose is cooked.

      Change is coming, including from her leadership, if the Greens don’t succumb to the lures of power and prestige that Clark will surely offer to gain their crucial support.

      No deal with the devil we know should be on the table. I expect that Weaver will not be one to sell his soul for the prospect of a seat at Clark’s cabinet table or more earnest lip-service on changes promised that she has no intention whatsover of delivering.

      This is not 1996, when the NDP formed the government with only 39.45 percent of the popular vote over the 41.82 percent that the losing Liberals won.

      In that election, the NDP still won a two-seat majority, which it padded with Gordon Wilson’s support, after he abandoned his nascent party and joined Glen Clark’s cabinet.

      Nor is this 1952, the last time British Columbia had a minority government.

      In that election, W.A.C. Bennett’s Socreds won the most seats—only one more than the NDP’s predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

      The Socreds only won 19 of the legislature’s 48 seats, while the NDP won 18 seats. But the Liberals also won six seats and the Progressive Conservatives won four seats, in addition to the lone elected independent.

      When those combined forces of the right temporarily conspired to keep the CCF out of power, it gave the Socreds a healthy working majority, until Bennett pulled the plug a year later, and won his party’s first solid majority.

      It did not matter that the CCF actually won the most votes back in 1952, with 34 percent of the popular vote, as compared to the Socreds’ 30 percent. Together, the other “free enterprise” parties won 65 percent of the vote.

      As such, the vote for change in that last minority government so long ago was not a great departure from the Liberal-Conservative coalition that had ruled B.C. for the prior decade. That right-wing coalition had ruled with a solid majority of the popular vote, mostly in an effort to keep the CCF “socialist hordes” removed from power.

      B.C. Liberal approach was rejected by most voters

      This election is different. Much different.

      It was a vote for change that clearly rejects the governing party on the right, with a combined vote for a new center-left alternative that stands for markedly different values than Clark’s Liberals.

      Indeed, the ideology that over one million of B.C.’s nearly 1.8 million voters embraced is the polar opposite of the one represented by Clark’s Tories-in-drag.

      It was a vote for change that values the people and voices that the Clark government has institutionally devalued, in its subservience to its wealthy and powerful donors.

      It was a vote that values sustainable growth and a more equitable distribution of the tax burden we all bear, and that also values the value of government itself, as a potentially constructive force for social justice, equity, and investments in human capital.

      It was a vote that values the role that government can play in helping patients, students, children, seniors, aboriginal citizens, local communities, and B.C.’s most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged citizens. The opposite of the status quo that Clark’s crew has wrought.

      It was a vote that values the environment and serious climate action—a vote against unchecked fossil fuel development, be it the Kinder Morgan project, or Clark’s discredited LNG pipe dream.

      This vote for change was a strong vote for a sea change, including in the role that government can play to make life more affordable for average families.

      It was a vote for a more caring, compassionate, and forward-thinking government that is commited to lower families’ cost of living, be it in respect of child care, public transit and transportation costs, utility and insurance costs, student assistance, renter assistance, income assistance, or other priorities.

      It was a vote for a different government: one that will boldly invest in better health care, education, child protection, climate action, services for persons with disabilities, and desperately needed affordable housing and social infrastructure.

      And let us not forget, it ws also a vote for electoral change.

      Some 57 percent of all voters supported the two parties that want to permanently change our way of better aligning the popular vote with the number of seats it should produce for each party. So that we always get proportional representation in the legislature that guarantees each constituency of every party its fair and proper voice in our responsible government.

      Both the NDP and the Green party ran on the commitment to fight for some unspecified form of proportional representation. John Horgan rightly vowed to give all voters a direct say on whether to embrace that new model, which if previously adopted, would have not left this election in doubt.

      With 57 percent of the popular vote translated into a proportional number of seats, the New Democrats and Greens combined would now be controlling at least 49 of B.C.’s 87 seats, instead of the 44 the initial vote has produced.

      B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver tripled the size of his caucus in the 2017 election.

      Greens should receive official party status

      So, what’s next?

      Obviously, we will have to wait until the votes are finally tallied and legally confirmed to determine who will be first called upon to try to form a government.

      Job One for both the Liberals and NDP should be to not repeat the mistake that Gordon Campbell Liberals made, with my petty, punitive, partisan support back in 2001. As I said in my 2012 eBook, we made a mistake when we denied the NDP official party status then, because its two elected members did not meet the required four-member threshold.

      Both Clark and Horgan should say without equivocation today that, come what may, they will change that rule, to give the Greens official party status. They earned it.

      After all, they did win some 300,980 votes—not many less than the 343,156 votes that the NDP won back in 2001.

      With almost 17 percent of the popular vote, it is just wrong to deny the Greens official party status on the basis of a stupid technicality that it is mostly designed to keep third parties from gaining their due official distinction.

      More importantly, given the nature of this vote for change, Weaver should make it immediately clear that his three Green MLAs will not dilute their voting strength in the legislature by agreeing to sacrifice one of them to the speaker’s chair.

      If the Liberals are forced to fill that chair, even with 44 MLAs, they will not be able to control the routine business of the legislature. Every vote will matter like it never has before.

      As I have previously argued, I cannot fathom how Weaver and the Greens could ever contemplate supporting a B.C. Liberal government that the voters have clearly indicated they want gone.

      Can we skip to the part when we all join hands once again and sing Kumbaya, resolute in our renewed will to make needed change happen? Can we not all call on the NDP and Green MLAs to lock arms in that common cause?

      Can we just be big enough to leap past the mutual recriminations? To vault past the pointless navel-gazing about the campaign that could have been and would have been, if the armchair quarterbacks had only had their way? 

      Can we just move past the venomous assaults that leave lasting scars and make working together for change so much more challenging?

      Can we just move beyond the petty partisan divides that only idiots cannot see are the B.C. Liberals’ best bet for a comeback win in 2021?

      Can we not put our egos and relatively minor differences in perspective, and come to grips with the gravity of the events that have transpired and of the opportunity at hand?

      Can the left finally learn what the right learned long ago: that politics and power are always, always, first and foremost a battle won through strength in numbers?

      I hope so. But maybe not.

      Pride hath no fury like a party scorned. Anger lingers in the intemperance of hatred born of piffling parochialisms.

      Perhaps we are destined to repeat the asinine history that ideologies of all political stripes have so often invited upon themselves in their ludicrous games of partisan particle physics.

      Time after time, they excite themselves into smaller and smaller values that conspire to create distinctions that negate their own collective force and value.

      It is the science of losses that parties impose upon themselves, until they put themselves under the microscope and finally see the macro scales that really matter in marshalling energy for meaningful power.

      The beauty that this moment of hopeful uncertainty affords is to do just that; to gain perspective on the bigger picture for needed change that is really all that matters.

      Perhaps we will not be able to control the understandable urge to lash out at each other in anger. We always learn too late that it only delays this inevitable realization: it has no point, no reason, and no abiding remedy.

      Anger might feel good for the moment. But it ultimately only feeds itself. It heals nothing and it only frustrates the healing enterprise that is so critical to political victory.

      Can’t we just keep our caustic tendencies at bay? Can’t we just resolve to embrace our “come to Jesus” moment sooner rather than later, and resolve to bring about a singular force for change?

      Let us make the most of this tenuous result—or at least, to minimize its uncertainty and damage—by making a common commitment to come together, as if it matters.

      Because it really, really does. That was the message to all parties from the overwhelming majority of B.C. voters.

      John Horgan's post-election speech highlighted the NDP's common ground with the Greens.
      Carlito Pablo

      Horgan extended an olive branch

      So what would real change look like?

      In a word, it would look like the NDP platform, newly coloured by the Green platform, which is not so different from it.

      Imagine if this now happened.

      Imagine if Horgan stood up and said that he is serious about working for the changes that Weaver has already identified as his party’s “deal breakers”.

      Indeed, he already has done that, more or less. He extended a very strong overture to that effect in his election night speech.

      We know that his NDP is simpatico with the Green party on getting big money out of politics, on advancing proportional representation, and on investing more in education.

      But imagine if Horgan went further and said this, ever aware that we will likely be facing another election in fairly short order, regardless of which party temporarily forms the government.

      Imagine if he said that he would embrace the Greens’ stronger commitment to climate action, especially in its firm rejection of Clark’s reckless giveaways to promote LNG?

      There is nothing more central to the Green brand and enterprise than that commitment to the environment, which Horgan also holds and now needs to embrace even more strongly.

      On the one hand, Clark is now promising to impose an exceptional industry-specific carbon tax on thermal coal exports coming through B.C. ports. With Justin Trudeau’s promised “careful consideration” (read, partisan election intervention) she vows to tax that “dirty coal”, as she rightly characterized it, and its related greenhouse gas emissions that were not even produced in our province.

      What if Horgan were to stand up and say, fine, let’s do that, at least for any thermal coal produced in our province. More importantly, let’s extend that approach to also impose an industry-specific carbon tax on the fossil fuel emissions that we produce in B.C.’s natural gas industry?

      What if Horgan were to promise to scrap the so-called Petronas precedent, which the NDP and Green party both opposed in 2015? Why not pledge to repeal those outrageous tax concessions and subsidies that the Clark government gave away to one of the world’s wealthiest state-owned oil companies, to try to land the Pacific Northwest LNG project?

      B.C. Liberal incentives for the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG plant could be rolled back if the NDP and Greens retain a majority of seats together.

      The law the B.C. Liberals passed to entrench that ridiculous project development agreement would actually put B.C. taxpayers on the hook for any LNG-specific carbon tax. We would all have to pay the Big Oil companies for any such tax that might be imposed, which Clark says should be imposed on thermal coal.

      That contradiction is untenable.

      It should be immediately changed, along with a formal commitment to flat-out abandon the B.C. Liberals’ irresponsible LNG pipe dream, as the Greens have advocated. We should formally reject that vision that will make it impossible for our province to meet its legislated emissions reduction targets and that will only increase the costs of climate mitigation measures for all taxpayers.

      Imagine if Horgan were to say, when it comes to climate action and to protecting the environment, the NDP and Green party will stand together? That they will stand united in opposition to the B.C. Liberals’ negligent vision for a massive expansion in natural gas extraction, that should not be directly or indirectly supported under any circumstance?

      The NDP platform was silent on the Pacific Northwest LNG project, which the party previously so strongly opposed in its submission to the federal government.

      Why not formalize that opposition and commit to fighting that project, as the NDP and Greens also stand in solidarity to fight the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project, “using every tool available at the government’s disposal”?

      Not a bad opening hand in a bid for power, I’d say. Together with the other commitments Horgan has made to Weaver’s “deal breakers”, that should make it impossible for the Greens’ “Three Amigos” to throw their votes to the B.C. Liberals.

      If the votes ultimately shake down to yield a minority government, the NDP and Greens have it within their power to produce the change that is sorely needed and that would be hard to reverse.

      They could govern with confidence, in a mutual minority arrangement or even as a formal coalition.

      Either scenario would be fine by me, if they actually brought about the change that so many voters have shown they want. As I previously wrote in the Straight, the NDP would certainly be wise to invite Weaver to cabinet, if not also one or both of his new colleagues.

      By the same token, let there be no doubt: if the Greens ever waiver and compromise their core values, principles, and party ideology by propping up the Clark government, under any circumstance, there will be hell to pay.

      Voters want leaders with courage.

      They want leaders with the gumption to stand behind their visions for change as imperatives for action that only allow for compromise on the margins, and not on their core stuff and substance.

      To their great credit, both Horgan and Weaver have convinced a sizable majority of B.C. voters that between the two of them, they are that guy.

      Here’s hoping they honour that trust, as I expect they will, if given a chance to consign the Clark government to the dustbin of history, where it so clearly belongs.

      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. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at