Martyn Brown: Why John Horgan is really in the driver's seat
Ever since election night in British Columbia, all of the focus has been on Andrew Weaver and the B.C. Green party.
Those three incoming Green MLAs: what will they do and how will they wield their balance of power?
Will they put Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberals back in office? Or will they overcome their petty and personal differences with John Horgan’s New Democrats, to put that party in power?
It’s the best reality show on television, surreal as it all is to behold.
Weaver is trying hard not to tip his hand. Yet he is looking ever more like that guy at the poker table who appears too confident by half, continually upping the ante in a rookie rush to push his false advantage.
Here’s the thing: in almost any scenario, it is Horgan—not Weaver—who actually holds the ace card.
That is, if he is wise enough to know it, and also ballsy enough to play it.
Horgan’s ace card is this: no matter what Weaver’s crew decides to do, he and the NDP are really in the driver’s seat, in the long game that matters most.
Almost 60 percent of the electorate voted for change. They voted for a new government, whether it was intended to be in the form of an NDP majority, or an NDP-Green minority.
Most of those people voting for the Green party never seriously imagined in their wildest dreams that Weaver would ever opt to keep the Clark government in power.
Both Horgan and Weaver should know that those voters would be furious at the Greens if they actually used their three votes in the legislature to produce that result.
The Clark government’s ideology, agenda, and entire modus operandi is antithetical to the sales pitch that Weaver made throughout the election.
It is anathema to almost everything the Greens supposedly stand for, which is only marginally removed from what most people believe the NDP stands for.
Weaver will be hard pressed to support Clark, so long as Horgan embraces the Greens’ reasonable demand for official party status, as he should, and obliges their reasonable “asks” on issues that are also mutually supported by the NDP.
When it comes to issues like childcare, education, health care, campaign finance reform, affordable housing, public transit, climate action measures, the Kinder Morgan or Pacific Northwest LNG projects, or a truly new relationship with First Nations—both the NDP and Greens have a world of interests and commitments in common. Horgan could be more vocal and bullish about that fact.
Weaver has a weak hand
It should be Weaver, not Horgan, who is feeling the most heat in bringing about the change in government that so many British Columbians voted for and expect him to help deliver.
It should be Weaver, not Horgan, who is most nervous about going back to the polls in the event of short-lived Clark government, which he alone would be responsible for perpetuating.
It should be Weaver who is finally forced to concede, through negotiations conducted in good faith, that the Greens have far more to gain from supporting the NDP than they do from propping up the government that the vast majority of their own supporters so deeply despise.
Threatening to keep Clark in power is a bad bluff at best for the Greens.
Making good on that threat would make them public enemy Number One. It would instantly transform them from self-professed agents of change to apologists for the widely reviled status quo.
At worst for the New Democrats, that unwanted scenario would present them a long-term gift that would put them in power after the next election, likely for many years to come. For it would almost certainly decimate the Greens and serve to reconsolidate the NDP coalition.
If the B.C. Liberals do emerge with a one-seat majority government following next week’s two electoral recounts and counting of the 179,000 absentee ballots, they won’t be able to last long in power. Not without the Greens’ active and ongoing support.
A one-seat majority is virtually unworkable for any government. No matter who gets that nod, with or without Weaver's blessing, all of the players need to keep their eyes on the next inevitable move. Namely, on the next election.
The longer that Weaver’s tiny caucus perpetuates that unwanted reality of an ongoing Liberal government, the more frustrated and angry with his party most voters will be.
Each vote of confidence that the Greens vest in the Clark government would be an added nail in their coffin, from the throne speech, to the budget and beyond.
If we went back to the polls today, I dare say the NDP would win a sweeping majority. I expect it would handily deliver the new government that the split “change vote” prevented this time round.
If the vote splitting argument was relevant on May 9, it would be even more material in any future vote prompted by the Greens’ failure to do the right thing.
The vast majority of British Columbians expect the Greens to support a new NDP government, and to resolutely oppose the current government that stands in utter contempt of almost everything they purport to stand for.
That will be doubly the case, if Horgan simply appears to be reasonable, constructive, and unflinching in his position that any move to change the way our votes count, through some system of proportional representation, must have the express prior consent of the people.
Moreover, despite their bravado, the Greens simply cannot afford to go back to the hustings anytime soon.
They are flat broke and are scared to death of anyone calling their bluff. They might also be in debt, which is especially daunting for a small party without the institutional capacity required to pay it off, let alone borrow anew.
Everyone at the table should know the real score.
Yes, the New Democrats are also strapped for cash and nowhere as flush with funding to fight another snap election as the B.C. Liberals are.
Yet if worst came to worst, they could always go to a bank and borrow what they need to fight and win an election, if the Greens are so reckless and stupid as to quickly test the voters’ will. The NDP would also still have the unions to fall back upon as a quick funding source, if that were to happen before the law was changed to ban big money.
Clark can't be trusted on campaign finance reform
Tactically, the smartest thing Clark could do, if she somehow manages to hang onto power, would be to take the NDP and Greens up on their election calls to ban union and corporate donations. In the short run, doing that would most hurt those parties.
Who’s kidding who?
It is obvious that both the Greens and NDP would benefit from a meeting of the minds that would afford them the ability to outlaw union and corporate donations, and to also gain new access to some measure of predictable public funding.
Both parties—and even more importantly, the public—would benefit from instituting a Quebec-style campaign finance system.
It would replace the current system of personal income tax subsidies, which mostly favours the Liberals and their wealthy donors, with a tightly regulated public-private finance system. It would give all parties, including small parties like the Greens, some degree of proportional public assistance.
Weaver likely won’t get that anytime soon from Clark.
Even the NDP’s proposed process for putting a new campaign finance system in place would take some time. Several months, at minimum. Setting up the administrative framework to make it a reality would take even longer, as Elections B.C. will be quick to point out.
It might not even be technically feasible to put a new campaign system in place before the next election, if voting day comes too soon.
A two-year truce between the NDP and Greens would probably do the trick. But if Clark rules the roost, you can bet that she will do everything in her power to retain her party’s current funding advantage.
No matter what lip service “commitments” she may offer to meet Weaver’s “deal-breaker” demand on campaign finance reform, I wouldn’t trust her. I would bet that she would find a way to procedurely stonewall the initiative, as it would be so easy to do.
Clark might act to ban union and corporate donations, as the NDP and Greens have advocated—if only to nullify the former’s fundraising capacity for the next election, which is likely the only one she really cares about.
But she would be in no hurry to put a new mixed system including public subsidies in place, a system that her party flat-out rejects in any instance.
So much for that “deal-breaker”. What about proportional representation?
If the Greens ever supported the Clark government’s bid for a new lease on life, they could also kiss any hope for PR goodbye, especially in the absence of a referendum and in the event of snap election maybe a year out.
For it would highlight the uncertainty and instability of minority governments that are the rule, rather than the exception, under that electoral system that Andrew Weaver hopes to impose on B.C. without a prior referendum, in contempt of the majority’s wishes.
It is a power game of luck, guts, and glory. And it only works for Horgan and the NDP if they are prepared to call the Greens’ bluff, confident as they should be that in the final analysis, they really do hold the upper hand.
Horgan must play the long game
So far, Weaver has played his hand pretty, darn well. If anything, he has made both Clark and Horgan look a bit desperate.
I suspect both of those leaders’ negotiating teams have already surrendered far more than they should or need to, to curry the Greens’ favour, given how the game is likely to play out.
Yet in a sense, Horgan can’t lose. At least not for long. Not if he plays his cards right.
He did better than most expected in coming as close as he did to winning, and he might yet come out on top after all the dust settles, with the Greens’ support.
So long as he doesn’t hand Clark a winning election issue, by siding with Weaver on his antidemocratic push for PR without a prior vote of public approval, he should not fear another quick election brought about by the Greens’ intransigence.
In poker, players make stupid mistakes in their lust for the jackpot. Horgan cannot allow his good judgement to be blinded by the gold that glitters on the negotiating table. The power that looks ripe for the taking is not worth any compromise, at any long-term cost.
Clark’s knock against Horgan in the election was that he is supposedly “weak”. It is the one quality he cannot afford to inadvertently convey.
He can dispel that charge in a big way by standing strong and by holding true to his party’s principles and policies, in a determined and collegial effort to earn the Greens’ support in a minority government situation. He can’t afford to cave on his party’s promised referendum on proportional representation, prior to its adoption.
He cannot allow himself to be terrorized by Weaver’s use of the Liberals as a tactical foil to convince him to effectively throw in the towel and give the Greens more than smart play dictates.
Sure, Horgan wants to be premier and the NDP wants to form the government. But whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, all parties are already in a protracted war that only the Greens hope both the NDP and Liberals will lose by serving up pyrrhic victories.
Of all the leaders at the bargaining table, Horgan should feel the least pressured. Whether he wins this round or not, he is already strategically well-situated to fight and win the next one.
I expect he and Weaver both understand that.
If the opportunity for an NDP minority government still exists after all the votes are counted, I will be shocked if they both do not happily embrace it.
Because for the NDP and the Green party alike, it is obviously the best play.
Both in terms of what they could accomplish together for our province, and in best positioning themselves to fight the next election, whenever that might be.