Martyn Brown: Winning the public relations battle over the speaker stalemate in B.C.

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      Another day, another political press conference about the speaker stalemate in British Columbia. Once again, it resolved exactly, nothing.

      This time it was NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Leader Andrew Weaver in the spotlight.

      They were both pretty miffed at the rumours being spread about the supposed dissenion in their united ranks over how to respond if no B.C. Liberal is willing to serve as speaker after the Clark government falls, as expected.

      Before they even stepped up to the mound, it was pretty clear that they had already struck out with the assembled patrons of the legislative press gallery.

      The latter aren’t buying the NDP-Green alliance’s argument that whomever the Liberals initially nominate to serve as speaker should continue in that capacity, come what may.

      On the contrary, most of the media don’t agree that one of Christy Clark’s 43 members should feel obliged to referee the government game, which hangs in the balance of how the other 44 members of the team in orange-and-green vote.

      Indeed, they are relishing the whole sorry spectacle. They are happily egging Clark on, convinced that she has every right to play the spoilsport in refusing to help end the speaker controversy.

      “Why should the Liberals help the NDP and Greens out of the jam they created for themselves?”, they ask rhetorically.

      Oh, I don’t know.

      Maybe because it’s the responsible thing to do?

      Maybe it’s because we shouldn’t want another immediate election, particularly when there is a reasonable solution that could avoid that expense and uncertainty.

      Or maybe it’s because a majority of elected representatives want to form a new and hopefully somewhat stable government?

      A majority, it must be noted, that won over 300,000 more votes than the governing party, and yet, only won one more seat than that party, due to the disproportionate nature of B.C.’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

      Pish, posh, the critics cluck.

      Why didn’t the Greens just man-up and back the Postmedia party–the Globe and Mail party–the “natural” governing party? It would have had a healthy three-seat majority.

      So what if that would have obliged those three Green members to sell out everything they believe in and entered politics to achieve?

      So what if they sold their souls to a party and a premier whose values, policies, priorities, and way of governing are antithetical to virtually everything they held out to the voters?

      It’s all just politics, anyway, those cynics argue.

      Sadly, that’s the ethos. It’s the one that says “who cares what the Clark government stands for? Who cares what it did, does, or will do? Why not just let it continue to govern for another four years?”

      It is the ethos that says, “it’s you—you dumb ‘dippers’ and you flakey ‘greens’. You are the problem. You are the ones who got yourselves into this delightfully entertaining situation. And it’s not the Liberals’ job to put up a speaker and to let you win the game at their expense.”

      There is a reasonable and responsible way out, of course, as I have previously articulated.

      It would involve all parties working for the common good, by embracing the Westminster speaker model, which Australia is also toying with, within the context of a similar one-seat majority government.

      Under that system, the speaker becomes rigorously neutral and nonpartisan.

      He or she doesn’t vote to break legislative ties, except on procedural matters. The speaker doesn’t vote to pass or to defeat budget measures, bills, or motions, and doesn’t participate in confidence votes.

      As a neutral officer, the speaker is allowed to run unopposed in their constituency by the other major opposition parties, whose elected members voted by secret ballot in parliament for that individual to serve them all in that capacity.

      The United Kingdom’s current speaker in parliament just got re-elected with 65 percent support in his riding. Only minor parties and independent candidates ran against him.

      He has been the speaker since 2009. Not for the government and not as a partisan for any party. He is a neutral chair of parliamentary proceedings, whom everyone respects and appreciates as such.

      Trouble is, at this point in British Columbia, neither the NDP or Greens appear to be much interested in that model. It was not even referenced in passing in Weaver's most recent website posting on the speaker dilemma and on the broader transition at hand.

      B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver and NDP Leader John Horgan could raise the issue of an independent speaker as a positive reform that the B.C. Liberals want to thwart.
      B.C. NDP

      They should be, if only as a potential solution that would help them win the public relations battle that is so critical to their cause.

      It is a shame. Especially since both parties would be amenable to that solution if the Liberals also suddenly perceived it to be in their own interest, as I believe it is.

      The Liberals are running a huge risk if they expect to win a snap election caused by their obstruction of democratic justice, in deliberately frustrating the majority’s will.

      I can well understand that no Liberal would want to serve as the speaker if it meant they were obliged to vote to support the government, as speakers now do, in the event of a tie.

      However, being a neutral speaker, who is virtually guaranteed of reelection, might be much more attractive, if Christy Clark somehow found the grace to gave the idea her blessing.

      It would depoliticize the speaker—the very opposite of what will happen if the NDP is obliged to put up one of its members as a newly partisan speaker.

      If the Liberals refuse to play ball, the NDP speaker will be routinely expected to vote, to break the 43-43 ties that will occur on every contentious matter facing the legislature.

      But it would not be for lack of trying on the NDP and Greens’ part to make the best of a tough situation that the Liberals deliberately tried to exploit for perceived partisan gain.

      If Clark refused to support that change to take partisan politics out of the speaker’s office, it would be one more strike against her, come the next election.

      Already her actions fly directly in the face of her claim that "British Columbians sent a very strong message to all sides of the legislature.…They want us to work together collaboratively and across partisan lines."

      Yes, moving to the Westminister nonvoting speaker model would effectively reduce the Liberals voting strength in the legislature to 42 seats. That would effectively give the 44-seat NDP-Green alliance an extra vote.

      But remember, the Greens will not be obliged to side with the NDP on any matters that are not covered by their joint supply and confidence agreement. So it won’t tip the balance in the legislature on any vote in which the Greens might oppose the government.

      Even on those other votes, which will be matters of confidence, it would not change much.

      The NDP government would not fall in any case, if it accidentally lost a single confidence vote.

      It would be embarrassing, sure. But all that would happen is that the government would have to “set the record straight” in re-establishing its confidence with another vote at the earliest opportunity.

      As long as a majority of MLAs continue to actually support the government, under our system of responsible government, a lost confidence vote is not automatically the end of the world.

      Those 41 New Democrats and three Greens would just restore the confidence that had been shaken by any such accidental lost confidence vote.

      They would simply vote to support the government in a new confidence vote, at the earliest opportunity, where the alliance had that majority physically present in the legislature.

      Martyn Brown believes that members of the press gallery have bought the B.C. Liberal spin that the NDP or Greens must supply a speaker if Christy Clark loses a confidence vote.
      Shaw TV screen shot

      At this point, this issue—and its potential resolution—is, first and foremost, a public relations game.

      I hate to say it, but right now, the NDP and Greens are not winning that p.r. battle. They have allowed themselves to be positioned as demanding something that is unwarranted or even unreasonable.

      They have allowed themselves to be cast as solely demanding that the Liberals “sacrifice” one of their own as a speaker, so that their fragile NDP-Green alliance can try to make a go of it in government.

      It just looks too self-serving. And it has been characterized as such by the Liberals and the media, and by the alliance’s own failure to present a constructive alternative that is grounded in the broader public and democratic interest.

      Horgan and Weaver need to position their solution to the speaker dilemma as a much-needed reform.

      They need to present a plausible and reasonable alternative that is also an improvement to the uncertain status quo, which is unprecedented in B.C. history.

      “Normal” has nothing to do with the entirely abnormal situation that exists today in British Columbia.

      That abnormal circumstance calls for extraordinary leadership and for nonpartisan action: not just to form a stable government that might help fix the problem today, but also to make sure it never happens again.

      That is doubly important if New Democrats and Greens want to have any hope at selling the public on a new proportional representation electoral system. For under that system, minority governments would be expected as the rule, rather than as the exception.

      Instead of owning the “speaker-as-a-partisan” moniker, which the Liberals are trying to put on them, the New Democrats and Greens need to make a convincing case that that is the last thing they want to wish upon the legislature, if it can be avoided.

      They need to champion the goal and the workable potential of permanently changing the role of the speaker into the neutral, nonpartisan parliamentary chair that the British Commonwealth’s “mother parliament” long ago embraced.

      They need to be seen as leading B.C.’s legislature to a better place, as they have already tried to do through their unprecedented commitment to cooperative government.

      They should be showing the public that they are extending an olive branch to any Liberal who might want to help in that regard.

      They should be sending a message to the public: we don’t expect a Liberal speaker to vote for our new government or for any party.

      We just need one Liberal to help respect the will of the majority, by agreeing to serve as a neutral, nonvoting speaker.

      Not for us—not for the NDP or Greens per se—but for all British Columbians, for all time.

      Horgan and Weaver also need to be much clearer about how they expect an accidental lost confidence vote would work under their one-seat majority, with or without an NDP speaker who is cast at the perpetual tie-breaking vote.

      Today, the common belief is that if a confidence vote is lost, the government must fall, even if that is not the true wish of a majority of members.

      That needs to be corrected, with hard examples, some of which I referenced in my earlier article on this subject.

      The media have bought the Liberals’ spin on this hook, line, and sinker.

      In short, the New Democrats and Greens need to do a better job of taking the fight for the moral high ground to the Liberals.

      To do that, they need to reimagine the speaker’s role and to present a constructive alternative that the public agrees the Liberals should consider, in the event they lose their confidence vote by a determined NDP-Green majority.

      When that happens, as even Clark expects, it will be gut-check time for every member in her caucus. I still have not given up hope that they will ultimately do the right thing.

      No one now owns that moral high ground. Everyone looks like they are down in the muck, fighting only for power.

      The more the dirt flies, the better the media loves it. It also plays to Clark’s long game to keep her job as party leader at any cost.

      If worse comes to worst, and the Liberals continue to be obstructionist, the NDP and Green MLAs will fare much better in the public eye if they at least look like they tried to reform the system for the better.

      If the chaos that the Liberals are now deliberately exacerbating does lead to an unwanted and unnecessary election, the NDP and Greens will both look better to the voters if they are talking about a reform that people want.

      If the NDP-Green alliance owns that vision for reform, it can at least hold it out as a change that it would make, to fix the problem that Clark created, if necessary after the next election.

      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, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at