Martyn Brown: How long will John Horgan's new B.C. government last?

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      How long will John Horgan’s new one-seat majority government last? It’s British Columbia’s new favourite guessing game.

      Christy Clark’s heaviest hitter has already weighed in.

      "Knowing how the house works and all the details, I know that the government won’t last very long," Rich Coleman told the Langley Times.

      Of course, he is also the same guy who as the B.C. Liberals’ campaign cochair confidently predicted, "I believe we’ll have more seats after this election than we have today, after we come out of May 9, 2017."

      Cue the laugh track.

      Then, as now, B.C.’s former gas-man-in-chief tried to reassure all and sundry that he had everything well in-hand: from the LNG pipe dream, to his party’s reelection, both of which he personally presided over with spectacular incompetence.

      I expect he will have plenty of time in the wilderness to reflect on his party’s floundering and failures.

      My guess is the Horgan administration will govern B.C. for at least the next three years, ably backed by Andrew Weaver’s Green team.

      Contrary to what the Liberals are hoping, there is every reason to believe that the NDP-Green alliance’s confidence and supply agreement will work out much better than Premier Pixie Dust would have her bewildered followers imagine.

      Far too much has been made of the alliance’s one-seat majority math problem. Whatever its challenges for passing legislation, it shouldn’t be too problematic for the one equation that matters most: 41+3=44=confidence=power.

      Even if the government loses a confidence vote, it won’t necessarily force an election.

      In our system of responsible government, what matters is the legislature’s true intent—not the gotcha numbers game that would subvert that intent if, by some chance, the NDP and Greens accidentally lose a confidence vote.

      If a confidence vote was lost because one or more of those 44 MLAs was late for the vote, sick, or waylaid by weather, it would be embarrassing, for sure; but it wouldn’t be fatal for the government.

      The business of the house would be suspended until a new confidence vote could be held when all members are present, to demonstrate the legislature’s true intent.

      The lieutenant-governor would not dissolve the parliament unless it was clear that a majority of its members actually meant to bring the government down, as it did last week.

      As long as the NDP-Green alliance holds and its one-seat majority has confidence in the government, premier Horgan would only need to reestablish that fact through a new vote in the legislature.

      Even if one of those alliance members should unexpectedly quit, or heaven forbid die, Horgan could ask the LG to prorogue the parliament, pending an immediate byelection.

      Anyway, there is much more chance that a B.C. Liberal will resign, perhaps to undertake a new role in public service that Horgan might help facilitate. That would only strengthen the alliance’s majority, if only for six months, until the government was forced to call a byelection. The NDP or Green party might even win that contest, if it was in a swing seat.

      Further, one or more Liberals might at some point cross the floor, to either sit as independents or to join one of the alliance parties.

      Heck, if I were Horgan, I would change the Constitution Act to set the qualifying threshold for official party status at only two members, as compared to four under the current rules.

      Had that been in place years ago, that would have given the NDP official party status in 2001, when Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan were the only two New Democrats elected.

      It would have given the three B.C. Reform party members that status they were denied back in 1994 before they gained it with their fourth member. And the two Reformers who were reelected in 1996 would have retained the official party status that they lost.

      Not only would it obviously qualify the Greens for official party status, as they have been promised by the NDP. It would also mean that if only two disaffected Liberals decided to bail on Christy Clark and on her new anti-Liberal agenda, they could instantly gain official party status.

      Bear in mind that the leader of any third party gets an additional $26,470 in annual compensation. A third party house leader, caucus whip, or chair is also entitled to an extra $10,588 per year.

      It’s not a bad incentive, on top of the basic annual salary of $105,881 that every MLA receives, and of course, it ups those lucky MLAs’ pension entitlements. Plus, oficial party status entitles third parties to additional privileges for participating in question period, a representative on the all-important Legislative Assembly Management Committee, and—assuming the changes are made to accommodate the Greens—additional staff resources and funding.

      Might there be a new instant-conservative party in the legislature? Or perhaps a new True Liberal party? A two-member official party threshold would increase those odds, and with it, a new vote-splitting threat on the right.

      The outgoing deputy premier, Rich Coleman, could be in opposition for several years because of the agreement between the NDP and B.C. Greens.

      NDP will have ample latitude to govern

      No doubt, the NDP minority government will lose lots of votes on bills and motions that are not matters of confidence.

      The confidence and supply agreement anticipates as much. It leaves the Greens free to vote with the Liberals on pretty much anything other than the NDP’s throne speech and budget, even on the two dozen initiatives it specifically itemizes.

      It will be a challenge for the NDP to accept and roll with those losses, but that visible tempering of the government’s power might well serve its political interests, in the long run.

      It will make law-making a much more cooperative, constructive, and collegial affair, whereby the government is obliged to accept more reasonable amendments to pass its agenda. That’s a good thing, and most voters will see it as such.

      True enough, the Liberals will have more clout than any previous official opposition has ever had to force amendments and to potentially defeat government bills, even without the Greens’ collusion, especially in committee debates.

      But the fact remains, most of what the government does, and can do, will not require a vote of the legislature.

      Once the budget is passed, the Horgan administration will have full authorization to spend each ministry’s appropriations as it sees fit. The very general vote descriptions in the estimates allow it lots of leeway.

      Watch for the government to also provide itself plenty of discretionary wiggle room for contingency expenditures when it tables its new budget in September.

      The government also has tremendous regulatory authority, to effect what almost any existing statute means and how it will be applied.

      The Horgan administration will have ample latitude to boldly govern by setting new regulations and policies established through orders-in-council, just as the B.C. Liberals did over the last 16 years.

      The numbers being what they are, I fully expect that most of Horgan’s new legislation will be structured so as to leave cabinet—not the legislature—firmly in the driver’s seat as to how those laws will be interpreted and implemented.

      Plus, I expect we will see lots of "omnibus bills" that bundle several discrete measures together in single legislative packages. That should help minimize the avenues for procedural delays and for legislative filibustering, which the Liberals are banking on, to grind Horgan’s legislative changes to a halt.

      Andrew Weaver and John Horgan have good reasons to keep their alliance intact.

      NDP-Green alliance is fairly secure

      Fact is, there are only three ways the government will fall.

      One, is if John Horgan decides to call an election.

      Two, is if one or more of the alliance members, most likely the Greens, decide to defeat the government and force an election.

      And three, is if the Liberals somehow gain a new member, perhaps through a byelection or by one of the New Democrats or Greens crossing the floor.

      Let me consider those in reverse order.

      After the debacle we have just endured, I can’t see anyone joining the Liberals for some time to come, especially as long as Christy Clark is their leader.

      Nor can I see her party winning a byelection in an NDP- or Green-held seat in the near future. After the way Clark’s government went out, the Liberals’ name is mud: duplicitous, unprincipled, and untrustworthy.

      For their part, the NDP and Greens have waited 16 years for this moment. They are exactly where they want to be and the Liberals are powerless to reverse that.

      If a byelection were ever demanded, because one of the NDP or Green seats was vacated, the two parties could even agree to a nonaggression pact, as Charlie Smith has suggested for the next general election.

      They could increase their chances of recapturing that seat by simply agreeing not to run candidates against each other in the byelection. Whichever party had held that seat could field the alliance candidate, to increase the odds of beating the Liberal candidate.

      More importantly, we should expect the NDP-Green alliance to hold strong for at least a few years. The Greens sure won’t want an election any time soon.

      Neither the New Democrats nor the Greens will have much money in the kitty, as compared to the Liberals, who are rolling in cash. That alone will create a major disincentive for either party to risk fundamentally undermining its alliance.

      If some new system of public campaign financing is introduced in banning big money, similar to the Quebec model, both the NDP and Greens will have an interest in waiting as long as possible to build up their campaign war chests.

      The Greens will certainly not want to risk an election until they win proportional representation. That is, after all, their most critically important strategic end-game. Implementing p.r. will ensure them ongoing relevance, representation, and hope for holding the balance of power in subsequent minority governments.

      But that process won’t play out for at least two or three years.

      The parties will have to decide on a model for proportional representation, educate the public about its merits, and win a referendum in the fall of 2018. If the referendum succeeds, the new system will require a new electoral map.

      That, in turn, will require a new electoral boundaries commission, and time for it to consult with the public and table its recommendations, which would then need to be passed into law. Then Elections B.C. will likely still need the better part of a year to implement the new voting system, with its new multi-member ridings.

      Apart from that issue, the NDP and Greens will want to prove that a minority government can work as they said it would. If only because they might be obliged to work together to form the government after the next election, whether it is conducted under the present electoral system or under a new one.

      They have dozens of shared priorities, many of which the Liberals have now ostensibly embraced. The latter will look like idiots and hypocrites of the first order if they too ardently oppose the measures they just championed in Clark’s NDP-Green clone speech.

      Besides, it won’t take legislation to tube Site C, if that decision should ultimately be made, much as I doubt it will be. And the government will have lots of tools in its arsenal to fight the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and to frustrate Kinder Morgan’s investors.

      Most of those tools do not entail legislation beyond the budget. They might involve permitting, regulatory actions, statutory decision-making, new taxation, and new consultative and decision-making mechanisms to honour the government’s constitutional obligations to First Nations.

      John Horgan would be wise to invite backbench New Democrats, B.C. Green MLAs, and perhaps even some B.C. Liberals to cabinet legislative review committee meetings.
      Stephen Hui

      Better consultation brings more stability

      Having said that, the one thing that could sink that Horgan-Weaver bromance is if the NDP starts taking the Greens’ support for granted.

      The governing party has made unprecedented commitments to meaningful consultation with the Greens on all of their shared itemized priorities, even on senior order-in-council appointments.

      It would be easy for the NDP government to start treating those consultation requirements as a perfunctory exercise that minimally impacts its decisions. Big mistake.

      Horgan and his entire team must always bear in mind that they would not be where they are without Weaver’s leadership and his colleagues’ active support. The commitment they have already made to making the new partnership work is extraordinary and laudable.

      The challenge of seeking the Greens’ input before decisions are made will be time-consuming and often frustrating. It will necessarily oblige the government to make compromises it would rather not have to accept.

      The key to the life of the government, in my opinion, rests on the integrity of the consultation framework, from inviting the Greens’ meaningful input, to shaping government decisions in ways that truly respect and honour that advice.

      If I were Horgan, I would take a page out of Gordon Campbell’s 2001 playbook in formalizing  in-house consultation mechanisms that might help keep everyone on the same page.

      In 2001, the Liberals won 77 of 79 seats. All government backbenchers were assigned to sit on government-caucus committees (GCCs), which were effectively cabinet committees.

      Those committees gave all members unprecedented input and ongoing inside knowledge of cabinet policies, priorities, and decisions.

      Horgan could create something similar to GCCs. He could invite the Green MLAs and/or their staffers to attend and contribute in cabinet committees struck to specifically deal with the items identified in the alliance’s confidence and supply agreement. Cabinet confidence committees (CCCs), as it were.

      Think of it. The Greens would have real-time access to cabinet briefing materials and to the ministers’ and senior staff responsible for the files. That would obviate the need for parallel consultation processes that are both time-consuming and potentially suspect, depending on who coordinates them for the government side.

      The Greens would have full input in shaping policies covered by their agreement with the NDP. Yet they would not be cabinet members, any more than Campbell’s GCC private members were.

      Those Green members would, of course, be bound by cabinet confidentiality; but they would not be bound by the principle of cabinet solidarity. They would remain free to vote as they wished, to support the final cabinet decisions or not, just as the GCC backbenchers were theoretically free to do.

      Truth is, the more that people feel legitimately part of the decision-making process, the more likely they are to honestly support what results from those processes, and the less likely they are to feel like they have been played.

      If Horgan really wanted to think outside the box, he could challenge the Liberals to make good on their belated lip service to working collaboratively. He could invite them to participate in the cabinet legislative review committee meetings that deal with non-contentious legislation.

      If the Liberals refused that offer, so be it. But the Greens would likely welcome that chance to participate.

      Again, not as a coalition government, but as constructive private members, who would be bound by cabinet confidentiality, yet newly empowered to improve the quality of bills before they are even tabled in the legislature.

      I’d invite the Greens to be part of that legislative review process for all bills contemplated under the confidence and supply agreement.

      Believe me, that would go a long way towards keeping the alliance strong and healthy. It would result in better bills. And it would make the NDP’s life a whole easier in passing legislation with minimal potential for embarrassment or avoidable resistance from its alliance partners.

      Press gallery pundits might be surprised by how durable this NDP minority government will be.

      Election is likely a long way off

      Finally, I can’t see John Horgan wanting to call an election anytime within the next 4 ½ years, even if the polls show his party running well ahead of the competition.

      For Horgan, government is a means to an end, not an end in itself, like it is for Christy Clark.

      For Horgan, power is not the be all and end all: positive change is. Power exists to help people bring about the change they want, not to be held for its own sake, no matter what it costs or whom it hurts to retain it.

      He and his party have a huge agenda that needs as much time as possible to be implemented, responsibly and methodically. It is likely unprecedented in its scope and consequence.

      If it is done right, as I anticipate it mostly will be, the NDP stands to rule for many years yet to come.

      The longer the NDP waits, the more the Liberal knives will come out for Clark to quit.

      While both the NDP and Greens should hope like hell she won’t, loser and liability that she is to the Liberals, that internal turmoil the Liberals are sure to face is like manna from heaven.

      The shoe is now decidedly on the other foot: it is the Liberals who will be faced with a growing problem of party factionalism, which Clark stupidly invited by her suicidal throne speech.

      It is the Liberals who will stand to steadily lose their financial advantage, as campaign finance reform levels the playing field over time.

      The more popular measures the NDP government implements, the greater its reelection chances will grow, if its caucus remains internally disciplined.

      My hunch is, Horgan is going to prove to be a much more formidable and astute leader than the NDP-haters are hoping he will be.

      He is coming into government with a seriously experienced and demonstrably capable team that has learned a lot over the last 16 years about what works and what doesn’t.

      He has already demonstrated that he is a cut above most of his political contemporaries in Canada, as a party leader. Mark my words, in short order, he will also establish himself as a national force to be reckoned with, who will rapidly build solid strategic alliances with other first ministers to advance B.C.’s interests.

      With the Greens’ wise and generous support on the things that matter most, it should be a long and welcome breath of fresh air for our province; one that will once again put people, the environment, and sustainable growth front and centre.

      Thank you, Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, for affording us all that change in government that some 57 percent of us voted for. Long may you and your new government run.

      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