Martyn Brown: An idea that is too sensible for B.C. politics

    1 of 4 2 of 4

       “British Columbians want a stable government, and in sending us this result they expect us to listen and find a way to work together. They expect us to collaborate, while respecting the dignity, rules, and traditions that govern our constitutional monarchy, our democracy, and this legislature.”

      B.C. Liberal throne speech, June 22, 2017

      Some ideas are just too sensible to fly in B.C. politics.

      Here’s one that should, especially if even one of the B.C. Liberals was not actually lying when he or she defended the above laughable words from the throne speech, only three short weeks ago.

      It’s a stretch, I know. Yet it’s worth a stab all the same, in the event that the reality of the change that is about to take place, and the challenges it poses to all parties, have finally hit home.

      Yes, I am once again alluding to that suddenly popular new political parlour game: how to solve British Columbia’s speaker stalemate.

      The question is, is there anything that might behoove the Liberals to help do it, by offering up one of their members to do the job? Not likely, but hope springs eternal.

      Consider this trade-off.

      What if John Horgan were to volunteer these concessions as an olive branch, to buy a little peace for our time that would newly test the Liberals’ commitment to their lofty throne speech?

      Here’s one issue that might be relevant.

      The NDP-Green confidence and supply agreement commits the parties to introduce a bill “in the 1st sitting of the next session of the B.C. Legislative Assembly with a B.C. New Democrat Government to shift the formula for the fixed election date from May, to a date in the fall of 2021, and every 4 years after that to provide a more transparent budget process and the passage of a budget prior to an election.”

      Suppose the alliance offered to amend that provision, to legislate that change to instead take effect in the fall of 2020, a year earlier than specified, on one condition: if the Liberals agree to offer up a speaker?

      Suppose it further offered to adopt the Westminster speaker model, to also specify that that new Liberal speaker would not participate in tie-breaking votes, even on confidence matters?

      And consistent with that model, as it has long been practised in the United Kingdom, suppose the New Democrats and Greens further committed to not running a candidate against that Liberal speaker in the next general election?

      Those concessions alone would provide a powerful incentive to the Liberals to play ball, if they had half a brain.

      Yes, there is a chance that the fragile one-seat governing majority will fall within the next three years anyway. But in all likelihood, it won’t, at least not on the basis of an accidentally lost confidence vote that was not truly indicative of a breakdown in that majority alliance.

      There is equally a chance the Liberals could find themselves stuck on the opposition benches for a full term, which if the alliance plan prevails, would mean a year longer in purgatory for them before heading to the polls in the fall of 2021.

      It is in the Liberals’ interests to knock off a full year of that maximum governing window if possible, in exchange for such a minimal sacrifice on their part.

      First, it would position them as being more constructive than obstructionist in honouring their own throne speech statement, which you can bet is consistent with what most voters want.

      Second, it would give the Liberals more certainty as to when the next election is most likely to occur—over half-a-year earlier than the present set election date, which stands to be pushed out a half-year later yet, under the alliance’s agreement.

      Third, it would allow the Liberals to offer up a speaker from a swing seat, which they could effectively put in the bank as theirs for the next election. That would represent quite a gift from the NDP, which will need every seat it can win next time round.

      Fourth, it would not materially change the balance of power from what will otherwise transpire. Rather, it will mostly serve to prevent the speaker from having to actively engage as a partisan, in casting tie-breaking votes.

      Fifth, because the speaker would not vote to break ties on any nonprocedural matters, it would in no way compromise him or her, ethically.

      And sixth, having a Liberal speaker in the chair certainly wouldn’t hurt the Liberals in winning more favourable rulings on procedural matters that could significantly strengthen their hand and effectiveness in opposition.

      Would a B.C. Liberal fill the speaker's chair if he or she could run unopposed in 2020?

      Premier-designate could go further

      Yet that is not all I would offer up, if I were Horgan.

      In exchange for that welcome gesture of Liberal cooperation aimed at making the legislature work better for British Columbians—not for the politicians, per se—I would further commit to not precipitating a surprise snap election, just because it might seem politically opportune.

      Indeed, the Greens have already committed that they “will neither move, nor vote non-confidence during the term of this agreement, so long as the principle of good faith and no surprises has been observed.”

      The New Democrats have not made that pledge. They have only committed that the premier “will not request a dissolution of the Legislature during the term of this agreement, except following the defeat of a motion of confidence”.

      The confidence and supply agreement does say that “individual bills, including budget bills, will not be treated or designated as matters of confidence”, and that “the overall budgetary policy of the Government, including moving to the committee of supply, will be treated as matters of confidence.”

      Horgan could drive a truck through that loophole, if he was ever of a mind to force a dissolution.

      He could strengthen that commitment by publicly vowing that he won’t play silly bugger. He could pledge that he won’t renege on that understanding, by forcing a declared confidence vote on any motion or bill that he knows or should expect would be defeated.

      In other words, his commitment would be no surprise election attacks from the NDP that would abuse the premier’s prerogative power, as in the old days, before the Campbell government introduced set election dates.

      That assurance would give strategic-thinking Liberals more time and certainty to grapple with the leadership question, which only Christy Clark has a personal vested interest in squashing. It would reduce her power to perpetuate the uncertainty that is so crucial for keeping her troops in line by propagating false hopes of an imminent election.

      So far, Christy Clark has managed to convince her caucus not to play ball with the other parties, but that could change in the future.
      Christy Clark

      Secret ballot could be sacrificed

      Finally, in keeping with the spirit of the alliance’s agreement to not designate individual bills as matters of confidence, Horgan could offer one more concession to the Liberals in return for a speaker.

      Andrew Weaver has made no bones about the fact that his members will not support a change in the Labour Code to replace secret ballot certification votes with a card check system.

      I can’t see Horgan wanting to designate that change as a confidence vote that is bound to fail, as it would not be a winning issue, if it resulted in a snap election. Whatever the merits, or lack of same in seeking that change, it is virtually a dead duck.

      Why not put that item on the table as well?

      It was not even included in the NDP platform, even though it was articulated by Horgan in the election campaign. Why not avoid that losing battle altogether and offer to defer that debate and change until after the next election, provided the Liberals volunteer one of their members as the speaker?

      New Democrats should not kid themselves. As long as that particular item is on their government’s agenda, there isn’t a chance in hell that the Liberals will ever want to surrender one of their 43 voting members to serve as the speaker.

      Smart politicians choose the right policy hills to die upon: the ones that they are best-positioned to defend and win upon, not the opposite. The labour movement would be wise to recognize that fact and cut their new premier some slack.

      In my mind, it’s simply not worth the fight, least of all as a non-confidence vote that Weaver assures would not end well for the governing party.

      If any Liberal MLA is toying with the idea of possibly donning the speaker’s robes, it is a pivotal consideration that would surely factor into their decision.

      B.C. Federation of Labour president Irene Lanzinger might be wise not to push too hard for a secret ballot in union certification votes.
      Yolande Cole

      What's in it for the alliance?

      What about the NDP and Greens? Why is this three-pronged olive branch worth their trouble to extend it?

      In a word, because its real risks and sacrifices are fairly minimal. A more stable three-year term with a nonvoting, nonpartisan Liberal speaker is a fair trade that should give both parties time enough to execute their main objectives.

      Not many expect the government to survive until the fall of 2021, whether it might or not.

      I’ll bet the polls would show that the compromise I am suggesting would be broadly supported by British Columbians as a reasonable and welcome offer from the incoming government to soothe B.C.’s choppy political waters.

      In any event, no one will want to face a fall election that would collide with the set federal election date of October 21, 2019. So that fall election window is out, probably even for the B.C. Liberals.

      A 2020 fall election would work just as well as 2021, in terms of establishing that new four-year set election cycle in B.C.

      A fall 2020 set election would also provide more certainty for the electoral reform process. With a referendum planned for the fall of 2018, it would probably take a couple of years following that result anyway to put a new electoral map and voting system in place.

      The greater certainty and reduced legislative tension that a nonpartisan Liberal speaker would provide would certainly be better for our parliamentary system, for the lieutenant-governor, and above all, for our democracy.

      The Liberals now know their ruse didn’t work.

      Steve Thomson’s role in that fiasco failed to force Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon’s hand as Clark had hoped.

      As such, the emperor has no clothes. Her entire caucus can now see that. Some of its members might be feeling a tad more rebellious today than they were before Clark went to the lieutenant-governor and asked for the election she promised not to.

      Don’t forget, she also betrayed her own members by doing that, as she also reduced them and their party to a laughing stock by her bungled attempt to cling to power, replete with a clone speech that sold them all down the river.

      Yet simply asking any of those disaffected Liberals to “do the right thing” still won’t be enough.

      New incentives are needed that are neither too onerous for the alliance, nor too irrelevant to serve as a sufficient inducement to lure a Liberal speaker.

      One would think that with the reasonable measures I am proposing, some of the more responsible Liberals might yet entertain a more honourable way out of the mess that their leader has put them in.

      Then again, like I said at the outset, some ideas are just too sensible to fly in B.C. politics.

      To make them work, all parties have to get creative. They have to be prepared to compromise as if they mean it.

      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