Martyn Brown: Through the looking glass in B.C. politics

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      So, you imagined that the parties’ election promises might have actually meant something? Jabberwocky.

      Not in the alternative wonderland of B.C. politics, where the chess pieces have all come to life in a bizarre series of real events that put us all beyond the looking glass.

      First, it was the B.C. Liberals who declared that when they use a word, it means just what they choose it to mean, neither more nor less. Such was their nonsensical speech from the throne that betrayed everything they stood both for and against, in their uninspired campaign.

      Like Humpty Dumpty, they sat on a wall and had a great fall. Now all their tired horses and all their sad men, can’t put that shattered shell-group together again.

      Next up, Tweedledum (a.k.a. Rich Coleman) and Tweedledee (a.k.a. Darryl Plecas) resolved to battle; about how Tweedledee left Tweedledum’s browbeaten cattle.

      Plecas broke his word to Coleman and reneged on his promise not to serve as speaker. And because he did, the legislature is now functioning more smoothly, under his cool and capable leadership.

      One would think that the added strength of numbers Plecas’s move gave the GreeNDP alliance should have made it easier for the NDP to keep its election promises.

      Uh, no.

      Not according to Green party leader Andrew Weaver.

      This past week we entered a new chapter in our Carrollian fantasy—“It’s my own invention”—wherein, the Red Knight (a.k.a. Weaver) briefly captures the White Pawn (a.k.a. finance minister Carole James).

      “She’s my prisoner, you know!” the Red Knight figuratively suggested, in explaining why the White Pawn was helpless in advancing some of her party’s key election promises in its first budget.

      Indeed, she as much as conceded that point as well, in answering why her budget included not a penny for the NDP’s core commitments to a $10-a-day daycare or for its much-ballyhooed $400 annual renters’ rebate.

      The NDP-Green confidence and supply agreement didn’t include those specific commitments. The need to properly honour its spirit and content, and to accommodate the Greens on such challenging policy imperatives has got her tied up in knots, budget-wise.

      “Election commitments are irrelevant right now,” Weaver has declared.

      "Campaign promises in this situation are not what's important. What the NDP promised in their election campaign is not really relevant to the situation today. Because we also promised things in our election campaign. The Liberals did as well.

      “What’s important is we find the shared values that we can actually build upon. And that’s precisely what we’ve done.” Or not, as the case may be.

      Welcome to Weaver’s view of how minority governments are supposed to work.

      Promises, as such, are not material. Election platforms, as worded, are not terribly relevant. They should not be accepted at face value, or implemented as advanced, if the ones holding the balance of power take exception.

      Where no party holds a majority of seats that accords it absolute power, all partners in a minority government must be prepared to revisit, reinterpret, and revise their campaign commitments to accommodate their common values and shared priorities.

      B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver has claimed that what the NDP promised "is not really relevant to the situation today".
      Global TV


      "I know people are hung up on $10-a-day [childcare]. I know it was an election promise for the NDP…We have shared values with the B.C. NDP. We agree on the importance of universal daycare. It will happen. But what is important is we get to it in a manner that ensures it happens in the best possible way.

      "What we can do is, rather than focus on perhaps not the best policy each of us came up with, we can work together to get the best value out of each to ensure what we implement has wide-scale support and the best of both."

      Sounds reasonable. Unless, of course, you happen to be wedded to those specific policies that were proffered as sacrosanct commitments.

      Obviously, no one should get too exercised about the lack of explicit funding in the budget for the NDP’s childcare promise. It only makes sense to take the time needed to get the design of that system right. That’s what Weaver should have said.

      The budget was packed with funding to deliver on many of the NDP’s commitments, most notably in education and health care. No wonder Andrew Weaver was “absolutely thrilled” by it.

      Also, let’s not forget that the finance minister has reserved over $1 billion in her budget for contingencies, the forecast allowance, and a projected surplus.

      She has gobs of money to begin to act on both that childcare commitment and the renters’ rebate, even in this fiscal year, whether or not the NDP and Greens see eye-to-eye on those policies, as promised.

      Yet there is a world of difference in terms of cost, delivery, and benefits between the NDP’s $1.5-billion, $10-a-day universal childcare commitment and the Greens’ $4.2-billion platform promise.

      The latter envisions a $500 monthly credit for stay-at-home parents, 25 free hours per week for three- and four-year-old kids, free childcare for working parents with children under three years of age, and a new taxable benefit for those with $80,000 incomes or greater.

      Adopting the Greens’ prescription for universal childcare is neither prudent nor affordable, in my opinion. Nor is a completely different model than the one advocated by the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. and the Early Childhood Educators of B.C., which the NDP cited as the basis for its promised policy.

      More importantly, it is not at all what NDP supporters voted for. Which was one of several crucial policy differences that ultimately swayed many voters away from the Greens, to the NDP, and vice versa.

      Weaver might not support the NDP’s promised $400 renters’ rebate, but those who voted for it sure do. It was a central campaign commitment that the government is honour-bound to act upon—and will, try as it might to bring the Green caucus onside.

      So far, Finance Minister Carole James and other NDP MLAs have not pushed back against the B.C. Green leader's criticism of $10 per day childcare.

      Many platform promises are equally vexing. The values and objectives they speak to might be similar from party to party, but the game plan for getting there is often wildly different.

      The two parties' affordable housing plans are considerably different, for example, whatever their commonalities. The one that matters most is the governing party’s promised plan, which I expect will not be materially refashioned to incorporate the Greens’ tax prescriptions.

      In regard to other issues where the New Democrats and Greens are more fundamentally at odds, like the NDP’s commitment to eliminate the secret ballot requirement for union certification, Weaver suggests that the governing party should just abandon those promises altogether.

      If it is not written in the confidence and supply agreement, it is not binding on anyone, he suggests. The governing party’s supporters should understand that they might as well kiss those platform promises goodbye, if the power-sharing parties can’t come to a meeting of the minds.

      I wonder how much patience the 795,106 British Columbians who voted for the NDP will have with that approach to governing. Or even many of the Greens’ own supporters.

      Somehow, I doubt that will fly with most voters, who if anything, want all parties to do a far better job of keeping their word and not treating their commitments like malleable bargaining chips that have no inherent and inviolable currency as presented, to win public support.

      Fortunately, the GreeNDP power-sharing agreement itself provides a means for both parties to stay true to their promises. The government can table any bill it wants and the Greens can vote against it, if they don’t like it.

      And that’s just fine with me.

      Let the Greens dare vote against a $10-a-day childcare program or $400 renters’ rebate, if they like. The NDP should feel confident to test the populist value of its core commitments and let the chips fall where they may, if it cannot convince Weaver & Co. to embrace them as promised.

      Point is, consultation and accommodation is all fine and dandy, to a point: where the rubber meets the road is in either honouring campaign promises, or effectively breaking them in the name of “consensus.”

      Promises are not at all “irrelevant”—especially “in the situation today”—which is fundamentally a test run for a permanent model of governing that Weaver hopes to entrench under a new electoral system of proportional representation (P.R.).

      Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of Weaver.

      For the most part, I think he’s done a superb job of walking the thin line between working constructively with his minority government partners and holding them accountable for their decisions, actions, or lack of same.

      I applaud the unprecedented collegial partnership that the Greens and the New Democrats have undertaken and resolved to build upon.

      We have already seen the fruits of their labour in the promises that the Horgan administration acted upon over the summer and advanced in its first throne speech and budget.

      This week’s expected landmark bill on campaign finance reform is yet another testament to that working relationship, as it is to both John Horgan’s and Weaver’s laudable leadership.

      As I wrote a few weeks ago in the Straight, it feels like progress. Because it is.

      During the election campaign, John Horgan made some promises that Andrew Weaver doesn't want him to keep.

      No doubt, Weaver’s consensus-based approach to public policy is well-intended. His party rightly wants to supplant the politics of division with a more constructive model rooted in consultation, common goals, and compromise. So does Horgan’s NDP.

      Indeed, both parties have already done more to advance that objective than any parties did since at least B.C.’s only coalition government, during the Second World War years.

      The trouble is, a promise that means nothing beyond the debatable thrust of its purpose and underlying values is a Humpty-Dumpty promise, full of empty words that can be reinterpreted at will to mean so many different things.

      “The question is,” said Alice, in Through the Looking Glass, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

       “‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all … ‘They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’ ”

      The most important verb that every candidate utters in every campaign is anything but impenetrable.

      “I promise,” or “we promise” leaves no room for doubt.

      The verb “promise” is always the master of every word that follows it, and should be the proudest word of all.

      The central promise of the NDP’s “Working for You” election platform was its cover-page subtitle, “Our commitments to build a better B.C.”

      Core to those commitments was its childcare pledge:

      “The $10 a day plan will ensure no parent is shut out of work because of the high cost of childcare by offering full-day care for $10 and part-time care for $7 a day, with no fee for families with annual incomes below $40,000 a year. This program will focus on children under the age of two first, before gradually expanding to cover other pre-kindergarten children.”

      It is not an ambiguous promise, that might be easily abandoned, fudged, or compromised.

      It can’t be simply “alchemized” into something other than what those words were intended to mean, to the voters they attracted.

      The time to shape the meaning of party policies is before they become carefully worded party promises, not after.

      That’s what parties are for: to propose visions and policies for governing, and to provide for the organizational mechanisms that can increase the likelihood of democratically delivering on that promise in government.

      Party members hash out their internal differences on the stuff and substance of party policies, which are in turn, resolved in party platforms and held out to voters as specific commitments that might be realized if they form a majority government.

      The problem with Weaver’s institutionalized “log-rolling” approach to party promises, in the context of minority governments, is that it ultimately argues for majority governments, not for the minority governments he envisions under P.R.

      That is, it does if you believe that election promises should mean what they say, and not what the characters in “Wonderland” decide they should mean, for better or worse.

      Weaver’s approach unwittingly argues for larger parties, with broader bases of support, not the opposite, as his Greens are championing. It inadvertantly argues for parties that can straddle broad spectrums of voters with concrete policy agendas that voters—not politicians—decide are worthy of their support or not.

      Election promises are not just “relevant”, they are social contracts and compacts of trust that fundamentally legitimize our party systems. Weaver’s characterization trivializes that fact.

      I sure would rather know what I am voting for than I would vote for a pig-in-a-poke.

      The last thing I would want to do is entrust the substance of platform promises to the uncertain outcomes of interparty deliberations, trade-offs, and compromises, all predicated on the tiny minority that holds the balance of power.

      The tyranny of the minority that the Greens and NDP rail against in opposing our first-past-the-post electoral system is not resolved by a system that typically supplants majority governments with minority governments.

      On the contrary, it is only compounded, to the extent that minority governments vest a tiny group of opposition MLAs with the power to effectively rule the much larger party in government.

      Government at gunpoint may well work for minor opposition parties that want to get their way on any given issue; but it doesn’t work for voters, who want to believe in the parties and people they vote for, trusting them to do what they promise.

      Weaver’s lens on the “ideal” process for policy-making is in danger of being misconstrued as a model that assumes what is said before an election is not terribly relevant after an election.

      It suggests that the things promised by parties in campaigns are unreliable by design, in the context of minority governments that are supposedly more desirable and responsive.

      Is that really the position that the Greens would want to defend in advancing its next election platform, or in making its cherished case for proportional representation?

      That election promises as stated are essentially “irrelevant” in minority governments?

      That campaign commitments are all merely starting points for discussions aimed at agreeing on shared values denominators?

      That when put to the test in a minority government, any promise can mean whatever the partner-parties backroom negotiators say it does, locking on to whichever constituent words and underlying “values” they choose to emphasize?

      That voters should expect that under a minority government, any election promise might be potentially subject to entirely different policy paths than the ones the parties vowed to make good upon, in their respective appeals to win votes?

      No way. And it is certainly not a prescription for winning a referendum on proportional representation, aimed at changing our electoral system to one that would almost always produce minority governments.

      Whether Weaver knows it or not, he has just given the No campaign a powerful tool to win its battle to reject P.R.

      The NDP-Green agreement specifies that that vote “will take place in the fall of 2018, concurrent with the next municipal election”.

      His characterization of election promises as being “irrelevant” has inadvertently made this argument: a vote for PR is a vote for the end of campaign promises as we now understand them, insofar as it is also a vote to institutionalize minority governments.

      It is a vote for government that entrusts elected members of opposing parties to radically redefine, reinvent, and revamp their election promises as they see fit, if those promises are not otherwise abandoned or rejected for lack of “consensus”.

      For the Greens in particular, Weaver’s blunt assessment was a major faux pas that could prove strategically devastating.

      Which is perhaps why the Green MLA for Cowichan Valley, Sonia Furstenau, has ventured into the fray, in an effort to clean up his comments.

      Happily, for the Greens, she has presented a much more accommodating explanation of the Greens’ position on the NDP’s rental subsidy and daycare promises, ratcheting down her leader’s strident language and implied threats.

      Unlike her boss, she has made it clear that the Greens would not vote to bring down the government on issues like the NDP’s promised childcare model or annual rent subsidy. "We're not in a political brinksmanship world here," she wisely stressed.

      Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau tried to offset Andrew Weaver's brinkmanship with soothing words.

      The Horgan administration already knew that full well, and it should play its own strategic political chess game accordingly.

      The Greens’ long game is obviously dependent on winning the referendum on P.R.

      Just because something is not itemized in the confidence and supply agreement should in no way stop the governing party from acting on it, least of all if it was platform promise.

      Yes, the NDP should always try to get the Greens’ buy-in before forcing a legislative showdown. But it should never fear how they vote.

      Either way, Horgan’s team will mostly win, be it by passing its measures with the Greens’ support, or by at least showing it is trying to make good on its campaign promises.

      The GreeNDP agreement basically assures that the government will not fall on almost any vote, even if the Greens choose to defeat any specific measures that they oppose.

      In any case, every NDP promise killed by the Greens’ hand will only serve to consolidate the former’s support and undermine the latter’s case for P.R., which many NDP supporters will reject in any case.

      Also material is the NDP’s expected change to the B.C. Constitution Act, as envisioned in the power-sharing agreement. It will grant the three Green MLAs official party status, and the resources and privileges that go with that.

      Currently, it takes four members for any party to be officially recognized as such.

      Given the NDP’s experience in 2001, when it only had two elected members and was denied official party status under that act by the Campbell government, I will be shocked if Horgan doesn’t set the new threshold at two members.

      With the gong show that interim Liberal leader Rich Coleman has created in his ranks, and a nasty leadership fight set to break out, don’t be surprised if at least a couple of Liberals bolt to form their own new party at some point. Likely after the February 3 leadership vote.

      Don’t forget, the leader of a recognized third party gets an additional $26,470 on top of his or her MLA salary. A third-party house leader, whip, or caucus chair are each entitled to an extra $10,588.

      That in itself might motivate disaffected Liberals to rally around a new flag, if they are deeply unhappy with their current bully-boss, are uninspired by whoever wins the leadership, or are simply too humilated by that party’s recent actions to stick with that flailing cause.

      Who knows? One or more of those members might even cross the floor to the NDP.

      They might want to vote in support of broadly popular NDP initiatives, including those that their own party also advocated in its ill-fated throne speech.

      They might want to campaign for proportional representation, which the Liberals strongly oppose.

      They might want to wield their own strength of numbers to form their own balance of power, and advance their goals constructively as well with the government, as the Greens are doing.

      All of which would serve to strengthen the NDP’s capacity to make good on its own campaign promises, with or without the support of Weaver’s Greens.

      As in Wonderland, we can dream, dear readers. Even if such dreams are only a figment of imagination.

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