Martyn Brown: What fresh hell is this? Truth and consequences of Horgan’s health-forced early retirement

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       And just like that, he’s done like dinner.

      I mean Premier John Horgan, obviously. Essentially forced into early retirement by the residual effects from his latest brutal bout with cancer, compounded perhaps by the debilitating ongoing effects of long COVID that might have also sapped him of energy.

      More power to him for choosing to forsake power, I say, in also maybe teaching us all a thing or two about the relative importance of holding onto power as one’s highest ambition.

      Life is short, and power is not and never has been a worthy end in its own right, however much most who hold it typically come to discount that hard truth.

      “I had every intention of carrying on,” Horgan explained. “That was my plan. I loved the work, but the cancer diagnosis and subsequent surgery and treatment was rigorous.”

      "My health is good, but my energy flags as the days go by … I wish I had the energy to do more" he said.

      And thus, after discussing that reality with his wife, Ellie, and jealously watching the sea otters having so much fun at Otter Point, he “came to the conclusion that I'm not able to make another six-year commitment to this job".

      All true, no doubt.

      Though not so much, his dubious contention that it would typically be at this point in his government’s mandate that he would be asking his cabinet ministers to commit whether they planned to run again.

      Sorry, but I just don’t buy that.

      For Heaven’s sake, his government is barely over a year-and-a-half into its latest four-year term.

      That’s way earlier than most ministers would ever be expected to make that commitment.

      It’s also easily a year sooner than Horgan would have likely announced his intention not to seek another term as premier and set in process a leadership contest, had his health and waning energy not been the catalyst.

      With one eye also on the opinion polls, I’m guessing.

      Best to quit while he is still ahead as B.C.’s most popular premier in recent memory, as I previously argued, before he and his legacy are laid low by the public’s growing unhappiness with his NDP government’s performance on just about every major issue.

      Smart move, consolidating his now near-mythical status as the B.C. NDP’s most widely beloved, most consequential, and longest-serving premier ever, at barely five years in office.

      Certainly, history will now remember him very kindly as B.C.’s confident and reassuring personification of Dr. Bonnie Henry’s “be kind, be calm, be safe” COVID motto.

      Governing so successfully as he politically did in the shadow of her hallowed pedestal over the past two-and-a-half years, aided by their obliging fans in the press gallery.

      Horgan has imbued all three of Henry’s trademark characteristics through his warmly relatable character, through his style of leadership, and through his inordinately cautious approach to progressive government.

      Kind, calm and safe: that’s him to a tee. And most British Columbians loved that.

      They also liked that his style of leadership was the antithesis of the egocentric style of Gordon Campbell, Christy Clark, or Justin Trudeau.

      Horgan’s humility, authenticity, and likability served his government and our entire province very well indeed, as he also typically led by laying low and not trying to steal the limelight from the rest of the team he appointed to lead.

      From COVID, to the fires, floods, heat dome, and other emergencies, to the doctor shortage, the old-growth logging conflicts, or almost any other file, it’s tough to even think of an issue that Horgan opted to lead.

      With the notable exceptions of his government’s ultimate legacy initiative to legislatively enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

      And also, of course, his recent Royal B.C. Museum debacle—which ultimately served him well enough in permanently defining himself as a leader who was prepared to own and address his own “wrong call”—if only after being compelled to do so by dint of savage public pressure.

      I don’t mean that in a bad way.

      Too often leaders don’t know when to let their ministers do their jobs and own their files as they should. That can’t be said of Horgan, who only rarely injected himself into most announcements and issues, least of all when they weren’t solid-gold good news.

      Better late than never, as per his tweet today on the one-year anniversary of the Lytton wildfire. Which must come as some bitter gruel for all those displaced by that calamity that have been further victimized by the utter absence of leadership from either the Horgan or Trudeau governments.

      He won’t just be a tough act for any leader to follow; he has chiselled his image on the NDP as the standard-bearer of all it now ideologically represents.

      Which, above all, is a party that has redefined itself as now being small-l liberal to its bone. The only party in B.C. worthy of that moniker.

      A party still beholden to organized labour, albeit less so. That is rather now richly funded by B.C. taxpayers and resolutely guided by the Clinton-era “it’s the economy, stupid” mantra.

      A party that is now Indelibly defined by Horgan’s penchant for fossil-fuelled growth from publicly subsidized LNG, at the expense of its green contingent’s existential pleas for more credible, urgent climate action and uncompromising environmental protection.

      One that is fiscally responsible by today’s standards, no longer the so-called “tax and spend socialists” who couldn’t manage a popcorn stand.

      Horgan’s NDP now stands more proudly than ever as the reliably centrist, fundamentally moderate, and studiously incrementalist party that part-time progressives tend to favour in addressing all societal ills.

      Of course, that might be up for debate in the leadership race of so many named usual NDP suspects, none of whom strike me as radical lefties seriously intent on charting a much different course for their party and our province.

      I won’t repeat their names here, but virtually all of them are sitting cabinet ministers who are fortunate to be faced with a press gallery now accustomed to being stage managed by the ones they should be holding accountable.

      Another consequence of Horgan’s timing in asking his party to organize a leadership vote for the fall is that it essentially guarantees that only one of those cabinet ministers will emerge victorious.

      Any newcomer to the party wouldn’t stand much chance with so little time to sign up new members and win over existing ones.

      It will even be problematic for most of cabinet members who don’t have the name recognition of someone as high-profile as, say, David Eby—probably the odds-on frontrunner.

      If you had asked me even three years ago if anyone could be so successful in bending the legislative press corps to their political ends as Horgan and Henry have done, I would have said not on your life. Not in Victoria.

      They have both made such obedient pups of most of those journalists that even at his resignation press conference, Horgan wasn’t pressed on so many basic questions.

      Like whether he would commit there and then to retain and abide by B.C. Liberal government rules that preclude any leadership candidate from also sitting in cabinet, as he should have volunteered.

      The consequence of any such edict, critically important as it is, is that it could soon reduce Horgan’s cabinet to a ghost town, with as many as a dozen names being bandied about as his potential successor.

      Horgan departure might mess up Falcon plan

      You want truth? Here’s another one that B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon might find hard to handle.

      One consequence of Horgan’s earlier-than-expected demission as premier is that it might yet derail Falcon’s planned party name-change.

      If only because the odds of a snap election early next spring just went through the roof.

      The new premier will be sorely tempted to ask for a fresh mandate while still in the midst of their media honeymoon, on the heels of a new budget.

      It leaves precious little time for Falcon to formally deLiberalize his conservative party.

      I just don’t see how the B.C. Liberals could have their new name approved by Elections B.C., attract and nominate new candidates under that new label, deal with any residual party finance and newly urgent fundraising issues, and properly rebrand themselves as “new and improved” anything-but-Liberals—all in less than a year.

      All while also trying to compete with the NDP leadership contest for media attention, redefine and showcase Kevin Falcon 2.0, and still hold the government accountable.

      It sounds to me like a recipe for disaster, now more than ever.

      Especially as the partisan battle heats up and Falcon is obliged to become more aggressive in attacking the NDP and its leadership contenders than he was in his gracious response to Horgan’s announcement.

      Equally true is that Horgan’s premature resignation will give his successor yet another nearly two full years in office to try their hand at governing, if they should so choose.

      That luxury of time could prove welcome for any new leader before having to go to the polls under the fixed election date law that Horgan eviscerated.

      And yet, whomever the NDP next crowns as its leader and our premier, time will not be on their side with all of the mission-impossible policy challenges now wreaking havoc for the government.

      Between inflation and other cost-of-living issues, the housing crisis, COVID’s ongoing human toll, the collapse of our primary care system, the opioid crisis and other public health care problems, climate related challenges, old growth forestry conflicts, impossibly huge infrastructural funding needs, the lack of apparent progress on affordable childcare, education concerns, and violent crime on our streets—to cite only a handful of issues—chaos reigns supreme.

      “What fresh hell is this?" Horgan’s successor will too soon be asking, each time those or other equally vexing problems comes knocking on their door.

      Being in cabinet is one thing; being the premier is quite another, with the weight of the world upon you and no one but you to ultimately find a way through it to the ever elusive “promised land”.

      The truth is Horgan’s exit will only make all of those challenges that much tougher to address for whoever “wins” the right to address them as B.C.’s next NDP premier.

      Why?

      Because no matter how civil things look on the outside, inside the NDP tent the leadership race will be inevitably divisive and dangerously distracting.

      At least, insofar as each contender necessarily tries to differentiate their approach and solutions from the others, and perhaps as well from their own government’s record.

      If nothing else, it won’t help the NDP’s efforts to convince British Columbians that they're taking B.C. on the right track when their leadership candidates publicly differ on that direction.

      Kevin Falcon's plan to deLiberalize could hit the rocks if a new NDP leader calls a snap election.

      Budgetary pressures rise 

      Horgan has been by far the NDP’s best asset in trying to cope with all of those issues, having unified his team like no other leader in living memory.

      The consequence of his early departure will see new cleavages and age-old fissures internally challenge the NDP on so many levels, as the Straight’s Charlie Smith will discuss in a forthcoming article.

      While that leadership debate rages, all of those problems will only grow more dire by the day, as Horgan will also largely forfeit his capacity to fundamentally address them in ways that will be unduly binding on his successor or politically problematic.

      As a lame duck now, he has now become a caretaker premier who has limited moral authority to do anything on any of those policy fronts that isn’t heartily endorsed by those who would be king or queen.

      One crucial exception to that rule: the urgent need to strike peace with the public sector unions and to avoid strike action, so as to also ensure they mostly stay on-side with the NDP in the run-up to the next election.

      The consequence of Horgan’s forced leadership contest is that those unions now hold even more of the bargaining chips.

      Particularly, with the doctors’ representative organizations also effectively hammering the NDP for fairer compensation levels and structures that more appropriately value their services in arresting our health system’s death spiral.

      That necessary enterprise will cost untold billions. Not to mention whatever additional funding commitments Canada’s first ministers might advance following next month’s annual gathering, in Victoria.

      Add in other inflationary cost pressures, including for capital projects, and it starts to add up to real money, as they say.

      That will severely hamstring the NDP leadership contenders’ fiscal room for manoeuvering, even in buying votes within their party aimed at winning the contest.

      It will also constrain the next premier’s capacity to make their own mark on public policy in the next budgets.

      Even if Horgan had had the energy to carry on for another year or so as premier, he surely saw that writing on the wall.

      If governing was getting less fun by the day, particularly with newly critical media coverage and a more effective political opposition under Falcon and B.C. Green leader Sonia Furstenau, it is bound to become an even more gruelling exercise.

      Did that reality also impact the timing of Horgan’s departure? Probably not at all, in truth.

      But the consequence of him leaving his job early is that he won’t have his personal legacy tarnished by those who will soon scream bloody murder at his successor for not doing enough to fix all that now ails B.C.

      He won’t be held personally accountable by history for the hurricane of hurt now only starting to be unleashed by inflation and by the public’s frustration with the NDP growing legacy of public policy failures-in-motion.

      All the more reason for Horgan’s replacement to call a quick election, all the while pretending to have more fiscal room than they will have to make so many more promises that they already should know they won’t be able to keep.

      One consequence of the NDP leadership being held in the fall is that it will fall smack dab in the middle of the annual budget development process.

      If the contenders have to step out of cabinet during that period, they won’t be sitting on treasury board or other cabinet committees where those budget decisions will have already largely been locked down by the time the winner is sworn as premier.

      The reality is, there won’t be much time at all for whoever wins the top job to radically rewrite the budget in furtherance of their own electoral priorities.

      Advantage Falcon.

      Though he, too, will have even less time and fiscal room to craft a comparatively more fiscally conservative election platform in advance of that budget. Which he won’t even see until next February.

      Until then, he will be left pointing at phantoms and raging at open-ended problems that will mostly all cost more to properly address.

      Meanwhile, Horgan will be comfortably ensconced on the backbench for whatever time remains until the next election is called.

      Each happy new day he spends wandering the beach and reveling at the otters, he will breathe huge sighs of relief that he won’t have to deal with those problems anymore.

      And that truth of his early departure should serve as a timely reminder to all who hold or seek elected office that life is so much bigger than politics.

      To the extent it makes all MLAs and prospective candidates think along those lines, another consequence might be that many of Horgan and Falcon’s colleagues in the legislature also decide to call it a day sooner rather than later.

      Others being courted or thinking of running for office might decide not to enter the fray, in deference to their own health, welfare and quality of life.

      Especially in this politically confounding, emotionally punishing, and angrily fractious era.

      Then again, many might look at Horgan’s example and be newly inspired to run and serve in any number of elected capacities.

      They might be more motivated than ever to give back more of themselves to our province, to our country and to our communities, as B.C.’s NDP “gentle giant” John did in mostly setting the bar higher for all who follow in his footsteps.

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      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, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at bcpundit@gmail.com.

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