It has been almost two months now since B.C. premier John Horgan started speculating about his perceived windows of “opportunity” to call an election either this fall or next spring.
In the middle of a pandemic. Despite the set election date that he and his party fixed in law for Oct. 16, 2021.
And in flagrant contempt of the solemn commitment he made to all British Columbians in signing the confidence and supply agreement that formed the basis of his minority “responsible government”. Ironically, in the face of his predecessor’s pathetic efforts to force an unnecessary and unwanted election.
With the New Brunswick Conservatives’ huge election win on Monday and new polls showing Horgan’s popularity in the stratosphere, that snap election speculation has now reached a fever pitch. It has been amplified by several announcements from current ministers who won’t be running again.
All of which has prompted a blizzard of critical columns, editorials, social media commentary, and an excellent open letter to the Lieutenant-Governor forcefully arguing for Horgan to rethink that bad idea.
Until I read that appeal to the LG from my CBC radio political co-panelist, Norman Spector, I had been contemplating writing my own open letter to the premier. I only got as far as the opening lines.
“Dear John: You know I love you, but if you want me to remain faithful, quit screwing around and just honour your vows. Don’t push me away with lies and deceit about why you’d be breaking your trust, and don’t try to justify your wrongdoing after the fact.
“Just because you think you can probably get away with it—and might well be right about that—doesn’t make it right. I’m rapidly losing patience with you playing silly bugger through all your election flirting. The very thought of you actually going through with your dirty deed is disgusting. Really, you’re so much better than that—at least I thought you were.”
I said as much in my Straight column from July 2, 2017, entitled "How long will John Horgan’s new B.C. government last?"
In it, I predicted that “the Horgan administration will govern B.C. for at least the next three years, ably backed by Andrew Weaver’s Green team.” Check.
But in that article, I also said that “I can’t see John Horgan wanting to call an election anytime within the next four-and-a-half 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.”
I would like to think that the premier will eventually prove me correct on that assessment as well, and will not make me eat my words.
Horgan's authenticity shines
Believe me, I get the temptation he’s feeling to throw caution to the wind and drop the writ.
Fact is, if he does, he’ll likely win a colossal landslide, notwithstanding the political risks of forcing an early vote in these harrowing times.
There’s a reason Horgan is so high in the polls.
He has shown himself to be one of B.C.’s most capable, competent, trustworthy, politically astute, authentic, fiscally prudent, socially responsible, and easily likable premiers of all time.
Sure, he’s an old-school partisan in many respects, whose actions have sometimes put his party’s interests above the public interest, especially in regard to his bungled referendum on electoral reform.
His high falutin' climate action rhetoric has also been betrayed by his own penchant for fossil-fueled growth, massively subsidized by B.C. taxpayers. Had it not been for Andrew Weaver’s Greens, it surely would have been worse. That issue could yet prove to be his party’s Achilles heel and the flailing Greens’ saving grace.
Yet for the most part, his government has earned high marks for keeping its election promises, smartly implementing most of its platform commitments, and governing with integrity, skill, and aplomb.
Of course, it’s tempting to call an election when you are being lauded across Canada as perhaps the best government in the country in managing COVID-19. Especially when your provincial health officer and the chief electoral officer are both doing their professional best to successfully accommodate that potential.
What better time to go to the polls for a government and premier at the top of their game than when their political opponents are so clearly handicapped, mostly by their own inadequacies, lack of preparation and smart politicking?
Would I be sorely tempted to strike while the political iron is hot and try to capitalize on the Greens’ organizational vulnerabilities? Especially in the wake of Weaver’s resignation and very public repudiation, culminating in his official endorsement of Horgan and his party as the best to govern B.C.?
If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear?
Opposition parties are vulnerable
Would I be drooling at the prospect of facing off against the B.C. Liberals’ Andrew Wilkinson, given his sorry performance as leader for most of the past three years?
It’s hard to beat a campaign against a nearly invisible opponent when the only thing on anyone’s mind is coping with a global pandemic that reduces all partisan politics to a sickening, easily avoided distraction.
As things stand, it would be a cakewalk for an NDP premier and party that only a few years ago the “mighty Liberals” were boldly predicting shouldn’t—and wouldn’t—last long in power. Now Rich Colemans’ disheartened colleages are literally shaking in their boots.
What more attractive time to pull the plug than when both the leader of the official opposition and the new far-left leader of the two-person caucus that holds the balance of power are demanding—indeed, begging—you not to do it?
One would think that Wilkinson and Sonia Furstenau would both be chomping at the bit to take their appeals to the people and hope to punish Horgan’s crass political opportunism if either of them really thought they had a winning message and platform.
They don’t. They’re both scared to death and hopelessly lost in the weeds.
Even if Horgan spares us from an unwanted early vote, there will be at least one by-election within the next six months. I wouldn’t be at all shocked to see the NDP beat whoever stands for the Liberals to fill that previously “safe” seat in Surrey–White Rock that Tracy Redies vacated.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if Andrew Weaver compounded that “opportunity” for the NDP by resigning his seat in Oak Bay–Gordon Head in the near future. If that happened, there would be two by-elections that Horgan might choose to skip as yet another poor excuse to justify an early general election.
Add to all of that the attraction of Horgan showcasing his leadership, not just in contrast to Wilkinson and Furstenau, but also to his counterparts in Ottawa and south of the 49th parallel.
And yet. And yet.
It would be a cynical act of Christy Clarkian proportions to compound British Columbians’ health risks with an election now, of all times.
Either you believe in fixed elections, or you don’t. The Campbell government led Canada with instituting that reform for B.C. in 2002 to make it that much harder for any premier to manipulate the timing of elections to their own party’s advantage.
If Horgan ignores that law that his government amended, which extended its intended term by some five months to the fall of 2021, it will be the death knell for set election dates in British Columbia.
That law, like almost any law a government willfully chooses to skirt, will no longer be worth the paper it’s written on. We will never again be able to rely on that legislation as the check it was supposed to be against precisely the kind of iniquitous behaviour that Horgan is contemplating.
NDP-Green deal was clear
Beyond that, disavowing his own signature in contempt of the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement would be one of the most contemptible betrayals of trust that any B.C. premier has ever committed. And that’s saying something, given some of the actions that so many past premiers have perpetrated.
It’s especially rich for the NDP to even remotely contemplate ripping up one of the most significant social contracts in B.C. history in light of the righteous ruckus they properly raised nearly 20 years ago in condemning the B.C. Liberals for ripping up collective agreements.
The CASA is a solemn compact with all British Columbians that the Crown accepted in good faith in conferring confidence in Horgan’s minority government.
Either you believe in good faith bargaining and honouring your signed agreements, or you don’t.
Ripping up the CASA would be morally unconscionable, even if doing that was no more politically detrimental to the NDP than the B.C. Liberals’ contract-shredding was to them.
Apart from simply following the rule of law, keeping his word and his signed commitment, and saving B.C. harmless from an unwanted and unnecessary election as the fall flu season compounds our COVID challenges, there are at least two other reasons for Horgan to stand down.
One is something that Horgan may not fully appreciate now.
Ultimately, he will be most importantly defined by the person he chose to be when B.C. needed him most.
It is only when people step out of politics and gain perspective through time and distance from government that such reputational legacy considerations really become most salient.
Until now, Horgan has made believers of doubters.
Even many of his former critics have come to view him as the leader that I repeatedly described in this forum. To say he has wildly exceeded expectations is an understatement, his occasional slip-ups and shortcomings notwithstanding.
In his heart, Horgan surely knows what’s right and wrong, and that’s the main point.
Is he OK with forever defining himself as a successful political opportunist? Or is he determined to define himself and his administration as true public servants of the first order?
Does he wish to simply win, perhaps bigger and a little earlier than he likely otherwise will? Or does he want to consolidate his legacy as an extraordinary leader who put the public interest ahead of political expediency when it mattered most?
Which character does John Horgan really want to see staring back at him when looking in the mirror 20 or 30 years hence?
Which version of that authentic self does he want B.C. history to record and remember?
The honourable, trustworthy leader that British Columbians have mostly come to view him as being? Or the petty partisan flim-flam artist who took advantage of every “opportunity” to enrich his power at a most inopportune time, just because he could?
That’s the nub of it.
Something tells me, in the end he will do what’s right.
Because that’s the guy who I still believe Horgan is and wants to be: better than the rest.
Better than most of his predecessors. A different and more honourable leader for these disillusioning and cynical times, who we are truly lucky to have leading our province.
The second reason that Horgan should honour his word and the letter of his amended law is this: an election right now would be undemocratic.
I know, they pulled off an election without a hitch in New Brunswick. British Columbians can walk and chew gum at the same time, and all that nonsense.
But an honest election—a fair and truly democratic election—can only transpire when all of the parties and candidates have a reasonably equal chance to be seen and heard, with active citizen involvement.
Yes, we can manage the mechanics of more voting by mail, some phone voting, and safely spaced in-person voting. With COVID sure to be with us for years to come, we will get to put that to the test even if the election is held a year from now, albeit with more desperately needed time to prepare and hopes of a vacine on the distant horizon.
But the campaign itself cannot be truly democratic at this time, for many reasons.
A virtual campaign is by definition, not “real.” It exists only in cyberspace and in the clouds.
It is a poor substitution for real flesh and blood interaction on doorsteps, in rallies, on streets, in shops, and through all manner of events that broadly engage the voting public.
A democratic election is one that actively attracts public participation in ways that a virtual COVID campaign never could. A digital campaign devoid of that crucial face-to-face element should be avoided at all costs, especially when that just requires respecting the existing election law.
Ironically, the political attraction of campaigning in the midst of this pandemic for any party riding high in the polls is precisely that it is rendered mute, lifeless, and unwelcome.
For Horgan’s NDP, the political appeal of an election now is mostly that it will be tuned out by default.
No one wants it, no one will much care about it or the people and parties that populate it.
And that lack of democratic public engagement would overwhelmingly benefit the currently popular powers that be, the “snoozier” the better for the avoidance of active democracy.
An election now would raise real questions of legitimacy.
It would fundamentally tilt the playing field to the NDP’s advantage in ways that Horgan would rightly be the first to assail if he was in his competitors’ shoes.
The Greens won’t likely even be able to field a full slate of candidates if the election is called this fall or next spring.
It’s their fault, no doubt, for not organizing sooner. But they probably stupidly assumed that, barring a vote of nonconfidence on their part, they would have another year to let their new leader build her team and platform.
An early election would mean that the choices the Greens might otherwise present for B.C. voters would be largely nullified by a premier who promised to partner and power-share with them in government until the set election date prescribed by law.
The B.C. Liberals are in only slightly better shape. Sure, they should have been better prepared for a snap election that they purported to want each time they voted no-confidence in the budget.
However, it is anything but democratic for Horgan to try to leverage the Liberals’ commendable support and determined lack of criticism throughout this pandemic by taking advantage of their nonpartisanship in that regard with an unwanted early election.
What do the B.C. Liberals stand for? Who are their candidates? What would they do differently in managing the pandemic and in facilitating B.C.’s economic recovery?
Who knows? We don’t have a clue, largely because Wilkinson’s MLAs have been too busy linking arms with Horgan’s team in trying to help British Columbians weather this wicked virus. The B.C. Liberals should all be applauded for acting in the public interest in that regard.
There won’t be sufficient time in a mere 28 days for any real public discourse to much change that.
Early election would not be fair
In any case, the public is in no mood for listening to politicians cast barbs at each other, even if there were any meaningful opportunities for balanced engagement—which there won’t be, barring a couple of televised debates.
In short, a campaign now would be no real campaign at all. It would be anything but a fair fight. Which is why the NDP would welcome it and the other parties do not.
Do we think so little of our democracy and central role that fair and broadly engaging elections play in that system of government to blithely let Horgan break his word and the spirit of the law?
Probably, I’m sad to say. As such, the risk of any material blowback on the NDP for calling an early and unwanted election is likely overrated.
But here’s the thing: perhaps Horgan has no real intention of inviting that risk by turning the mostly adoring mainstream media and so many of his new admirers against him and his party.
Perhaps he is just toying with us all and has every intention of serving out his full term, as even his most ardent political enemies are now pleading with him to do.
Perhaps he is just using this election speculation to further boost his own currency and his party’s fortunes a year from now.
He knows that there are many storm clouds on the horizon, from Site C and ICBC, to a rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation, to a resurgence of COVID-19 that stands to dwarf the human and economic impacts we’ve suffered to date.
He knows that the risk of a major COVID outbreak is growing more likely by the day and that many teachers and parents are already hopping mad at the government’s inadequate measures to keep students, educators and support staff safe as can be in our schools.
By playing up the possibility of going early to the polls while he and his party are so popular—and then deciding to do the right thing in the public interest – Horgan will be even more respected.
Could this be the method in his madness? Let the speculation increase and then stamp it out to his own greater advantage?
His popularity will continue to rise, at least in the short term, for not breaking his CASA commitment, for not disregarding his own set election date law, for not foisting an election in the midst of a pandemic, for not undermining democracy, or willfully redefining himself as the opposite of his current reputation.
In the end, I’m guessing that’s his real strategy—a smart one at that.
And with his refreshed cabinet, it will pay huge political dividends when he and his government are returned to office with a sweeping majority in October 2021.