Chaos and dysfunction: The story of BC’s current legislature

Chaos and dysfunction: The story of BC’s current legislature

Like it or not, the people of British Columbia voted for an evenly divided provincial legislature

It’s the olympics of political gamesmanship in British Columbia. The governing Liberals, incumbents since 2001, are poised to lose power to a leftist coalition led by John Horgan’s New Democratic Party and supported by Andrew Weaver’s record-setting contingent of Green Party MLAs. The motion of non-confidence is on the order paper, with a vote expected tomorrow.

Am I a fan of Premier Christy Clark? Well, not exactly. She brings to government a fair amount of experience and a front bench that I’ll characterize as more competent than caring of the needs of everyday British Columbians.

I am neither a fan of the New Democrats. The only provincial government I’ve ever known as a resident of BC is one of a Liberal stripe, but as a student of politics, I’m aware of the comedy of errors that plagued the province pre-2001 under the watch of an NDP government. As a voter, the 2017 provincial election was a choice between a competent, but unacceptable status quo versus the risk for change that could lead to irresponsible and out-of-control spending that would ultimately yield no lasting results. The potent stench produced by the choices before me was more powerful than the primitive plugging of the nose as I deposited my ballot into the cardboard box.

The result that followed later that evening, though uncertain, left me feeling foolishly hopeful that the almost even split in legislative seats would produce not gridlock, but a government committed to consensus-based decision-making.

As confusing and divisive the result of this election was, this presents our political leaders with a unique opportunity to govern without factoring in partisan considerations and to lay the groundwork for the best path forward for every resident of British Columbia. The people returned this result, and their collective wisdom should not be undermined by those calling for a snap election.

For too long, politics in Canada has been dominated by personality, not policy. Before this election, many people could not tell you the name of the provincial opposition leader, or much less, tell you who Andrew Weaver was. The names of key provincial ministers, some who have been around since the early days of the Gordon Campbell government, escaped the consciousness of ordinary British Columbians. The entire ministry, the entire legislature, its successes and failings, was attributed to only one person: Premier Christy Clark.

Members of the new legislative assembly in British Columbia have an opportunity unlike anything we’ve seen in modern political times — of any democracy in the world. They can govern collectively based not on partisanship, but on genuine policy debates. It can be a time where decisions are made not by who has the most seats on one side of the house, but rather by the eloquence of a little-known backbench MLA providing a full-throated defence of his or her views on a particular issue, hoping to sway a majority of the legislature to support a bill — not a premier, government or political party, but an actual piece of legislation. British Columbia could potentially usher in a new style of governing that would lead the world in consensus-based government.

As a child, I had no understanding of the governing party or of the opposition parties. In my little world, everyone who was elected to public service was part of government. I didn’t hurt me then to think this way, and it wouldn’t hurt now if this was indeed the case. British Columbia can make that kind of innocent, child-like political naivete a reality if its elected MLAs acted first and foremost in the interests of the very constituents who sent them to Victoria.

Partisan politics, who presides as speaker and who makes it into cabinet are secondary considerations. Who becomes premier is also a secondary question in this type of scenario. Broadly speaking, if our elected representatives spent more time caring about the voices of their constituents as opposed to partisan gamesmanship and posturing, such an even legislative split would be insignificant.

The events since the election have been orchestrated in such a way, on all sides, as to preserve a party’s self-interests. Both the Liberals and the NDP/Green coalition have behaved in such a way. This does nothing to strengthen democracy in BC; it undermines it. In my view, it highlights how cynical and self-interested our elected leaders really are.

First and foremost, British Columbians of all political inclinations need to acknowledge that Christy Clark was and remains the premier of this province. Forget for a moment that her party won a plurality of seats in the recent election, or the idea that there is an established coalition with the strength in numbers to bring her government down. She is the premier until she resigns or is defeated in a confidence vote (and subsequently resigns). She has a right, established both in law and constitutional custom, to face the assembly in an effort to win the confidence of legislators. Any argument to the contrary, whether it is based on economic concerns or the nobility of “going down gracefully” is absurd. To the premier’s credit, she recalled the legislature long before she was required to and well-before expected. There is also something noble in acknowledging one’s responsibilities as the leader of the party who won a plurality of seats to attempt to form a government, despite knowing that there exists the strength in numbers to remove that government in the legislature. Though Christy Clark likely has other strategic political considerations in trying to form a government doomed to fall, this is, in an of itself, a brave maneuver for any politician.

As for the New Democrats and their Green Party partners, it is also their right to form a political alliance to defeat an undesirable government. This has been established through many political precedents, including one currently at play in the United Kingdom, where Canada’s provincial parliamentary traditions originate.

The uncertainty of BC’s political climate is magnified only by the partisan games being played by all of the political factions represented in the BC legislature.

The Liberals have demonstrated this not by the single-greatest change-of-heart throne speech in political history, but in the strategy behind the speakership. Though nothing in the parliamentary rules prohibits a speaker from resigning, the idea that a Liberal MLA will preside until the government is defeated shows to what lengths the Liberals are keen to keep power. Mike de Jong, the finance minister, went on TV and revealed this himself when he said that the Liberals are not going to “prop up” an NDP government. This suggests that the non-partisan role of a legislative speaker, though chosen from the elected ranks of a political party, is becoming more of a strategic partisan consideration, especially in minority legislatures.

On the other side of the aisle, the leftist coalition is so obviously hungry to be handed the reins of power that they are not even prepared to consider anything from the incumbent government’s chief policy document, which now contains dozens of measures that both the NDP and Greens support. This is even more jaw-dropping when considering the Green dilemma. A motion to allow the Green Party official party status, a privilege they do not enjoy by virtue of not winning the requisite four seats (they won three), was rejected by the Green Party itself. They voted against their own self-interest, against making history (being the first Green contingent in North America to be recognized as a political party in a legislature) just so that they could keep their agreement with the NDP in tact. It is mind-boggling.

Sure there will be arguments made on both sides of the coin. I don’t approve of Christy Clark. She’s led the strongest provincial economy in the country on what I consider a several consecutive socially austere budgets. She’s failed on the opioid crisis, on homelessness and housing affordability and she does nothing about a Medical Services Plan which I consider to be teetering on the edges of being characterized as government-sanctioned organized crime. If she’s prepared to make the kinds of necessary investments to improve the lives of British Columbians — if this change of heart is indeed genuine, then I’d be prepared to let her govern. She indicated that she would even run an election on these newfound commitments, should it come to that.

I neither have much faith in the provincial NDP, fearing that much-needed social investments will give them license to spend their way into the kind of political and fiscal mismanagement British Columbians were faced with in the late 1990s. I do like many of their proposed changes, but I also note that many initiatives have not been independently costed by economists.

As for the Greens, I could not reasonably support a party who, when presented with the opportunity to be recognized as such in the legislature, refuses to take up that chance. Some will say Andrew Weaver is a different kind of politician — one of the noble sort willing to do away with his own interests to maintain an agreement with a party whose heart is set on defeating the government. I think it was selfish and stupid. Those many Green voters who supported Andrew Weaver and his party hoping that they would win enough seats to be recognized as a political party must be shaking their heads at the political strategy being played out by the Greens.

Tomorrow a historic vote will take place, one which will likely see the BC Liberals lose power. Should that happen, Christy Clark will either become the Leader of the Opposition, or will once again be a party leader campaigning throughout the province. British Columbians returned this result not even eight weeks ago, and all MLAs have a responsibility to make this legislature work. An ongoing game of musical chairs, with governments rising and falling every couple of weeks would not bother me at all, as long as the discussion is substantive and the betterment of British Columbians is held up as the paramount consideration of all elected members.

It matters little to me whether the occupant of the premier’s office is Christy Clark or John Horgan. I’d almost even support making Andrew Weaver premier and have him appoint a non-partisan cabinet in a legislature whose standing order is to allow all MLAs the freedom to vote their conscience on an issue-by-issue basis. I acknowledge that the latter may be unrealistic, but now that all three parties seem to agree on dozens of policy priorities, let’s debate and implement those before rushing into an election.

Politicians always say that the voters are always right. In their infinite wisdom, BC voters sent to Victoria a legislature prone to chaos and dysfunction. Let’s get started on debating the issues, not the personalities.

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