A B.C. Liberal Minority Government? Not So Fast

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning major news outlets like the CBC made the official call: the B.C. Liberals had won a minority government in the 2017 provincial election.

Except they haven’t … quite … yet.

Here’s how the numbers are currently being reported: B.C. Liberals 43 seats, NDP 41 seats, Greens 3 seats.

These numbers are far from final. As Elections B.C. states right up there on its website, these are primary voting results from an initial count. “Final voting results will not be available until after the conclusion of final count, which will commence on May 22, 2017,” the site states.

There are about 160,000 absentee ballots waiting to be counted and some too-close-to-call ridings like Courtenay-Comox are facing a recount.

But, as Simon Fraser University student Steve Tweedale put it, we don’t need a final count to know it’s false to report the election resulted in a B.C. Liberal minority government.

“Assuming the preliminary count holds up, the outcome of the election is a hung parliament (sometimes called a minority parliament), meaning that no single party has a majority of seats. Under B.C.’s parliamentary system of government, elections determine the composition of the Legislative Assembly; they do not determine the composition of the government,” Tweedale writes.

The B.C. Liberals won 43 seats, just one seat shy of a majority. It is true that Clark will remain premier for the timebeing but she must retain the confidence of the house to continue as premier. If she cannot, one of several things can happen.

In this hung parliament situation, “the norm is the current premier gets the first shot at it, gets the first opportunity to form government,” UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison told DeSmog Canada.

Clark could try her hand at governing with a minority government but in each act of convening the house she would run the risk of losing its confidence.

“One option would be for the Liberals to take their chances, stake out their positions, the route they would propose to go in government in a throne speech and invite other parties to defeat them which is an interesting option — it’s a bit of a game of chicken,” Harrison said.

“They won’t expect the popular vote.”

Or Clark could choose to step down.

“Sometimes it’s in the interest of a government to control the terms of their defeat,” Harrison said.

If Clark did announce her resignation to the Lieutenant Governor the buck would pass to NDP leader John Horgan to become premier with a minority government. Horgan, like Clark, would need to maintain the confidence of the house to carry this out.

But the B.C. Liberals and the NDP might also jockey for the support of the Green party's three MLAs in the hopes of forming either formal or informal coalitions.

As Clark said last night, “I will work with the other parties to do what needs to be done to keep fighting to protect” B.C.

Here’s where things get very interesting. If you watched coverage of the election last night you may have heard that Andrew Weaver’s Green party “held the balance of power” meaning the Greens have the option to formally (by forming a coalition government) or informally (by maintaining confidence through the support of policy measures and budgets, for example) prop up either the Liberals or the NDP.

“In the days ahead there will be plenty of discussions taking place between all parties,” Weaver told a room of supporters last night.

A Liberal/Green Coalition?

It’s likely Clark will invite the Greens to join her cabinet, which they can do as Greens without crossing the aisle. But it is also likely that there will be some irreconcilable political differences that keep the Liberal and Green MLAs at loggerheads.

Weaver has yet to signal what his intentions are (although he did seem to suggest a preference for working with Clark in a controversial Global News interview) but throughout his campaign he stated banning big money in B.C. politics and electoral reform were up top on his list of priorities.

For years Weaver has campaigned to strengthen B.C.’s political donation rules, which currently allow unlimited amounts of foreign, corporate and union donations. The Green party has taken a strong stance on this issue by refusing to accept any corporate or union funds.

"Without any question, that's a deal breaker,” he said last week. “We've got to get the money out of politics.”

This could make the formation of a coalition government with the Liberals — a party awash in corporate cash — difficult.

The Green party is also committed to electoral reform, pushing for proportional representation in B.C. rather than the current first-past-the-post system.

“We support proportional representation because it is a fairer voting system, which encourages democratic participation and accurately reflects voters’ choices in the make-up of government,” Weaver said.

“It’s not obvious what the deal there would be,” Harrison said. “These are not issues that will be easy for Liberals and Greens to come to agreement upon.”

“Maybe financial reform,” Harrison said, “but electoral reform does not serve the Liberals' interests.”

On election night Weaver also stated his position on LNG is non-negotiable. Two LNG projects are approved in British Columbia — Woodfibre LNG in Howe Sound and Pacific Northwest LNG near Prince Rupert, which is projected to be one of the single largest source points of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, making it impossible for B.C. to meet its climate targets.

The Green party also pledged to cancel the controversial Site C dam, a crowning achievement and non-negotiable project for the B.C. Liberals.

So the differences in the Liberal and Green platforms seem pretty vast.

A NDP/Green Coalition?

As certainly as the Liberals will go courting the Greens, so will the NDP.

At a rally last night, John Horgan said a new government is in order.

“British Columbians have waited 16 years for a government that works for them, and we are going to have to ask you to wait a little bit longer until all the votes are counted and the final results of this election are known,” he said.

“But this is what we do know: A majority of British Columbians voted for a new government and I believe that’s what they deserve.”

A coalition between the NDP and the Greens seems easier to accomplish at least on the surface as the two parties share more general alignment on policies.

Of greatest significance is the NDP-Green alignment on two policies that would change B.C. elections forever. 

The NDP commitment to ban corporate and union donations falls squarely in line with one of the Green’s top priorities.

On electoral form, the NDP have also spoken in favour, vowing to send the issue to a referendum and campaign in favour of reform if if elected — also in line with the Green platform.

The NDP have also explicitly spoken out against the Pacific Northwest LNG project, due to significant greenhouse gas emissions and threats to the Skeena River salmon runs. So the NDP and Greens will likely have an easier time finding common ground when it comes to the LNG industry.

On Site C, the NDP have promised to send the Site C dam for an expedited review by the B.C. Utilities Commission, so it's also not hard to imagine the Greens and NDP finding common ground on this issue.

It’s possible a coalition with the Greens will give the NDP the political cover necessary to make several bold moves including banning big money in politics, moving to some form of proportional representation and possibly even scrapping the Site C dam altogether. 

Coalition a ‘Risky Proposition’ for Greens

The Greens will want to proceed carefully in their discussions with either the Liberals or the NDP, Harrison said.

“Coalitions governments are risky for junior partners,” she said.  

“I think for the Greens to enter a formal or informal coalition with either the NDP or the Liberals is a risky proposition because the junior partners in those coalitions tends to not fare well in the next election.”

The Green party will need to decide what its hardline tradeoff will be for supporting another party.

“Green parties internationally have a tendency to insist on some policy like a carbon tax — we already have one — as a condition for participation in the coalition and then get wiped off the map in the next election.”  

Yet there may be one key condition the Greens could place on their support: the promise of electoral reform.

“In this case I think the big win, the Holy Grail for the Greens would be a commitment to electoral reform for the system,” Harrison said.

The Green vote is depressed by the first-past-the-post system, Harrison said.

“It’s not that they don’t win seats, it’s that a lot of voters aren’t voting Green because they know their vote won’t count.”

A change in B.C.'s electoral system would both transform electoral politics in B.C. and would also change prospects for the Green party in the future, Harrison added.

“But it’s hard for me to imagine the Greens getting that concession from the Liberals because the Liberals have been the biggest beneficiary of the current electoral system.”

Image: Premier Christy Clark and Lieutenant Governor of B.C., the Honourable Judith Guichon, dissolve parliament for the 2017 election period. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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