With no party holding a clear majority, B.C. is facing governmental waters that it hasn’t tread for decades, and is staring down a political future that is wide open with possibility and uncertainty.
In the wake of the election in early May, the NDP and Greens announced a deal that gives them a combined 44 MLAs (41 for the NDP, three for the Greens) on votes of confidence in the legislature, resulting in a single vote majority over the BC Liberals (43 MLAs). BC Liberal leader and incumbent Premier Christy Clark, however, vowed to reconvene the legislature and face the house (possibly as early as this week), forcing the Greens and NDP to actually vote her down rather than resign.
B.C. hasn’t seen a minority government since the early 1950s, although there are plenty of more recent examples in other provinces and at the federal level, and University of Victoria political scientist Micheal Prince has pointed out to The Echo that, although nothing is certain, generally speaking — deal or no deal — minority governments simply aren’t as stable as majority governments.
“The (Green-NDP) deal was not a complete surprise. There are some similarities between the parties in terms of their platforms,” said Prince. “But it’s pretty hard to think that this arrangement could last the four years it’s supposed to, given the razor-thin majority. There are so many things that could happen, if an MLA is sick or absent, not to mention all the rumours flying about who will be speaker.”
The last minority government in B.C. was in 1952-1953 and “it didn’t last long,” said Prince, who went on to add, however, that B.C. politics then — with four parties; the Liberals, Conservatives, CCF, and Social Credit — was much different than it is now, with a classic two-party system centering on the NDP and BC Liberals having been standard for years.
“The wrinkle this time is the Greens, who got 17 per cent of the vote and three MLAs,” said Prince. “You have to wonder if this is a one-off blip or the start of a new era in B.C. politics.”
Looking at other provinces, said Prince, several minority governments have managed to last one-and-a half to two years – “not as long as majority governments, certainly, but longer than the six to nine months that other minority governments last, and enough to get through budget cycles and pass legislation. It shows it can be done.”
Indeed Prince pointed out that, federally, former prime minister Stephen Harper “governed effectively with successive minority governments for more than five years before he got a majority. During that time (when he had minorities), he was often effectively daring the other parties to bring him down.”
Greens face big risks, but could score big benefits
The NDP-Green deal carries potential benefits and risks for the Greens, according to Prince.
Among the risks is that, as the junior partner in the agreement, the Greens could face a backlash in the next provincial election from Green voters who did not wish to see their Green vote prop up an NDP government.
As Prince pointed out, that is exactly what was experienced by junior partners in similar situations in other jurisdictions with Westminster-style first-past-the-post electoral systems.The Ontario NDP came third in the 1985 Ontario election, but had a two-year agreement with the second-place Ontario Liberals that gave the two parties an edge over the Ontario Conservatives. In 1987, however, the Ontario NDP’s vote count dropped dramatically. In the same vein, the Liberal Democrats ironed out a five-year agreement to support the Conservatives (who were short of an outright majority) after the 2010 UK election, but the Liberal Democrats then paid a big price in terms of a large drop in votes come the 2015 election.
“It is a risk, and it will be a challenge for the Greens to work effectively with the NDP, but still retain— in the minds of voters — their own identity and principles,” said Prince. “It will be pretty tricky for them to manage, but clearly they see it as an opportunity in which the benefits outweigh the risks.”
Among the benefits to the Greens, if the NDP-Green deal does work out, is an aspect of the deal with the potential to transform B.C. politics permanently — a key part of the deal is holding a referendum on implementing some form of proportional representation for future B.C. elections. Under the terms of the deal, the referendum would likely be held in conjunction with the 2018 municipal elections across the provinces.
B.C. under proportional representation
Prince pointed out this would clearly be advantageous to the Greens, who would almost certainly have more MLAs under a proportional representation system, but would also be of benefit to the BC Conservatives and provincial Libertarian party.
“Proportional representation would, I think, not only see the rebirth of the BC Conservative Party, but also breathe new life into some of the smaller alternative parties,” he said.
How much life and for which parties is too hard to say at the moment, said Prince, who pointed out that 80 per cent of the electorate still voted for the two major parties this time.
But the road to proportional representation is far from clear, he added, noting there have already been two referendums on changing the B.C. electoral system, and both have failed. NDP leader John Horgan, however, has expressed willingness to lower the threshold for such a referendum to pass, to 51 per cent, said Prince, but the two parties have not yet outlined specifically what type of proportional representation (there are many models) they intend to hold the referendum on, and that, indeed, it’s not clear if they will agree on what type should be put to referendum.
If B.C. were to go to a proportional representation system the province “could see a lot more minority governments and a lot more coalitions,” according to Prince, who added while that type of cooperation may be commonplace in many European countries, it is something that “in North America we are not that familiar with or used to.”
Another issue stemming from adopting a proportional representation system would be a need to make the rulebook of how government functions a lot more clear, according to Prince.
“Part of the British parliamentary system is that in some respects, the rules are unwritten, or at least, not codified. For instance, around the selection of the speaker, which we’re hearing a lot about now, there’s a lot of tradition, but no clear rule book. So we’re seeing the parties try to figure out how to manipulate it to their own advantages,” he said. “If we were to go to a proportional representation system, we would need some kind of rule book written down, so people would know what to expect, as we would be heading into uncharted territory in terms of our political culture.”
Prince told The Echo the issue will likely become more clear as the governing situation continues to unfold throughout the summer and possibly into the fall.