Last night’s B.C. election results, which may yet change as absentee ballots are added and counts are verified in two weeks’ time, left Green leader Andrew Weaver in the enviable position of kingmaker.
His party’s three seats, added to the current seat totals for either the Liberals or New Democrats, would deliver the magical majority of seats needed to govern.
During the campaign, Weaver made no secret of his personal animus towards NDP leader John Horgan, often seeming more comfortable in the company of Premier Christy Clark. In the campaign’s final days, he refused to state who he would prefer to support in a minority situation. If his ego rules the day, one would not be surprised to see him award his rose to the Liberal leader.
But doing so would be political suicide, for him and for his party. Weaver may understandably want to preserve his bargaining power by flirting with both suitors, but if this decision comes down to the cold, hard facts that Weaver spent the campaign imploring politicians to follow in their decision-making, he’ll choose Horgan.
Votes for change
"We offered people a change that they could count on, and British Columbians delivered that change tonight," said Weaver in his post-election remarks.
Nearly 60 per cent of voters cast their ballots for a party other than the Liberals, and the pitch Weaver made to supporters was that a vote for his Greens was a vote to end the Liberals’ 16-year reign in government.
“Either we [the NDP] have a coalition with the Greens,” wrote Vancouver comic and author Charles Demers on Facebook, “or they go the way of the British Lib-Dems.”
Comparisons to the junior partner in the United Kingdom’s Conservative coalition government of 2010-2015 were widespread as the results became clear last night, and with good reason. After propping up a government most of their voters wanted replaced, and being forced to go along with policies unpopular with their base, the Liberal Democrats were decimated in the 2015 election.
It’s a cautionary tale for Weaver. No matter what concessions he extracts from Clark, his voters may not forgive him if he returns an unpopular and scandal-plagued premier to office.
Supporters promised change they can “count on” may forgive Weaver for vote splits that gave Clark a plurality of seats, but they’re unlikely to forgive him or the party if, given the choice, he puts the Liberals back into government.
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Last night, when interviewed by CBC, representatives of both the NDP and Greens laid out the same two deal-breakers when it came to their willingness to form a coalition: electoral reform (towards a proportional system) and banning of big money from politics.
The Liberals have opposed both proposals, while the NDP and Greens made them centrepieces of their respective campaigns. Were it not for Weaver’s personal animosity towards Horgan, this alone would indicate the shape of a future coalition government.
Even if Weaver were to extract a reversal from the Liberals on both points, will his supporters trust a Liberal government and Liberal ministers to implement policies that will blunt their own longstanding electoral advantages?
Interviewed on CBC radio this morning, one Liberal MLA after the other indicated their unwillingness to put the Site C dam on the negotiating table.
A Green Party official interviewed by CBC last night also named the dam as a potential deal-breaker, suggesting an agreement with the Liberals would be difficult due to their very different views on economic development.
A recent poll showed that 73 per cent of British Columbians want construction of the dam to be halted, and Weaver has argued that “proceeding with Site C is actively driving clean energy investment out of the province, but it is not too late to correct our province’s power trajectory."
Horgan’s New Democrats have long opposed the dam.
Climate and pipelines
Another issue that unites New Democrats and Greens is their shared opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline project. Slated to begin construction in September, the pipeline has been approved by the National Energy Board and the Trudeau government, but faces stiff opposition in B.C.
Clark’s government signed off on the pipeline in January, after Kinder Morgan agreed to meet her five conditions for approval. In a pre-election poll, exactly half of British Columbians believed the pipeline would have a “negative” effect on B.C.’s environment, compared to only 12 per cent who thought it would have a positive impact. The same poll found climate was the second most important election issue for voters, right behind taxes.
Will Clark be willing to flip flop on her support for the project to win over Weaver’s support? Will Weaver’s supporters forgive him if he flip-flops on the pipeline, perhaps in exchange for a Liberal commitment to raise the carbon tax?
The best case scenario for Weaver in an alliance with Clark’s Liberals is that they make him minister of the environment and empower him to take climate action they can live with — action such as the aforementioned increase to the carbon tax, which former Liberal MLA Kevin Falcon suggested would be on the table during last night’s CBC coverage.
For the sake of argument, let’s also grant him two other big concessions on his cited deal-breakers: a referendum on electoral reform and a ban on corporate and union donations along with lower donation limits.
That would still leave him responsible for defending the government’s support for projects such as Kinder Morgan and Site C, projects he campaigned vigorously against and which are top of mind for Green supporters.
Can anyone imagine that most Green supporters would stand by Weaver in such a scenario? Conversely, can anyone imagine Clark agreeing to reverse herself on a carbon tax increase, electoral reform, campaign finance reform and Kinder Morgan and Site C? What about LNG?
And even if he were to pull off such a miracle, what about the underfunding of education, affordable housing and other social services, which motivated many of his voters? Will he trade off those commitments to win action on the environment, and if he does will voters not wonder whether his is a single-issue party?
Conversely, negotiations with the NDP would start from a position of agreement on all these issues.
Personality versus policy
The only conceivable reason for Weaver to choose Clark over Horgan is personal, not political. If his goal is to deliver the change he promised to his voters, and to stay true to the policy promises he has made, then he’ll back Horgan’s NDP.
If he chooses Clark, it will be hard to escape the idea that his ego, rather than the rationality he espouses, made the decision for him. Voters are rarely kind to politicians who prioritize personal grudges over the best interests of their supporters.
In that scenario, it’s hard to imagine the next election not delivering his party the type of resounding repudiation that the Lib-Dems endured two years ago.
At that point the Liberals will have been in power for nearly 20 years, propped up by the Greens for the last several, and voters seeking change will have only one real choice.
A Liberal majority, or an NDP government
The riding of Courtenay–Comox was won by the NDP with a margin of nine votes, and if absentee ballots or a recount flip that seat to the Liberals, they will have their majority. We won’t know that result for sure for several weeks, and no deal will happen until it’s confirmed.
It is likely the only outcome in which Clark remains premier.
Assuming the results remain as they are now, Weaver will be kingmaker in B.C.’s first minority government in over 50 years. It’s a great spot for him and his party, and he’s right to play up his willingness to work with either party in order to maximize his bargaining power.
But don’t expect him to wind up with the Liberals at the end of that process. Doing so would almost certainly doom both his career and his party, and Weaver seems smart enough to avoid that trap.