Maclean Kay: 2018 the sequel to an exciting year in B.C.


We don’t produce many legitimate constitutional dilemmas in Canada, much less British Columbia, so 2017 was a year for the history books.

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And while it might not top 2017, the year ahead is shaping up to be interesting.

Let’s start with the B.C. Liberal leadership race, culminating on Feb. 3. However you feel about the party, the campaign or the people in it, the winner instantly becomes the odds-on favourite to become B.C.’s next premier. It’s easy to forget, but they’ll be at the helm of what is still the largest party in both seats and popular support.

Setting their ideas and personalities aside, one outcome would be different from the rest. Alone among the candidates, former Surrey mayor and MP Dianne Watts lacks a seat in the legislature.

So did Christy Clark, but she did have an obvious place to run in Gordon Campbell’s freshly vacated Vancouver seat. Watts does not. The B.C. Liberals hold just three of nine ridings in Surrey, but those three are relatively safe, and it’s difficult to see why one of the MLAs would volunteer to step down.

This isn’t a reason to vote for or against Watts, or any other candidate. But it would make for interesting times.

Whoever wins, they won’t have much time to celebrate. Less than two weeks later, the legislature comes back into session, along with the NDP’s first real budget.

This will be big.

Yes, they introduced a budget update in the fall. But even the NDP would tell you it was rushed, and after last summer’s festival of confusion, fair enough. For any new government, post-election budgets are like a soft launch — the real deal comes in February.

Most new governments get an unofficial grace period, where they can plausibly blame their predecessors for, well, everything. But that’s going to be tougher for the NDP.

First, it has 16 years of promises to try to live up to, including big-ticket items such as smaller class sizes and $10-a-day daycare. Worthy goals — but also wildly expensive. And that’s even if the federal government feels like contributing half, as the NDP expects, and is prepared, eventually, to do the same for the other provinces. (They don’t, and aren’t, respectively.)

Keeping promises made in opposition or during elections is tricky for any new government. But the NDP inherited the budget surplus of its wildest fever dreams.

To be clear: These are nice problems to have. In government, they tell you the worst day in power is better than the best day in opposition. That might be true, but there’s also much more scrutiny and pressure — from the opposition, from the public and from supporters. And a lot more math.

In many ways, the leadership race and budget will be preliminary to the real main event of 2018: the proportional-representation referendum.

Once again, all eyes will be on B.C., because this referendum has every chance to pass. Partly because the NDP and Green Party will throw the kitchen sink at it, but more importantly, because the bar for success is absurdly low — enough to trigger another crisis.

Changing our entire democratic system will be possible with just 50 per cent plus one of the votes cast, theoretically as low as 25.1 per cent of all voters. And if that sounds alarmist, the referendum in 2009 — yes, we just did this eight years ago — saw a turnout of just 55 per cent.

The Parti Québécois, on its angriest and most paranoid day, wouldn’t try to claim that less than a third of registered voters constitutes a mandate for substantial change. But the provincial government thinks it’s good enough for B.C.

You might believe proportional representation is necessary, or maybe just worth a try. That’s a good and interesting discussion to have. But if a “clear majority” is legally and specifically required for constitutional change elsewhere in Canada, there’s no reason to believe these results won’t be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.

Last year, B.C. played national newsmaker. This year, it looks like we’re getting the sequel.

Maclean Kay was former premier Christy Clark’s speechwriter for five years.

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