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David Anderson: Christy Clark’s imminent defeat could turn into victory

The political drama of the past two weeks continues. Next will be Premier Christy Clark’s throne speech.
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B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks during a news conference in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 30, 2017.

The political drama of the past two weeks continues. Next will be Premier Christy Clark’s throne speech.

Many are saying she shouldn’t bother, as we know from what has been said by Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and NDP Leader John Horgan the result of the throne speech vote is a foregone conclusion. It will be going down to defeat and Clark’s government with it, on the first substantive vote in the legislature.

After that, according to tradition, Clark will ask the lieutenant-governor to call on Horgan to form a government. The lieutenant-governor will comply, Horgan and his ministers will be sworn in, and B.C. will have a new government.

So if defeat and an NDP government are assured, why is Clark going through these seemingly unnecessary steps?

Because, given her position, they make good political sense.

Clark might be facing certain defeat when the legislature next meets, but while that would lead to her resignation as premier, she will still be a major player in B.C. politics. Minority governments are notoriously unstable, particularly when the numbers are as equally balanced as we have today.

Clark has the largest number of MLAs, and in last month’s election, her party led in the popular vote. Assuming she wishes to continue as leader of the Opposition, she has a good chance of becoming premier again, long before the four-year term of an NDP government has run its course.

Politics is full of surprises. MLAs die in office, get sick, resign, switch their support or abstain on votes of particular concern to their constituencies. Byelections can be expected, and in such votes, opposition parties generally do better than the government.

There are also out-of-province complications. The proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has pitted the B.C. NDP and the NDP of Alberta in a bitter confrontation that Horgan might not win. Even if he wins, winning might have a high price. The likely outcome is that core NDP support in both provinces will weaken as one NDP premier destroys the re-election chances of the other.

A throne speech can help Clark both with dealing with the NDP/Green MLAs, and, equally important, with her own caucus. As she said in her speech on election night, the election showed voter unhappiness with the lack of co-operation in politics.

Not said, but obvious, is that the election showed that in her efforts over the past four years to accommodate the right wing of the B.C. Liberals, she has lost suburban, largely centre and centre-right voters in key areas of metro Vancouver. A throne speech provides an opportunity for Clark to ditch the unsuccessful campaign rhetoric of the election and stake out new ground closer to the political centre.

A wild card in the pack is the right wing of her own party. The B.C. Liberal Party is a coalition. It appeals to a wide range of voters to the right of the NDP. Its coalition nature means there is always the possibility of it breaking up — indeed, B.C.’s last minority government, Social Credit, elected in 1952, got its chance of winning only after the Conservatives withdrew from the governing Liberal/Conservative coalition.

This means persuading the B.C. Liberal caucus’s most right-wing members to accept that an early move toward the centre of the political spectrum is needed to position the party better in its opposition role and in future elections. This change of direction and policies will fail if caucus members do not accept the change, and challenge Clark’s leadership, or worse, if it results in a new right-wing party forming.

Fortunately for Clark, as premier she holds the pen and writes the throne speech script.

Finally, a throne speech also provides the opportunity to put the NDP and Green MLAs on record as voting against whatever worthwhile measures it contains. The NDP and Green MLAs have agreed to vote against Clark’s throne speech no matter what measures it proposes, and thus a skilfully written speech will have them voting against many of the measures on which they campaigned.

Further, they campaigned on allowing MLAs to vote according to the merits of the issues involved. New MLAs might find themselves in a future election explaining to voters why their first vote in the legislature was not a vote on the merits of the motion and according to their consciences. This is not a major issue, but pointing out the inconsistencies of other parties’ positions is time-honoured politics — particularly with politicians who claim to hold higher standards than the rest.

Nothing is certain in politics, but Clark’s last throne speech might turn out to be the first step in her return to the premier’s office.

 

David Anderson was both an MLA and an MP for Victoria. He served as leader of the B.C. Liberal Party from 1972 to 1975. Subsequently, he was elected to the federal House of Commons, where he served as fisheries minister, transport minister, and for five years as Canada’s longest-serving minister of the environment.