I’m amused and somewhat disappointed at all the hand-wringing about the imminent British Columbia minority government.
Since the May 9 election that gave no single party a majority of seats in the B.C. Legislature, political pundits, former elected officials and newspaper editorials have quickly pointed out that recent minority governments have failed to last.
That’s historically true. The last B.C. minority government to last more than a year was a Liberal government that lasted 1,406 days, or 3.85 years, back in 1924-1928.
But the argument that every minority government will fail relies on a modern phenomena: minority governments require too much compromise and negotiation.
Too much compromise and negotiation?
Are British Columbians so used to absolutely NO compromise and negotiation from dictatorial majority provincial governments that the idea our MLAs might have to talk seriously with each other is abhorrent?
Don’t you find the notion slightly insulting that Canadian elected officials cannot cooperate and collaborate for the common good?
A recent Globe and Mail editorial said, “… it requires a leap of quasi-religious faith to believe that this (NDP and Green Party) coalition can hold for anything close to four years … It also means parties having to compromise with their partners.”
As if that’s something Canadians can’t or won’t do. Why not?
Where did this notion come from that says every piece of legislation proposed in the B.C. Legislature must pass? And if one doesn’t, then convention dictates that the government must resign and British Columbians must go back to the polls and elect a government that can do whatever it wants.
It’s a convention that perpetuates block voting and absolute loyalty to party leadership. But it discourages honest debate and the ability to amend and improve legislation. A poorly written bill should fail.
Fortunately, the current iteration of a B.C. minority government includes the Green Party, which allows its members to vote their conscience. This introduces the possibility that not every NDP proposal will pass and that the Legislature can continue without calling another election. It also suggests that MLAs might have to collaborate to make policy.
This type of collaborative government works well in other stable and leading countries — like Germany and New Zealand — and made the norm by the electoral system of proportional representation.
If the NDP and Greens can show British Columbians that our elected officials are capable of working together for good governance, despite their disagreements, then we will all benefit.
The newly reconfigured Courtenay-Comox riding dispensed a few surprises for the political experts this year. The biggest one: it’s still a swing riding.
With control of the B.C. Legislature hanging on the outcome of a recount and some 2,000 absentee ballots, the riding unexpectedly became this election’s center of attention. It wasn’t supposed to be so close.
When the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission split Cumberland from the Comox Valley, and moved this traditionally strong NDP community into a new mid-Island constituency, the change should have favored the Liberals. Add in growing Comox Valley support for the Green Party, which naturally siphons most of its votes from the NDP, and the stage was set for a third consecutive Liberal victory.
The fact that the NDP won the new riding by a slim 189-vote margin for Ronna-Rae Leonard triggers some interesting observations about Courtenay-Comox voters, as well as the mood of the province.
The vote was clearly a rebuke of Christy Clark. When a province’s economy leads the nation, records Canada’s lowest unemployment rates and balances its budget, the incumbent government should expect to retain a majority.
Instead, voters revolted against Clark’s arrogant attitude, her vendetta against teachers and the ravaging of public school funding, her too-cozy relationship with corporations and her terrible decisions for British Columbia’s environment regarding LNG plants, dams that only benefit Albertans and inviting an armada of oil tankers in the Salish Sea.
All of these issues must have resonated with the 16,000-plus Courtenay-Comox voters who cast ballots for the NDP and Green parties.
On the flip side, the strong military support for the Liberal candidate, Jim Benninger, a former commanding officer of CFB Comox, didn’t materialize.
Political pundits predicted that the absentee ballots would comprise mostly military personnel and that they would lean Liberal. Didn’t happen. The absentee ballots actually broke in favor of the NDP.
Was Benninger just not a good candidate, or do individuals in the armed forces share the majority’s growing concerns for the environment and of inappropriate corporate influence and access to Liberal cabinet ministers? The latter seems more likely.
And let’s not forget that this is still a swing riding. Of the 24 elections since 1933 — including this one — the NDP/CCF have won 11, the Liberal/Social Credit/Conservatives have won 13. (Herbert Welch, running for a Liberal-Conservative coalition, won two elections and served from 1945 to 1952.)
The popular vote in this riding has always been close. Except for the 2001 election when Stan Hagen rode the wave of support for a new Liberal/Social Credit coalition, no candidate has won a majority of the vote. Hagen got 56 percent that year.
And despite Hagen’s and Don McRae’s victories for the Liberals in 2005, 2009 and 2013, they received fewer total votes than combined NDP/Green candidates in each election. In the 2013 election, McRae trailed NDP/Green candidates by 1,768 votes.
In this election, the NDP/Green candidates nearly doubled that margin, out-polling the Liberals by 3,339 votes.
But in both the 2013 and 2017 elections, Conservative party candidates also played a role. They won 1,740 votes in the 2013 election, making that a dead heat. And they won 2,201 votes this year, cutting the NDP/Green lead to 1,138.
So, what does that mean?
It means this riding, with or without Cumberland, is almost evenly split.
So shouldn’t people expect the winning candidate to represent the Comox Valley with a mindful recognition of the progressive policies of the NDP and Green parties as well as the conservative ideology of the Liberals? That hasn’t been the case.
Hagen almost exclusively catered to the big money crowd. McRae less so, perhaps, at least not so obviously. And will Leonard turn her back on nearly half of her constituents?
The problem, of course, is the blind allegiance MLAs must devote to their party leadership. Vote how we tell you. There’s no tolerance for independence in the Legislature.
And until party leaders loosen their tight grip on individual MLAs, British Columbians will be best served by minority governments. When party leaders have to compromise and negotiate, rather than rule with an iron hand, they produce better legislation.
People often ask me about the differences between the U.S. and Canadian electoral systems. There are many, but one stands out as the most important.
Individual candidates hardly matter in British Columbia elections.
Canadians vote first of all for the party, its record or its campaign promises. And there’s a valid reason for this party-first voting tradition.
An MLA in B.C. is expected to publicly support and vote the party line. Every time. Without exception.
While differences of opinion may be tolerated during private caucus sessions, an MLA who dares to criticize his or her party or to vote against their party can expect a swift eviction notice. Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson discovered this hard truth in 2010 when he criticized his party leader on a community website.
Political parties learned long ago that if they failed to pass a piece of legislation, the public would lose confidence in them, and that, in turn, would make another general election unavoidable and its outcome uncertain.
So party leaders acquired the power to discipline MLAs who fall out of line.
And to keep them in line, well-behaved MLAs receive rewards. Some get cabinet appointments, some get travel junkets, some get pork barrel benefits for their ridings and some get other coveted appointments; the list of possible benefits is long.
As a result, most individual Members of the Legislative Assembly in a parliamentary democracy are much less powerful than members of American state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. In the U.S. system, Republicans and Democrats frequently swing their votes across party lines based on specific constituency interests. Not so much on the Big Ticket issues.
But this ability to vote independently of party affiliation, bestows greater importance on individual candidates in the U.S. system than in British Columbia.
On the flip side, it also makes American elected officials more vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists. Without a party leader telling you how to vote, the temptations dangled by outside interests, who aren’t accountable to voters, can be persuasive.
It’s also clear in B.C. politics that only the select few in the premier’s tight group of confidents have any significant impact on party policy. This is also true in the U.S. system. But as U.S. President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have discovered, a fracture in party unity can disrupt the plans of the boys and girls at the top.
So, unless a candidate in B.C. is embroiled in some scandal or ranks high enough in the party to have a material impact on policy, the local campaign rarely hinges on the record or actions of an individual candidate.
And that’s what makes the May 9 provincial election difficult for many voters.
What if, for example, you dislike the B.C. Liberal Party’s policies on education, the environment and government transparency … and maybe you have a particular aversion to party leader Christy Clark..
Maybe you just think that after 16 years it’s time for fresh faces in Victoria.
But what if you find the Liberal candidate more likable, smarter and more sympathetic on the local issues that concern you than the NDP candidate?
You might consider voting Green or Conservative, but if you’re at all pragmatic, you know neither of those parties has a chance to win.
If you’re interested in the direction of British Columbia generally, and how it fits with your world-view, rather than only your personal interests or those of your specific community, you have no choice.
You must base your vote on party policy, not on the appeal of any individual candidate.
When people start suggesting that highly paid writers such as myself – rumored to be in the high single digits! – start writing about British Columbia’s spring provincial election campaign, we do what any other sane person would do: hide under our desks until those people go away.
Well, that’s what we used to do before they invented Google. Now, whenever I want to avoid writing by wasting a lot of valuable time, I call up Google. I Google recreationally, or casually, you might say. With No Strings Attached. In other words, I Google without any meaningful commitment.
I don’t know why, but suddenly, in an era when a U. S. president promotes his executive orders on Twitter, this seemed an appropriate method to research a piece about the upcoming election.
I discovered, for example, that there really is such a thing as a “good politician,” because Google (Canadian version) returned 50.9 million hits for that phrase. Unfortunately, this is the Year of Trump, so I got 51.8 million hits for “bad politician,” perhaps signaling a negative trend in governance.
However, the results for “straight shooter” (8.78 million hits) encouraged me by crushing those who speak with a “forked tongue” (572,000 hits). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the fact that the phrase “we’re here from the government, and we’re here to help you” tallied a pitiful 94,600 hits.
But did you know that someone out there has already searched with almost every adjective you can think of in front of the word “politician?” … Someone who may be eligible to vote.
We apparently think our politicians are less “sleazy” (351,000 hits) than “silly” (614,000), and, even more surprising, “intelligent” (821,000 hits).
British Columbians might consider saving ourselves a lot of time and expense by dispensing with political campaigns altogether and just decide the spring provincial election by the number of Google hits each candidate receives. It would be kind of like online voting.
If we switched to Google-voting, local NDP candidate Ronna-Rae Leonard would crush her Liberal opponent, Jim Benninger, by a vote of 1,530 to 1,400.
But both the B.C. Liberal Party (497,000 hits) and the B.C. NDP Party (457,000) would lose to the B.C. Green Party, which tallied an astonishing 11 million hits.
Google-voting wouldn’t out well for NDP leader John Horgan, however. He would lose to Liberal Christy Clark by 14 million to 463,000. However, once again, the Green Party tops the polls. Green leader Andrew Weaver collected 18.8 million hits.
On a positive note, “Elect Justin Trudeau” snagged 26.6 million hits, more than doubling the vote for “Elect Kevin O’Leary.” Although, when you search for O’Leary’s self-imposed nickname, Mr. Wonderful, he turns in a respectable 13.3 million. But, thankfully, not enough to win.
I have no idea what this means, but there appear to be more “goofy” Liberals (354,000 hits) than “goofy” NDPers (127,000 hits).
In the end, however, this Google- voting system might not work.
While the concept of “voting” is encouragingly strong (178 million hits), it might come from a worrisome number of illiterates. If you misspell the word “vote” by adding an extra letter “o”, it takes an extra 62 “Os” until Google cannot find any more results.
Finally, in a triumph of man over ape, the phrase “Elect George” returns 69.9 million hits, while “elect Curious George” only swings 347,000. So there’s hope.