Skip to main content

NDP Leader John Horgan elbow bumps a statue in Abbotsford, B.C., on October 21, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A few weeks before NDP Leader John Horgan called a snap election, he sought the advice of the president and chief operating officer of the second-largest private company in Canada.

Glen Clark, the former NDP premier now running Jim Pattison Group, shared his forecast of the coming year for B.C.'s economy.

The unsettling picture that Mr. Clark painted helped shape Mr. Horgan’s decision to break the minority government pact with the Greens and head to the polls one year early.

“We are in uncharted territory – there are all kinds of potential challenges up ahead," Mr. Clark said in an interview. A second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now begun in British Columbia, could lead to further lockdowns and a deeper recession, he said. What happens if government stimulus money runs out, and there is still no viable vaccine?

Meanwhile, inequality is growing, Mr. Clark continued, as the pandemic creates winners and losers in business – and low-income earners are disproportionately left behind. “As time goes on, there could be serious disruption. ... These will be the challenges for government: How do we rebuild the economy?"

Eager to imprint: BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson strives to make his mark

Mr. Horgan says the pandemic is the challenge he wants to tackle. “My vision is to build back a stronger, more dynamic economy that includes everybody,” he said in an interview ahead of Saturday’s election. “Let’s get the election behind us.”

But the unspoken factor is this: The NDP could see a path to victory that would allow them to shed the shackles of their alliance with the Green caucus. When he called the election on Sept. 21, Mr. Horgan’s personal approval ranking had climbed high in response to his government’s early handling of the pandemic.

The polls are just a snapshot in time. The danger for the NDP was that the public mood could be very different next year, if the economic recovery stumbles, bankruptcies mount and broad public acceptance of pandemic restrictions fade.

Mr. Horgan, the self-styled Happy Warrior who reluctantly took the helm of his party in 2013, was unapologetic when he shredded a signed agreement with the Greens who had supported his minority government and overrode the province’s fixed date election law in order to have this election on Saturday. This is because, he said, government needs a full rein to deal with the rough road that lies ahead.

Economists and business leaders anticipate an uneven recovery. Some sectors of the B.C. economy have rebounded since the initial pandemic restrictions were imposed in the spring. Employment has increased in rural communities that rely on resource industries such as forestry and mining. In the cities, low-skilled “consumer-facing” jobs, such as retail and hospitality, have been and will continue to be disrupted.

This fall may prove to be the NDP’s best chance of winning a majority government – a feat they have not achieved since Mr. Clark led his party to victory in the 1996 election.

Mr. Horgan was reluctant to seek the leadership of his party in 2013 – it was a job few wanted after the party’s devastating electoral loss that year. He was recognized within the NDP caucus as a peacemaker who could pull the acrimonious and fractured team back together – and won the job by acclamation. But he displayed little love for the conflict-based role of leading the opposition.

For the past 3½ years as premier of British Columbia, Mr. Horgan has largely shed the “angry John” reputation he developed while in opposition. He has revelled in the opportunity to lead an activist government.

One of the early changes Mr. Horgan announced as premier was the expansion of a program giving former youth in foster care access to free tuition at all 25 of B.C.’s public postsecondary institutions.

On Monday, he recounted a recent conversation with a woman who had taken advantage of the program, and is now a licensed practical nurse.

“I was bawling like a baby, quite frankly, because there’s an individual whose life was changed. She was a ward of the state for most of her childhood, she had [experienced] hopelessness and despair. And now she is giving back, happy,” he said.

That is, he said, why he wants this job enough to gamble on an early election.

“We have to work every day to make sure that the policies that we put in place give people hope, and that the future will be better than your past, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do since I started this.”

The NDP’s overconfident team in 2013 had not rehearsed for an election loss, and Mr. Horgan will not tempt fate on election day this Saturday. “Absolutely,” he will have both a victory speech and concession speech prepared, he said.

His rivals, both the Liberals and the Greens, have pressed Mr. Horgan throughout the campaign about the rationale for this snap election. The NDP Leader has struggled to provide a satisfying answer. He has said he needed more stability than the minority government could provide, but there was little sign of volatility. He has said he wants to get the politics behind him so government can focus on responding to the pandemic, but there had been no visible political distraction – in fact the legislature unanimously supported a massive pandemic relief package.

B.C. has also earned widespread accolades for its science-based, non-partisan response to COVID-19, led by Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and senior health officials.

“Dr. Henry would prove to be one of the most effective public-health officials in the world, with lessons for nations struggling to emerge from lockdowns,” The New York Times wrote in April.

Mr. Horgan was content to allow Dr. Henry to lead the health response. Looking back over recent months, though, it is now appears obvious Mr. Horgan had an election on his mind as he edged back onto centre stage with the pandemic reopening announcements starting in June.

On Monday, with less than a week left before Election Day, Mr. Horgan went to the advance polls to cast his ballot, and then met party volunteers at a campaign office in Victoria. “Work harder,” he urged the crew, but the response was laughter. The mood was relaxed and upbeat.

“We’ve been, I think, pretty successful in getting out to people the message that there’s a clear choice in this campaign,” Mr. Horgan said in the interview. “We’ll see if that’s proven correct.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.