The new year will bring uncertainty to British Columbia’s political landscape, with opportunity and risk for each of the three parties in the legislature.
The departure of Green leader Andrew Weaver means the relative stability of NDP Premier John Horgan’s minority government over the past 29 months is no longer assured. At any time it could be over, he tells his cabinet ministers, so get to work now.
While Mr. Weaver sits back and lets his party organize a leadership contest under the watch of a soon-to-be-appointed interim leader, both Mr. Horgan and Liberal opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson must recalibrate if they are to take advantage in the next election, less than two years away.
“I’m going to miss Andrew,” Mr. Horgan says in an interview.
The minority government led by the New Democrats has enjoyed remarkable stability, thanks to the support of the Greens. The two parties entered into a formal pact known as the Confidence and Supply Agreement in the summer of 2017.
But a new Green leader, who will be selected next June, may not support that agreement.
“What will a new leader do, I have no idea," the premier said. "I’ll just take it as it comes.”
A new Green leader may choose to establish his or her profile by making life difficult for the party’s NDP partners - the Greens will have to define themselves as a different choice in the next election, and being an adjunct of the current government makes that challenging.
“Whoever emerges as the leader of the Greens, we will sit down and see where we go. But we always have to be ready for an election.”
The reality of a minority government is that Mr. Horgan has never been able to take for granted his hold on power. Some of his cabinet ministers are just getting their feet after two and a half years in government, he said.
Mr. Horgan notes that he and Mr. Weaver didn’t start out as allies, but they managed to find common ground. He hopes he and the next Green leader will, too.
“What I would like to see is a practical, pragmatic Green Party that recognizes that you can have economic development and environmental and ecological sanity at the same time.”
Of the three leaders, Andrew Wilkinson is the only one who sounds keen on an early return to the polls.
“Minority governments in Canada usually last two to three years. We’re at two and a half years now, so we will be ready for an election in 2020, no matter when it might occur," he said in an interview. "As I’ve traveled all around the province, whether you’re in Kelowna or Quesnel or Williams Lake or Delta, people say, ‘Can we have an election tomorrow?’ because they’re very frustrated with the NDP’s heavy-handed approach to telling people how to live.”
Mr. Wilkinson’s party lost its grip on power in May 2017, when Mr. Weaver and the rest of the three-member Green caucus chose to support the NDP in a minority government. At the time, Mr. Weaver pronounced that it was “time for a time-out” for the Liberals after 16 years in government.
Mr. Wilkinson, who took over the Liberal leadership in the aftermath of that election, has to demonstrate to voters that his party has served its time on the opposition benches. He also has some work to do in getting his own name out in front of voters.
A strong Green party can bleed support from both the NDP or the Liberals, but Mr. Wilkinson is focused on his NDP rivals. He is dividing his time between shoring up the Liberal strongholds in the interior of the province, and seeking to regain traction in Vancouver’s suburban ridings. The southern end of Vancouver Island, where the Greens are strongest, are not a priority.
“In the interior, we are very strong ... so we spend a lot of time giving attention to the interior so they don’t ever feel like they’re forgotten or neglected," he said. “I spent a lot of time in the suburbs of Vancouver, making sure that people are aware [that] the NDP record has not really delivered anything to them.”
Mr. Weaver is in a jolly mood as he sits down for an interview - one of the last he will give while in the role he has held for the past four years. The tension that comes with the job seems to be melting away.
Following the passage this fall of the Climate Change Accountability Act, Mr. Weaver declared that his work in the political realm is done, and it’s time for his party to chart a new path.
“I’m really going to step back. I have other things that I want to do,” he said.
Mr. Weaver recounts how he almost decided to bring down the minority government because of Mr. Horgan’s pursuit of a liquefied natural gas industry. But he says he is no longer interested in carrying the torch against LNG.
“I do not want to be that person on the front lines fighting LNG. I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” he said. “I’ll enjoy watching history unfold itself and saying ‘I told you so.’”
Mr. Weaver is not without regrets about the NDP-Green alliance. “There have been moments in the last couple of years that I have felt that we should have been more forceful ourselves as B.C. Green MLAs.... We have some soul-searching [to do], both as a caucus and also in terms of our relationship with the NDP, and I believe, over the next two years.”
He expects one, if not both, of his caucus colleagues Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen to run for leadership. He is hasn’t decided if he will endorse anyone in the race. He doesn’t want to see the party return to its “eco-socialism” roots. But when it comes to the dynamics of the legislature, he says he will be hands-off.
Maybe his successor will want to take a harder line with the NDP minority government - maybe they’ll want to force an early election. “That would be up to the new leader," he said. But he is betting the minority government will survive until the fall of 2021, when the next election is currently set. “I think the new leader might take a look at our party and ask whether we’re ready for an election or not, and probably suggest ‘No’.”