Sept. 8: The legislature resumed for the NDP government's first Speech from the Throne, but not before a Liberal, Darryl Plecas, effectively defected from his party to become Speaker. The development, which was condemned as a "betrayal" by the BC Liberals, effectively gives the NDP-Green alliance a majority in the legislature
July 18: NDP Premier John Horgan and his cabinet were formally sworn in, elevating the New Democrats to power for the first time in 16 years. The legislature isn't expected to be recalled until September.
June 29: The Liberals were defeated in a vote of non-confidence, prompting Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon to invite the New Democrats to form a government. NDP Leader John Horgan is premier-designate, and his new government is expected to be sworn by late July.
June 28: NDP Leader John Horgan introduced an amendment related to the Throne Speech that says, in part: "Her Honour’s present government does not have the confidence of this House." The amendment is expected to be voted on late afternoon on Thursday, June 29.
June 22: Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon read the Liberal Throne Speech, outlining a dramatic remake of the party's recent election platform. Earlier in the day, Liberal MLA Steve Thomson was acclaimed Speaker of the legislature after formally resigning his post as forests minister.
British Columbia’s legislature is returning after an election that reduced the BC Liberals to a minority and opened up an opportunity for the New Democrats and Greens to join forces to bring down the government.
What happens next will be guided by arcane rules of parliamentary procedure and hundreds of years of unwritten conventions, which risk derailing the NDP’s ability to take power and govern, and could even trigger a snap election.
Here’s a look at what’s likely to happen – and the twists and turns that could emerge along the way.
The Liberals face defeat
The B.C. legislature will be recalled on June 22 with 43 Liberals, 41 New Democrats and three Greens. The first order of business will be to select a Speaker. The role has received particular attention because if the Speaker is a New Democrat or Green, he or she would be repeatedly called upon to break tie votes.
How a Speaker is elected
The Clerk of the Legislature sends every MLA a letter announcing the legislature is resuming, and includes a form about the election of the Speaker. This form is opt-out, which means MLAs have to indicate they do not want to be Speaker. If there are multiple MLAs left on the ballot, a secret vote is conducted. If there is only one person left, he or she is acclaimed.
The likeliest scenario is for the Liberals to put up a Speaker from their party to oversee the Throne Speech and subsequent confidence vote. Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong says the general rule is for the government to put forward a Speaker to ensure the house can function. And he says that would apply to the Liberals, who remain in government after winning the most seats, even without a majority. Liberal MLA Linda Reid has served as Speaker since 2013. However, Ms. Reid cannot volunteer again, as she was appointed to cabinet on June 12 as Minister of Advanced Education.
A New Democrat or Green could step forward instead, which would bring the standings in the legislature effectively to a tie since the Speaker does not normally vote. When the Throne Speech is voted on – which is considered a matter of confidence – the Speaker would cast the deciding vote. The convention is that speakers should vote to either continue debate or sustain the government – in other words, not to cast the deciding vote to bring down a government. However, the Speaker might announce he or she is breaking with convention given the unique circumstances and vote with the Opposition.
If every MLA opts out, the Clerk would announce that no member has come forward to be Speaker and give everyone another chance to come forward. If no one does, the Clerk would have no choice but to call a recess, since the legislature cannot conduct any business without a Speaker, and therefore would be in gridlock. If that drags on, the Premier could inform the Lieutenant-Governor that the legislature cannot function and ask for dissolution – and an election. It would be up to the Lieutenant-Governor whether to agree to that request.
What is a Throne Speech?
The Speech from the Throne is a formality required to open any new session of the legislature. Written by the government and read by the Lieutenant-Governor, Throne Speeches can include specific policy proposals but instead often focus on big themes. The BC Liberals’ Throne Speech will likely be heavy on self-congratulatory assessments of the government’s economic record, while also including new ideas aimed at urban voters during the next election (which could come sooner than later) and allowing them to say they did their best to work with the Greens.
With a Speaker in place, Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon will read the Speech from the Throne, likely on the afternoon of June 22.
The likeliest scenario is that the NDP will propose an amendment to the Throne Speech, which would be a vote of confidence. That vote is expected on June 29. If the Speaker is a Liberal, the government will have 42 votes; the NDP and Greens, with a combined total of 44, will easily defeat them.
An NDP Speaker would mean the votes in the legislature would be tied, with 43 Liberals and 43 Opposition members. By convention, Speakers should vote to either continue debate or sustain the government – in other words, not to cast the deciding vote to bring down a government. However, the Speaker might announce he or she is breaking with convention given the unique circumstances and vote with the Opposition.
The legislative session opens with a Throne Speech, but there’s nothing stopping the government from tabling legislation before the confidence vote. In previous sessions, budgets have been introduced before the vote on the Speech from the Throne. Any legislation, whether it’s a budget or something else, would interrupt the four days of debate required for the Throne Speech and, consequently, the confidence vote would be delayed.
Any change to the standings in the legislature – for example, because an MLA crosses the floor – would change the math and could either sustain the government or make it easier to vote it down. That may seem unlikely given the parties involved, but it’s happened before: No one expected former MP David Emerson to cross the floor from the Liberals to the Conservatives shortly after the 2006 federal election. The same applies if an MLA from either party is absent for personal or health reasons – or even if someone gets stuck in traffic. The caucus whips on both sides will be working hard to ensure every MLA is present and accounted for.
Premier Christy Clark will then meet with the Lieutenant-Governor and inform her that the government has lost the confidence of the legislature.
The likeliest scenario is that Ms. Clark resigns and clears the way for the NDP to form government; she has previously said she does not intend to ask for an election and instead is prepared to sit as Opposition Leader.
The Premier has said she plans to resign, but she could also ask for the legislature to be dissolved, triggering a new election. Some experts have suggested it’s unlikely the Lieutenant-Governor would agree to the request so soon after an election and knowing that the NDP and Greens have an agreement in place. But Ron Cheffins, a former B.C. Court of Appeal judge who has advised five B.C. lieutenant-governors, said his advice would be to “let the electorate decide” with another vote.
The NDP takes power
After accepting Christy Clark’s resignation as Premier, the Lieutenant-Governor is expected to ask NDP Leader John Horgan to form government. Mr. Horgan would become premier-designate during a transition period, when he and his team would have access to briefing notes and deputy ministers. After several weeks, Mr. Horgan would be sworn in as Premier and he would appoint a cabinet.
The New Democrats would then recall the legislature, which they have promised to do within a month of forming government. There are several bills they are obliged to introduce, according to their agreement with the Greens.
They don’t need to pass a budget right away. A supply bill passed in the previous legislative session has authorized enough money to fund government operations through the end of September, so they’ll need to pass a budget before that runs out or pass another interim supply bill.
It seems unlikely that a member of either party would cross the floor given the political climate in the province, though the NDP could use the promise of a cabinet post to entice a Liberal to join the new government’s ranks. If a Liberal crosses to the NDP, it would strengthen the party’s precarious position in the legislature. Conversely, if a New Democrat walked over to the Liberal benches, it would give the Liberals enough seats to force an election.
When the legislature is recalled, once again it must deal with the role of the Speaker. While the Liberals have said they plan to put forward a Speaker for the initial confidence vote, the party has also suggested Liberal MLAs are not interested in serving as Speaker under an NDP government.
The likeliest scenario is that the Liberal Speaker resigns his or her post, which is permitted under the rules, and forces the legislature to appoint a replacement. The New Democrats have already conceded that one of their members would probably need to step forward.
This creates the same math problem as before: If the Speaker is a New Democrat, the standings in the legislature would effectively be even at 43 votes on each side, with tie-breaking votes from the Speaker becoming routine.
When the legislature resumes, whoever became Speaker in June will remain in that position until he or she resigns. The Liberals could have a change of heart, or the Speaker could break with the plan and simply stay in the position. That would give the NDP and Greens 44 votes to the Liberals’ 42, giving the new government a slim but functional majority.
The legislature cannot conduct any business without a Speaker, and if the gridlock continues, it could trigger an election. This seems incredibly unlikely: Despite the challenges of governing with a New Democrat in the Speaker’s chair, that would still be a more attractive option than rolling the dice with a new election.
In addition to the Speaker, the legislature also needs to appoint a deputy Speaker, who oversees Committee of the Whole and Committee of Supply. If the deputy Speaker is also a New Democrat, this creates a new problem, since the Speaker does not participate in either committee. If the Speaker and deputy Speaker are both New Democrats, the NDP and Greens would together hold 42 seats in those committees, giving a Liberal majority of 43 an opportunity to stall legislation or impose amendments.
The Committee of the Whole and Committee of Supply
The Committee of the Whole conducts line-by-line reviews of bills and can make amendments before it is sent along to a third and final reading. The Committee of Supply reviews and approves government spending outlined in the budget estimates. Both committees include every member of the legislature except the Speaker, who is absent and does not participate in debates or votes. The deputy Speaker chairs the proceedings and does not vote except to break a tie.
The likeliest scenario is that an NDP MLA becomes deputy Speaker. The party has suggested it might amend the rules inside the legislature – including changing the role of the Speaker – to avoid giving the Liberals a majority in those committees. That would require a change to the standing orders of the legislature through a vote.
One possible rule change would see the Speaker take off his or her robes and sit on the committees as a normal, voting member. That would bring the standings in the committees back to a tie, with the deputy Speaker casting the deciding vote. Constitutional experts have recoiled at the possibility of allowing the Speaker to assume a partisan role.
If a Liberal volunteers to be deputy Speaker, the NDP and Greens would maintain their majority in both committees, which would function as usual.
Once the legislature has a Speaker in place, the Lieutenant-Governor would read the NDP’s Speech from the Throne, outlining many of the priorities the party campaigned on as well as policies included in the party’s power-sharing agreement with the Greens.
The likeliest scenario is that, with a New Democrat in the Speaker’s chair, the eventual confidence vote would be tied. By convention, the Speaker must vote to sustain the government, so he or she would vote with their party to avoid an election.
What comes next
The NDP government would then table a new budget, which must navigate through the committees of the whole and supply. If the New Democrats have changed the standing orders to bring the Speaker into those committees, votes would be routinely tied but then could pass with the Speaker’s and deputy Speaker’s tie-breaking votes.
The likeliest scenario is that, if the numbers in the legislature hold, the government would survive the confidence votes tied to the Throne Speech and budget.
If the NDP were to lose a vote on a piece of legislation, it would be a setback that could derail their agenda but it would not be fatal to the government. If they lose on a matter of confidence, such as on a budget bill, they would be at risk of falling.
However, if the government loses a confidence vote because an MLA was absent, an election isn’t automatic. The New Democrats would have the option of returning to the legislature to introduce a motion asserting confidence in the government. If any MLAs who missed the first vote show up and the motion passes, the government would survive.
Any changes to the standings in the legislature through defections or absent members could either threaten the NDP’s minority government or strengthen their ability to win votes. The caucus whips on both sides would be working to ensure every member is present for every vote.
The Liberals, who may not want to risk a snap election, could also make life easier for the NDP by allowing votes to succeed. One option would be through a system of “pairing”: When a member of one party needs to be absent from the legislature, a member of the opposite party also takes the day off. Or the Liberals could have members strategically miss votes or abstain to allow legislation and confidence votes to pass.
With a budget passed, the NDP government would turn its attention to tabling legislation. Again, with a New Democrat in the Speaker’s chair, votes would be tied.
There are conventions that guide how the Speaker is supposed to use tie-breaking votes. Faced with a tie, according to those conventions, the Speaker should vote: to sustain debate (by moving a bill from first to second reading, for example) or to maintain the status quo (by ensuring the government does not lose a confidence vote). Speakers are expected to avoid casting the deciding vote to pass legislation or amend a bill before the house.
But there are no practical consequences for breaking with those conventions. And while speakers may provide detailed reasons for their votes, they are not required to do so. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, New Zealand’s House of Representatives has allowed its Speaker to cast a vote along party lines since it switched to a system of proportional representation in 1996.
What if the Greens walk away from their deal with the NDP?
The NDP and Greens signed a document that sets out the conditions for a four-year power-sharing arrangement. But it’s essentially a gentlemen’s agreement, with no real consequences for either party violating the terms or ripping it up altogether. If at any point the Greens decide to end their support for the New Democrats, the government would be at risk of losing a confidence motion. If that happens, Mr. Horgan would visit the Lieutenant-Governor and likely ask for a new election.
What if the legislature can't get anything done?
Even with rule changes, the standings in the legislature will mean it will not be easy for the NDP to push through its agenda. Legislation could become stalled or even voted down. The Liberals could use procedural tactics to make that process even more difficult.
If the dysfunction becomes too great, Mr. Horgan may feel compelled to inform the Lieutenant-Governor that the legislature cannot complete its work and ask for an election. Having already changed the government once, the Lieutenant-Governor would have good reason to grant the request and dissolve the legislature.
What if it actually works?
There are many challenges facing an NDP minority government, but it’s possible for this arrangement to actually last a full four-year term. The next fixed election date in B.C. is set for 2021, so if the government hasn’t fallen by then, that’s when British Columbians would return to the polls.
They could be voting under a new electoral system. The NDP and Greens have agreed to implement proportional representation by then – through a referendum in the fall of 2018 – and to move election day to the fall, instead of May.
- With files from Justine Hunter and Ian Bailey