Inside the negotiations to determine B.C.'s next government
The BC Liberals came close to forming an alliance with the Green Party that would have salvaged Premier Christy Clark's government. But in the end, it was an arrangement many Greens simply could not stomach, reports Justine Hunter
For a moment, it looked like a deal to keep the BC Liberals in power was in reach.
The negotiations to determine who would sit in the Premier's office in British Columbia in light of the finely balanced results of the May 9 election began in earnest last Thursday – after the final ballots had been counted and the Liberals' faint hope of picking up an extra seat had been decisively dashed. It made the Liberals flexible and talks, which had started earlier, were suddenly moving quickly.
Green Leader Andrew Weaver had made progress on all three of his stated priorities: official party status, campaign-finance reform and an agreement to work toward changing the electoral system, though Mr. Weaver had to concede a referendum would be needed.
A deal with the Liberals was tantalizing because combined, the two parties would have a comfortable five-seat majority in the legislature. A lengthy collaboration was possible, offering the alliance a chance to get rid of the first-past-the-post electoral system in time for the next vote in 2021, thereby giving the Greens a better chance of increasing their clout.
But heading into last weekend, the province's three Green MLAs – two of them brand new – were bombarded with outside pressure to reject a Liberal pact. The pressure came from environmental and First Nations groups that increased pressure publicly and through direct calls and e-mails from supporters who did not want them to prop up the Liberal government for another four years.
It was only then that Mr. Weaver and his two colleagues, Sonia Furstenau and Adam Olsen, realized they could not cross the chasm of environmental policy between their party and the Liberals.
The tensions, outreach and difficult decisions faced in negotiations by the three parties were described in a series of interviews with The Globe and Mail by people with knowledge of the proceedings on the condition that no one would be identified.
At the table
The Greens named their negotiating team on May 16, even before the final election ballots were counted, confirming the party would play a pivotal role in determining who would govern B.C. in the wake of the narrow election results.
Mr. Weaver led the negotiations for his party. His team included the Greens' deputy leader, Ms. Furstenau, chief of staff Liz Lilly and Norman Spector, their consultant on political strategy.
The NDP formed a team similar in balance: Led by Mr. Horgan, with his campaign director Bob Dewar, former party leader and veteran MLA Carole James and Marie Della Mattia, a senior campaign strategist.
Mr. Dewar and Ms. Lilly debated at length whether it was a good idea to have their respective leaders at the table, but in the end the face-to-face talks were critical to reaching a deal.
The Liberals announced their team as former finance minister Carole Taylor, Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong, Education Minister Mike Bernier and Brad Bennett, a senior adviser to the Premier. But Ms. Taylor was replaced after the first meeting by Mike McDonald, the architect of the Liberal Party's 2013 campaign victory and a long-time friend of Premier Christy Clark.
The talks were held in Victoria in different hotels – the NDP used the Grand Pacific next to the legislature buildings as its base, while the Liberals hosted at the Harbour Towers just up the street.
The Greens went into the talks with each party using the Ontario 1985 NDP-Liberal Accord as its template – the agreement that brought down Ontario premier Frank Miller's Progressive Conservative government.
The Greens disclosed publicly that they had three demands: A new electoral system, campaign-finance reform, and official status for their party in the legislature.
The talks began in earnest after Elections BC provided the final ballot count on May 24, confirming that the Liberals had lost their majority in the House.
While Elections BC was preparing to announce the final tally, the NDP was meeting with the Greens. The NDP didn't have far to move on the Greens' three priorities, as it had campaigned on a similar promise to end "big money" influence in party fundraising, and it agreed that changing the voting system from the current first-past-the-post system to proportional representation was a good thing. The NDP wanted a referendum, the Greens maintained a referendum should come only after the changes were in place.
On that Wednesday, the NDP had a lot of reasons to explain why it would take a long time to make such changes. The Greens' desire to move fast on proportional representation seemed to take over the talks, and convincing them that such change could not happen without the public's consent did not happen overnight.
The following day, the Liberals had their next meeting and upped the ante: They agreed to immediately implement campaign-finance reform – a big change from their previous position – and they agreed to put proportional representation to a vote.
They also offered the Greens certainty – together they would have 46 seats in the legislature, a far more manageable and secure balance of power. And because the Liberals are already in office, it would not take long to mobilize and get the promised changes enacted.
The Greens wanted action quickly – they knew their biggest leverage was to achieve changes in the next few months. If a deal with one side or the other fell apart six months from now, it would be more likely that B.C. would simply end up in another election campaign, and the Greens may never again have the same opportunity.
Then came the campaign to stop such a deal.
Ms. Furstenau appeared on the steps of the legislature at Ms. James's side to accept boxes of petitions, signed by 18,000 British Columbians, calling on them to do a deal together. That was just the public face of the intense pressure the Green MLAs were facing.
The Greens had campaigned on a promise to change government, and expectations were high that the party would deliver a new government, with an emphasis on climate action and other environmental policies.
Though Mr. Weaver helped craft B.C.'s then-groundbreaking carbon tax with former premier Gordon Campbell, the Liberals under Ms. Clark had campaigned to freeze the carbon tax, to build the Site C hydroelectric dam and to promote a new liquefied-natural-gas industry.
Plus, the Liberal government had inked a deal with Kinder Morgan to approve the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline. This is a party with a core commitment to natural-resource development. The Green brand could not survive such a match.
Mr. Spector, on his Twitter account, later described that the Greens ultimately "recoiled (sometimes physically) at the prospect of supporting a Liberal government."
By Friday, the prospect of an accord with the Liberals had all but evaporated. The Greens went into the talks that day with the NDP fully open to a pact, and made huge progress at the table. They focused on the many areas where the parties could agree – raising the carbon tax, saying no to Kinder Morgan and improving social services.
There was also important progress in the relationship between Mr. Weaver and Mr. Horgan. It had been frosty, at best, during the previous four years in the legislature. But in the five sets of talks over about 30 hours, the two men realized they shared commitments to improving the lives of children in government care, and enhancing services to seniors – common ground that they had overlooked in the heat of the campaign.
Toward the end of the day, Mr. Weaver held a news conference in the Rose Garden – the sunken plot just outside the Premier's wing of the legislature – to announce that his party was "very, very close" to reaching a deal with either the Liberals or the NDP to establish a minority government in the province.
For the Liberal negotiating team, Mr. Weaver's comments were a warning that there was very little time left to lay on the table any cards they were holding back. The Liberals had yet to table a formal proposal, and the Greens were getting anxious to reach a resolution.
On Sunday morning, the NDP and Greens nailed down a final major element – a commitment to an immediate review of the Site C dam project, although without halting construction.
The Liberals asked for an extra meeting on Sunday evening. Although the deal was essentially done with the NDP – something the Liberals would be unaware of – the Greens agreed to meet to see what more the Liberals could bring.
The two sides met from 6 p.m. until about 9:30 p.m., but the Greens felt the Liberals had little new to offer. There was still no formal offer from the Liberals. The Greens pressed the Liberals on several environmental issues, and the Greens were visibly uncomfortable with the answers.
Mr. Bernier, after returning to his Dawson Creek home – in the heart of B.C.'s natural-gas industry – from the unsuccessful talks, posted on his Facebook page that the Liberals could not break from their principles to meet the Greens' demands.
"What became very apparent to me is that in tough times, you need to stand by your principles, and not waver just to make deals."
When asked Tuesday whether she would characterize how the negotiations went with Mr. Weaver, Ms. Clark replied simply: "I would say they were unsuccessful."
The Greens made up their minds Sunday night – the deal with the NDP was the best they could reach – but chose to sleep on the decision before announcing it.
The Liberals had a bargaining session planned for Monday. Ms. Clark said later that she had been prepared to go to the table to negotiate directly with Mr. Weaver, but never got the invitation.
Instead, on Monday morning, Ms. Lilly called Mr. Bennett to tell him there would be no further talks. Mr. Weaver and Mr. Horgan then held a news conference to announce their deal.
Mr. Weaver told reporters he had received a telephone call from Ms. Clark on his way over to the news conference.
He let it go to voice mail.
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL: