Skip to main content

It is a rare moment in Canadian history when a representative of the Crown is called upon to play a pivotal role in politics. In British Columbia, Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon is consulting with lawyers and vice-regal counterparts across the Commonwealth to assess her options if the final results from the May 9 election create a hung parliament.

The final ballots are due to be counted starting this week. Based on the preliminary results, Premier Christy Clark has to broker an accord with Green party leader Andrew Weaver in order to remain in power.

Mr. Weaver is negotiating with Ms. Clark and NDP leader John Horgan to determine which party he'll support.

If Ms. Clark cannot muster enough support in the Legislature, it is Ms. Guichon, the former rancher who has devoted much of her 4.5 years in office promoting literacy, music and land stewardship, who will be left to make a difficult call.

The chain of events that would see the Queen's representative directly involved in determining when British Columbians head back to the polls will be set in motion only if Ms. Clark loses a confidence motion in the Legislature.

If the BC Liberals gain another seat when the last ballots are counted, Ms. Guichon's role will remain a largely ceremonial one: She will appoint cabinet ministers, summon the Legislature and read the government's Speech from the Throne at Ms. Clark's request.

If the current standings hold, however, and the Liberals have a minority of seats in the 87-seat legislature, the first test will be when MLAs are asked to vote on the Throne Speech, which outlines the government's agenda.

"This is where Mr. Weaver has real leverage," noted constitutional expert Ron Cheffins.

Mr. Cheffins, a former B.C. Court of Appeal judge, has advised five past lieutenant-governors in the province.

"He can either support the government, keep them going, or if he chooses to work with Mr. Horgan, the NDP and the Greens would have enough votes to bring the government down."

In such circumstances, Ms. Clark could be expected to visit Ms. Guichon at Government House and ask her to dissolve the newly-elected Legislative Assembly. That would trigger another provincial election. The cost to taxpayers for the May 9 election is estimated to be in excess of $44-million.

This is where Ms. Guichon would face a critical decision. The most important aspect of her position is to ensure that British Columbia has a First Minister. She could grant Ms. Clark's request, or she could give Mr. Horgan a chance to be Premier.

Mr. Cheffins, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria's political science and law departments, said both options are legitimate.

Mr. Cheffins was among the circle of advisers to former lieutenant-governor David Lam, who later revealed he was prepared to fire B.C. premier Bill Vander Zalm had the scandal-plagued leader of the Social Credit government not resigned of his own accord in 1991.

That would have been the first time since 1903 when the Queen's representative in B.C. had stepped in and fired a premier.

While it is unusual for a vice-regal appointee to interfere in Canadian political affairs, Mr. Cheffins pointed to two instances that would be relevant in this circumstance.

Ms. Guichon can look at the federal Constitutional crisis of 1926, often referred to as the King-Byng Affair.

Prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King asked the Governor General, Lord Byng, to dissolve the House of Commons and call an election to avoid losing a vote of confidence in his minority government.

However, Lord Byng refused, because there had been a recent election, and he felt there was an alternative government that could be established if the Conservatives and Progressives established an accord.

More recently in 1985, Ontario premier Frank Miller resigned after his Progressive Conservative government lost a critical vote in the legislature just weeks after taking power with a minority of seats. The Liberals and the New Democrats formed an unofficial coalition to defeat the Miller government on a vote of confidence.

In this case, lieutenant-governor John Black Aird played a critical role in the outcome, Mr. Cheffins recalled. "He sent an emissary to Mr. Miller and told him before the debate on the Throne Speech, 'If you are defeated, I will not grant you dissolution.'"

Armed with that knowledge, Mr. Miller resigned as premier after losing the vote. Liberal leader David Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae signed an accord that allowed the Liberals to form the government.

In both those cases, the key was that there was an alternative government ready to step up. If Ms. Clark loses a vote of confidence, it would be up to Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver to approach Ms. Guichon to make assurances that they were prepared to work together.

Despite those examples, Mr. Cheffins' advice – should Ms. Guichon ask – would be to dissolve the freshly-elected Legislative Assembly and launch another election. "There is an alternative, a defensible, constitutional alternative," he said. "But don't get into the mess – let the electorate decide."