Greg Lyle is the founder and managing director of Innovative Research Group Inc., a national public-opinion research and strategy firm, and a veteran of political campaigns in British Columbia going back to the 1980s.
It has been more than 60 years since the legislature has had to deal with negotiations around a minority or coalition government. With electoral reform on the table, what is at stake is not just the opportunity to form a government for the next few months or years, but the fundamental dynamic of political competition in British Columbia. There are four big challenges the leaders must consider:
The theoretical power MLAs always hold is now real
Remember Elijah Harper? Well, you probably would not if Manitoba was not in a minority during the Meech Lake Accord. In B.C.'s close minority, any member has the potential to make history.
In a minority, leaders propose and MLAs dispose. Later this week, the leaders will reveal their intentions regarding who will support which party. But we won't know for sure if the proposed deal will stick until each and every member casts their vote in the house.
If the leaders fail to effectively marshal their caucuses, if their staff and advisers slight even one member the day of the vote, if a single member has a crisis of conscience, all these plans will be for naught. And this new reality remains true for every money vote in committee of the whole and in the legislature until the next election.
For caucus members, this is the golden age of the backbencher. Their theoretical power is now manifest. How will they use it?
The implications for the Liberals of moving into the opposition benches
While the NDP no doubt hopes to form government for the benefit of implementing its agenda, the real benefit to them may well come from the problems created for the BC Liberals if they move to the opposition.
First, as opposition leader without the powers a premier holds to reward and punish MLAs and party members, Christy Clark becomes vulnerable to a leadership challenge. The BC Liberal coalition is always fragile and a leadership fight could break the coalition apart.
Second, in opposition the Liberals lose control of their brand. An NDP government can be expected to create various forms of public inquiries on all manner of past Liberal controversies. Moreover, you can expect a concerted effort to mine the files of government to discover and reveal new scandals, real or perceived. Week after week, month after month, the Liberal brand will be pummelled by bad news stories.
All else being equal, the distraction of the leadership conflict and publicity around the search for scandals could well be all the NDP needs to secure a majority in the next election. Of course, in seeing that, the BC Liberals might move quickly to coalesce around a new leader who was not around during any of the controversies of the past, thus minimizing the impact of past scandals in the next election.
The Greens' challenge of remaining relevant
There has been a lot of discussion about the need for stability and the Greens appear to have accepted that concern as genuine. However, any agreement that delivers stability to the government trades away the Greens' future relevance. If the Greens adopt some sort of pact that exchanges specific policy changes for a commitment of support for a determined period of time, they stop being newsworthy.
Moreover, because the government and its ministers will implement the Green plan, an NDP or a Liberal government will at least share the credit of the Greens' ideas, if not ending up owning those ideas.
The Greens might do better to look at how the federal NDP often approached budgets. When it was at its best, the federal NDP would develop an agenda for each major confidence opportunity in the federal Parliament. This gave the party the spotlight both as it developed its agenda and then in negotiating with the federal government for the implementation of its ideas. The 2005 federal Liberal minority budget was a great example of this strategy at work.
Stability is something governments like, but voters enjoy seeing the government kept on its toes by the accountability demanded for vote-by-vote support.
The NDP and Liberals risk being too green
The Green Party holds the whip hand in this week's negotiations, but the NDP and the Liberals need to beware of going too far outside mainstream opinion. The government's environmental record is not why the Liberals failed to win a majority government. The environment was the fifth-most important issue in this election, trailing jobs and the economy, health care, the cost of living generally and affordable housing in particular.
Directionally, British Columbians are green. More than 80 per cent believe that wilderness areas are a legacy we need to protect and are concerned about climate change.
But when push comes to shove, British Columbians will often place jobs or cost of living ahead of the environment as a priority. We found 26 per cent of British Columbians agree with a key premise of the Green Party that we need to take action now on the environment before it's too late. However, 55 per cent say that while we need to pay more attention to the environment, we should be careful not to rush into policies that might do more harm than good.
For the first time ever in B.C., and in Canada, the Greens can directly influence government action. Of course, they will want to demand all they can get from the NDP or Liberals. But whoever wins the bidding war needs to beware. If they go too far down that environmental road, they risk distancing themselves from that huge pragmatic middle ground and providing an easy road to victory for the opposition.