Geoff Plant was British Columbia's attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practices law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.
As British Columbians prepare for next week's Throne Speech and the probability that the BC Liberal government will fall on a confidence vote a few days later, it bears considering the implications of what we created at the ballot box in May.
No matter whether it is Christy Clark or John Horgan occupying the premier's chair, the result of the election has been a major shift in power from the executive branch of government – the premier and cabinet – to the legislature. In strong majority governments, the premier and cabinet make the important decisions and the job of government MLAs is mainly just to approve them. The outcome of votes is never in doubt. The house is not quite a rubber stamp – government has to defend itself from Opposition attacks in Question Period and debate – but it's a place where decisions go to be ratified, not made.
In the new parliament, things will be much different.
The outcome of votes will not be a sure thing. The focus of attention may be less on how much of the government's agenda can be imposed on the legislature and more on what it will take to keep control of the house. Policy makers will have to ask themselves whether and how to obtain the support of individual MLAs.
This may not last. The arithmetic – 43 Liberals, 41 NDP and three Greens – is a recipe for uncertainty, even allowing for the deal the NDP have done with the Greens.
Sooner rather than later, the party leaders may prefer another election to the difficult business of managing the house on a day-by-day basis. But while it lasts, the house itself has been empowered in a way that we have not often seen in British Columbia.
Is this a good thing? Or to put it another way, is there an opportunity here?
Let's start with some of the major issues that have been the focus of political debate over the past few months: Site C, the Kinder Morgan pipeline, housing affordability. Do any of the three parties actually have a mandate to implement their own agenda on these issues? If you look past what the party leaders have been saying to what actually happened, British Columbians did not deliver a mandate for change. The outcome of the election was as close to a tie as is practically possible to get in our system. In fact, if there's one thing that can be said about each of the major issues it is that British Columbians are sharply – and fairly equally – divided on them. In our system, the popular vote is an interesting statistic, but the only number that really counts is seats in the house. And here the result is a near dead heat: 43 for the current government, 44 against. That's not an electoral mandate to do much of anything.
The downside is a potential for paralysis. The day-to-day business of government involves a myriad of decisions that rarely have one single right answer. Issue that water licence or grazing permit? Cancel one good social initiative in order to fund another? Cut a deal to improve health service in some region of the province? Whichever way you decide, someone will be unhappy, one principle will have been compromised in favour of another, but at least decisions will have been made.
In every cabinet submission I ever saw during my time in government, "maintain the status quo," i.e. do nothing, was always an option. When every day is an unfolding worry about whether you will still be in government tomorrow, doing nothing is always the path of least risk. The result? Initiatives that are at all difficult are more likely to be shelved than pursued. Sooner rather than later, government goes into a holding pattern. Citizens and businesses who do need government decisions to plan are left hanging. In a rapidly changing world, it's not a good thing to have a government that simply won't make decisions.
Is there an alternative? Yes. Perhaps the real lesson of the last election is that on some of the most difficult issues facing us, British Columbians are divided and what we need is political leadership that unites rather than polarizes. That's a kind of leadership we haven't often seen in British Columbia: where it's not about delivering on your party's platform, but finding and forging the consensus needed to achieve public support on difficult questions. Or to put it in political terms, where leaders actually reach across the aisle to start a conversation about the middle ground.
I believe British Columbians want their leaders to find a way to encourage economic development without irreparably compromising the environment; to ensure that essential public services are adequately funded without crippling the government's fiscal capacity; to provide a social safety net that actually responds to real hardship and need without overtaxation. A balance, in other words. It's not a balance represented by the electoral positions taken by party leaders who campaign to their base; it's the balance achieved when elected politicians govern to the centre.
It will be difficult for the leaders of each of B.C.'s main parties to get out of the corners into which their campaign rhetoric has driven them. But perhaps their caucus members, newly relevant, empowered by a surprising, unprecedented election result, can help them find the common ground needed to move forward on the issues we face, and in doing so, restore relevance to the people's house, the legislature.