When B.C. Premier John Horgan stepped up to the microphone on Thursday to announce a $2-billion economic recovery plan, the only thing missing was a bus warming up outside to whisk him away to the next campaign stop.
Mr. Horgan’s New Democratic Party government has moved decisively into election mode, even though one has yet to be called. The past couple of weeks have all been about setting the stage.
Spending announcements of some sort or another have been near-daily events. So have news releases from long-time NDP MLAs and cabinet ministers announcing decisions to retire from politics to make way for new faces.
Some of the new faces who have declared that they’ll carry the NDP banner in the next election, whenever it comes, are prominent. They include retired federal NDP MPs Nathan Cullen, Murray Rankin and Fin Donnelly. Once upon a time, it was the BC Liberals who attracted star candidates; today, it’s the NDP.
People such as Mr. Cullen and Mr. Rankin don’t jump back into politics unless they’re convinced victory is a sure thing and that they’re likely to be rewarded with a cabinet post.
A decision to go to the polls now would make a mockery of the confidence-and-supply agreement Mr. Horgan signed with the Green Party, which states that the NDP would continue to govern until the fixed election date of the third Saturday in October, 2021. The Premier has lately argued that the bulk of the objectives set out in that pact have been met, and that it never accounted for a pandemic, necessitating a fresh mandate – but he has been unconvincing. And so the Premier is taking heat – rightly – for mulling an election a year earlier than necessary amid COVID-19.
My suspicion is that the NDP is calculating that the criticism they get for going to the polls now will last a couple of days and then cease to be a story. The Premier’s political advisers are also convinced that a campaign can be carried out without creating a dangerous public-health situation, and are excited to have the example of the recent election in New Brunswick, which was deemed a success.
But that did not resemble any campaign we have seen in our lifetimes. There were no large rallies or opportunities for people to gather in great numbers. Debates were kept to a minimum; some were held online. Much of the campaign was waged over social media. Candidates did go out on the street to engage with people but they were wearing masks, which made communication difficult, though not impossible. A greater-than-normal number voted by mail-in ballot and in advance polls to avoid crowds.
Mr. Horgan is betting that British Columbia can replicate that feat, even if COVID-19 numbers continue to be high – and that is likely a reality for the next while. The province is testing more than ever, and consequently there are higher numbers, although the “positivity rate” is still around 2 per cent, which is considered acceptable. The number of people in hospital remains a key metric, and that is still low, too.
B.C.'s teachers' union may have tried to jam a stick in the wheels of the NDP’s election plans on Thursday, announcing that they’ve asked the Labour Relations Board to force changes to the government’s back-to-school plan, which the union has assailed as “haphazard” and without adequate health and safety measures. Will that be enough to diminish the government’s election appetite? I doubt it.
Fact is, given the same circumstances, there isn’t a government in the country that wouldn’t be considering precisely what Mr. Horgan and his party are contemplating. The NDP is flying high in the polls, with the Premier boasting the kind of personal popularity numbers seldom seen in B.C. A year from now – or even six months hence – that might not be the case.
And then there is the opposition B.C. Liberal Party, which appears to be in complete disarray under the direction of a listless leader, Andrew Wilkinson, who has failed to generate any excitement with the electorate.
Meantime, the B.C. Greens have just elected a new leader in Sonia Furstenau, who many people in the province don’t know. The party has also failed to gain much traction with the public despite the golden opportunity it had, under former leader Andrew Weaver, to grow its profile and influence as a vital lynchpin in a minority government.
In other words, the electoral circumstances don’t get much better if you’re the NDP. Which is why, barring some unexpected bad news, I suspect we’ll see an election call as early as next week.
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