A province often known for its election-day surprises has delivered a result that seemed a dead certainty from the outset: a New Democratic Party majority.
A B.C. election that was called during a pandemic became, in essence, a referendum on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. And most of the electorate felt that, on balance, leader John Horgan and his NDP administration have handled the emergency about as well as can be expected.
And that was always going to be the No. 1 issue on the ballot.
While many British Columbians were not happy with Mr. Horgan calling a vote a year ahead of schedule and in violation of a governing agreement he signed with the Green Party, they weren’t prepared to punish him at the polls.
And now the NDP has its first majority in almost 30 years and looks as strikingly dominant a political force in B.C. as it ever has been.
As for the BC Liberal party, which governed the province for 16 continuous years up to the 2017 election, the result leaves it at a pivotal juncture. It certainly means the end of Andrew Wilkinson’s mostly listless term as leader. But more importantly, the Liberals must now begin a humbling search for their soul. Where does the party go from here and who is best able to take them there?
There are a few reasons, meantime, Mr. Horgan gambled on an early election, despite knowing he was certain to encounter some political and public blowback.
First, his personal popularity was likely never going to be higher than it was heading into the election call. Opinion surveys a month prior to the writ being dropped suggested he was the most popular premier in the country, with an approval rating of nearly 70 per cent. Secondly, polls also showed his party with a large lead over the Liberals and the Greens, thanks largely to its mostly competent handling of the COVID crisis. Thirdly, Mr. Horgan knew that in a year’s time, when the election was scheduled to take place, the political environment could look radically different than it does now.
To be sure, as difficult as it’s been for governments around the world to navigate a public-health calamity, in many respects the hard work is yet to begin. Showering money on individuals and businesses to help them cope with the fallout from the virus has been relatively easy, even while the province’s gross debt increases at a precipitous rate.
Once a vaccine is found and things begin to return to normal, all that stimulus spending will have to be wound down. And means will have to be identified to begin making inroads on those liabilities, so it doesn’t become solely the burden of future generations. That could mean tax increases of some sort or another.
Then there are more run-of-the-mill dilemmas such as the Site C dam project, which is already billions over the original estimate and may be better off dead than alive. Pulling the plug on the now nearly $11-billion-and-counting estimated cost of the dam is a real possibility.
There are also more “mundane” problems such as climate change. Mr. Horgan’s government boasts what it says is the best CO2-fighting plan in the country yet it’s not nearly enough to have a legitimate impact on reducing emissions. And that’s a big deal in a province that founded Greenpeace and where having an environmental conscience means something. With a majority, the NDP may find the will to be much bolder on this front.
And we haven’t even mentioned relations with First Nations, which are more fraught in B.C. than in any province in the country. This, as a result of the fact the province does not have treaties with most of its Indigenous peoples (unlike the rest of the country). And despite the fact the NDP was the first government in the country to pass into law the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Yes, the reward for being an awarded a majority is the right to deal with an array of some of the hardest public-policy issues out there.
But before the NDP ever gets there, the pandemic remains the singular focus of governments everywhere, including in the country’s westernmost province where case numbers have recently spiked to record levels.
No, Mr. Horgan wasn’t penalized for calling an election amid a public-health emergency, but his reward for being victorious is the privilege of navigating a peril the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a hundred years.
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