There are few provincial leaders who have enjoyed the type of pandemic-related surge in popular support that B.C.‘s NDP Premier John Horgan has.
A recent opinion survey by Research Co. found the NDP had an eight-point lead over its main rival, the B.C. Liberals. Of a group of decided voters, 41 per cent said they would choose to back the NDP, while 33 per cent said they would support the Liberals. Meantime, the Premier’s approval rating was an eye-catching 73 per cent in the same poll – up from 51 per cent in a similar survey a year earlier.
As we know, things can change quickly in politics, including the affection of voters. Nonetheless, with Mr. Horgan’s administration marking its third year in power this past weekend, it’s worth noting that many didn’t give his minority government a hope of surviving beyond 12 months.
Not only has the NDP endured, it has, over the last few years, arguably provided the most competent, stable leadership of any government in the country.
Any analysis of the NDP’s performance has to be considered in two parts: pre- and post-pandemic. Before COVID-19 changed the world, the NDP was considered to be doing a pretty decent job in B.C. Far from being the profligate, irresponsible stewards of the provincial treasury that the Opposition Liberals had warned voters about, the NDP has, in government, been anything but.
It refused to cave to the financial demands of any number of interest groups who expected the NDP to open up the spending taps. Instead, it steadfastly balanced its budgets – until COVID-19 happened. The government is now forecasting a $12.5-billion deficit for this fiscal year, instead of a modest surplus.
It also took on some of the province’s most intractable problems, including a financial mess at the Insurance Corp. of B.C. The NDP have opted for a no-fault insurance model for the province, despite the protests of a legion of injury-claim lawyers who stand to lose millions from the decision.
The government has also addressed issues like money laundering – again, a long-running scourge the former Liberal government had no appetite to take on. And of course, the NDP brought in a suite of measures to bring some sanity to the housing market.
On the basis of their legislative activism alone, the NDP had been worthy of the praise (and the encouraging polling numbers) the party was receiving. Then the pandemic struck, and everything changed – to an even greater extent, to the NDP’s benefit.
Almost from the outset of the virus’s arrival, B.C. has been seen as an exemplar of crisis leadership. Mr. Horgan almost immediately stepped back and allowed Health Minister Adrian Dix, one of the smartest and most able cabinet ministers ever to serve in a B.C. government, to take the lead. Mr. Dix, wisely, deferred to experts, namely Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Dr. Henry has received international acclaim for her calm, measured and reasoned approach to protecting citizens. British Columbians have, in turn, conferred on her almost saintly status. Rightly or wrongly, she is seen as an agent of the government, and consequently, the government has benefited, politically, from some of that reflective glory.
Beyond that, a pandemic as destructive as this one causes people to see their governments differently. Instead of being institutions often viewed with cynicism and contempt, governments are now seen as crucial lifelines.
The NDP has gained from a couple of other factors. Their power-sharing partners, the Green Party, have been in turmoil. Former Green leader Andrew Weaver left the party and now sits as an independent, reducing the number of Green MLAs in the provincial legislature to two. There is currently a leadership race underway, which no one cares about. The Greens are not in any position to make demands or to make life miserable for the ruling party.
The Liberals, meantime, were finding it hard to gain any traction with the public before the pandemic. Now it’s almost impossible.
How do you level criticism at a government about its pandemic spending without appearing petty and mean-spirited? The Liberals are also a party in transition. Many of the old stalwarts will not be running again. The party is desperate for a new generation of leadership throughout its ranks. At this point, it’s difficult to see the Liberals being a political force again for a number of years.
This is not to say the NDP has been perfect. There are far, far more people dying from the opioid crisis than COVID-19. In fact, the numbers are worse than ever, a development for which the NDP has had few answers. Also, its dithering around much-needed infrastructure projects (the George Massey Tunnel replacement project being one) has been unconscionable.
That said, it’s doubtful either of these matters will be difference-makers when the next election rolls around, likely in the fall of 2021.
Right now, the NDP would seem to be prohibitive favourites to emerge victorious in that election. At least they’ve made a pretty compelling case, so far, for that outcome.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.