British Columbia's election has changed everything, and settled nothing.
For the first time in 16 years, the Liberals didn't win – but they haven't exactly lost, yet. For the first time in 16 years, the New Democratic Party didn't lose – but unless they can form a sustainable governing coalition, it won't be much of a victory. As for the Greens, they won their highest ever share of the vote (almost 17 per cent), their greatest ever number of seats (three) and they hold the balance of power in a minority government – something B.C. hasn't had in generations. But unless the Greens succeed in propping up that NDP minority, which will be no easy trick, their first taste of political relevance may be fleeting.
NDP leader John Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver have reached an agreement to work together, with the Greens supporting an NDP government "for four years," on the principle of "good faith and no surprises." Good faith there may be, but surprises are guaranteed. And it requires a leap of quasi-religious faith to believe that this coalition can hold for anything close to four years.
Minority governments in Canada don't tend to last, and B.C.'s minority situation has a unique property that is going to make survival especially difficult: The NDP and Greens enjoy a legislative majority of exactly one seat. That tiny margin will present challenges, one of which will arise even before the intended government can be formed: Somebody from the one-seat majority has to serve as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly.
If politics were a hockey game, the speaker would be the referee. The speaker can vote to break ties but, by convention, he or she isn't supposed to cast a deciding vote to further the government's agenda, or to prop up the government in confidence votes. With a one-seat majority, an NDP or Green speaker could be faced with having to do that, right from the get-go.
In fact, in its first act of post-election business, the B.C. legislature must elect a speaker. That has to happen before Liberal Leader Christy Clark can present her speech from the throne, which the NDP-Greens intend to vote down, allowing them to show that she has lost the confidence of the House. The new speaker's first act is likely to involve casting a partisan vote. That's not illegal, but it is unusual and problematic – as is a minority government that, not counting the speaker, has the same number of seats as the opposition.
That's one of the reasons why the NDP-Greens are going to have a hard time forming a government, and then governing. B.C. could be back at the polls very soon. However, both parties have a strong interest in making their alliance work. The NDP hasn't tasted power in a generation, the Greens have never had even a whiff of power, and MLAs from both parties risk losing their seats in a new election.
The good news is that the NDP-Green agreement, the basis on which the parties say they will co-operate, contains two victories for democracy. One is long promised. The other is a welcome U-turn.
The Greens and New Democrats have long been committed to changing B.C.'s political fundraising rules. The current no-rules rules, which allow for an essentially limitless flow of money, have overwhelmingly benefited the Liberals.
Ms. Clark and her party should have followed the lead of the federal government and other provinces, and banned union and corporate donations, while capping the maximum individual donation. They did not because, however bad it looked and however cynical it made voters, it allowed the party to be so much better funded than its rivals. For example, the B.C. Liberals raised nearly $1-million in the three days after the May 9 election. Several donors wrote cheques for $25,000 or more – amounts way too large to be legal federally or in many provinces.
The NDP and Greens are promising to ban corporate and union donations, cap individual donations – ideally, Quebec's $100 per person limit should be the model – and review the entire system of electoral finance. It's about time.
If Ms. Clark is wise, she will embrace campaign finance reform in her throne speech. Get ahead of public opinion, or, in this case, just catch up with it.
The other NDP-Green promise, a reversal of an earlier Green position, is unexpected but welcome. One of the Greens' three post-election conditions for supporting the NDP was that B.C.'s electoral system be reformed, according to the principles of proportional representation. What's more, the Greens were demanding that this be imposed by the legislature, without consulting the people in a referendum – despite the fact that British Columbians have already twice voted in referendums on electoral reform, and twice rejected it.
However, the NDP-Green agreement now says that both parties are committed to bringing in some kind of proportional representation, but only after a referendum, to be held, if the government lasts, in the fall of 2018. This is progress. Only the people can decide this issue, which involves remaking the fundamental rules of democracy.
Proportional representation almost guarantees permanent minority governments, forcing parties to form coalitions and cut deals in order to govern. Over the coming months, British Columbians are going to get a chance to test drive the model. Some will enjoy the experience. Many will not.
Proportional representation means greater influence for small parties, like the Greens. It also means parties having to compromise with their partners, as the Greens have had to do on a number of issues, including electoral reform. It may also mean more frequent elections, as minority governments tend to fall. B.C.'s new government hasn't even been formed, and the clock is already ticking, loudly.