Bob Rae is senior partner at Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, teaches public policy and law at the University of Toronto, and is the author of What's Happened to Politics.
Now that we know the result of the British Columbia election, the question naturally arises, what comes next?
The arithmetic is clear enough. The Liberals have 43 seats, the NDP have 41, and the Greens have three. No party has a majority, and no matter what happens, stability is not guaranteed. In any legislature or parliament, people fall ill, die or resign. A Speaker has to be chosen.
But there are a couple of basic points that need to be made. The first is that parliamentary politics is a confidence game. A government needs the support of a majority in parliament to be able to survive. There has been some analysis to the effect that the Liberals have won a minority government.
During the Harper minority governments, the prime minister used to make a point of emphasizing that he had "won a mandate to govern," and that any arrangements between other parties was illegitimate. Partisanship aside, this simply isn't true. It misstates the fundamental truth about parliamentary democracy: it's the House of Commons, or, in the case at hand, the British Columbia legislature, that ultimately decides who forms the government.
Premier Christy Clark has won the right to face the legislature and to seek its confidence. But her success in doing so will clearly depend on her ability to fashion a working arrangement with the Green Party in order to be able to govern.
The Green Party caucus can decide on whether to give confidence on a day-to-day basis to Premier Clark or to seek a deeper understanding with either the New Democrats or the Liberals. It is not an automatic choice and depends on more than just arithmetic. This is where political chemistry enters the equation.
In 1985, the Ontario election produced a Conservative plurality in terms of seats, followed by the Liberals and the New Democrats. As the leader of the New Democratic Party, I faced a similar choice as BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver now faces. We had far more seats (25 compared to three), but our options were the same: let the Conservatives govern day-to-day – as had been the case in earlier minorities – or seek a broader agreement with one of the other two parties to permit greater stability in governing.
Mr. Weaver and his colleagues need to realize that this is their point of maximum leverage, but what they do takes place in the floodlights of public opinion and press scrutiny. The decision the Ontario NDP made was to talk to both parties, eventually deciding to work with the Liberals on an accord that covered both substantive issues (housing, equal pay, environmental improvements, for example) and better ways of governing the legislature. Only budget votes would be matters of confidence, and the government would have to accept losses if a majority of the legislature voted down a government bill. We decided to stay out of the government, a decision which had its pros and cons, but to limit the period of stability to two years.
In the following election, the Liberals won a big majority, but the NDP became the official opposition. And in 1990 the NDP formed a majority government.
As leader of the party, I kept the lieutenant-governor fully advised of our plans, and while the Conservatives objected viscerally to the turn of events which led them to lose power, the accord passed the smell test of constitutional experts like Peter Russell and Eugene Forsey – and public opinion.
Mr. Weaver and his party face a challenging time. Whatever course they take will face withering criticism from the unsuccessful suitor, and public opinion in British Columbia is clearly on a knife's edge. But once the decision is made, the other hard truth is that leverage doesn't last forever.
The advantage of the "day-to-day" is that pressure can be brought on a daily basis. The disadvantage is that the pressure is constant and goes both ways. One of the reasons I argued for a longer-term approach was precisely to avoid the day-to-day game of Russian roulette, which earlier participants told me was very wearing on caucus unity and morale.
Good luck to all. May the public interest be served.