Avoid the temptation, Premier - The Orca
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Avoid the temptation, Premier

Maclean Kay
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No, really – with COVID-19 unbending back upwards, are we seriously talking about an early election?

The wind really does seem to be changing.

I was originally an early election skeptic – on balance, I thought the NDP braintrust would see more shoals than straights. But there’s too much smoke to insist there’s no fire – and today, the embers were fanned even more.

If it really is much ado about nothing, count Elections BC among those hooked. They’re actively sourcing staff and office space, and making plans for more mail-in voting. When asked, they’ve been forthright: they’re doing this now because there’s been speculation about an early election.

Or “opportunities,” if you like.

When pressed, Premier John Horgan has pointed to elections happening elsewhere this fall, and that Elections BC is working on plans to conduct one here as safely as possible.

He’s right. But that’s not the issue.

Of course Elections BC will make every effort to conduct votes as safely as possible. And of course there are elections happening elsewhere, including a rather big one in the United States. (You may have noticed.) But here in BC – where COVID-19 numbers are ramping back up – an early election would be, by definition, a choice.

You can say the same for things like Halloween – yes, we can have it, if slightly differently – but again, a fall election isn’t scheduled, and would only happen by choice.

A choice that would, significantly, break the Premier’s word.

The Confidence and Supply Agreement (CASA) Horgan and his caucus signed with the Green Party specifically foreswears early elections; it’s literally the first point. He’d have to break it, or convince/provoke/bamboozle the Greens into doing it for him.

An unscheduled early election can only happen by choice – a choice that would break the Premier’s word.

And yet when asked today if he feels bound by CASA, Horgan said “the world we live in is not 2017.” And if that wasn’t clear enough, he then intimated the pandemic makes CASA irrelevant, it’s mostly been accomplished anyway, mentioned that co-signer former Green leader Andrew Weaver isn’t there any more, oh, and was sure to circle back to the significant raft of COVID-19 spending being announced.

If the Premier wanted to pour cold water on election speculation, it would have been easy to just say no. Asked much the same question today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a fairly strong statement against pursuing a fall election, despite also peering at promising polls.

So yeah, it looks like an early election. The question is how do the NDP get there; this is surprisingly unclear. Some figure it’s just a question of asking the Lieutenant-Governor. And while it may or may not be that easy procedurally, politically, it’s more complicated.

The NDP need a casus belli.

For appearances’ sake – and not just forcing an irresponsible, early election just because it looked winnable – the NDP would need to arrange a defeat of some kind in the legislature, and engineer losing it.

Short of some transparent skulduggery – five NDP MLAs suffer mysterious technical difficulties, or seven just to be safe – it’s hard to see how that could happen. Or indeed, when: NDP House Leader Mike Farnworth said a fall session is up in the air, because the pandemic might make it unsafe to come back this fall.

Aside from the obvious, it’s hard to see why they’d eyeball an early election during a pandemic.

The “obvious” is recent polls. Yes, they’re up. And maybe the lead is irresistible – if you believe it. It’s a suspiciously massive departure from established voting history, which probably should have raised more eyebrows. For instance, the oft-cited Angus Reid poll has the NDP leading the BC Liberals by nine points in the Fraser Valley. Impossible? No. But close.

Intention is one thing, and turnout is another. While the NDP’s lead in young voters looks (and historically is) substantial, they have to actually vote, and in the right ridings to make a difference.

The oft-cited Angus Reid poll has the NDP leading the BC Liberals by nine points in the Fraser Valley. Impossible? No. But close.

While youth voter turnout is increasing, the Angus Reid poll also indicates both young voters and NDP voters are less likely to be comfortable going to a polling place.

If they’re able to vote remotely, it’ll be via mail. We got a preview of how that might go down in the Proportional Representation referendum, which strongly hinted that young voters and NDP voters are substantially less likely to vote by mail in any event.

And that’s not taking into account pushback for a government forcing an election for no better reason than “we think we can win,” a well-known phenomenon in Canada – without even factoring in the pandemic. You can imagine the reaction of swing voters enduring cancelled weddings, graduations, and funerals suddenly asked to partake in a by-definition unnecessary election.

So again, why? It might be a question of timing.

While the NDP have been perceived as managing the pandemic well, cracks will inevitably appear – as they would for any government. The first school outbreak will be a big test, and why did it take so long to shut down nightclubs when they were so obviously a major problem?

These won’t necessarily be issues the NDP will own in the public mind.

Also, the NDP may feel BC’s other problems are likely to get worse before they get better.

The overdose crisis continues to set new, eye-watering records. Promised housing targets simply aren’t being met, and counted-on (and pre-counted) federal help doesn’t appear forthcoming. And perhaps most significantly, crime is rapidly replacing affordability as the top issue in the province’s two biggest urban areas. These won’t necessarily be issues the NDP will own in the public mind.

That calculus, or something like it, is probably what’s driving election talk. But a pandemic is still bad timing for a campaign.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

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