Missed Opportunity - The Orca
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Missed Opportunity

Maclean Kay
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At best, Premier John Horgan’s reference to ‘opportunities’ for an early election was a poor choice of words. At worst, it’s reckless.

At his weekly media availability this week, Premier John Horgan caused two stirs.

First, he gave voice to parents’ nightmare scenario, that they should (somehow) have a backup plan for their children, in case it’s deemed unsafe to fully re-open schools.

Second, he hinted his government was considering an early election.

The two kerfuffles are directly related, but we’ll get to that.

On the election timing, here’s what Horgan said, when asked by the Vancouver Sun’s Rob Shaw:

“We have a very, very precarious balance here in BC. And I’ve said that between now and next fall we need to have an election. It’s mandated, by next October. And so there’s an opportunity this fall. There’s an opportunity next spring. There’s an opportunity next summer. When that happens is not necessarily clear to me today.”

It’s important to note Horgan also said, “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing as long as I have the support of the Legislature,” a far cry from “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” But there’s no escaping the word “opportunity.”

Why even contemplate an early election?

All minority governments face speculation when the party will end; on average, they don’t usually last the full four years. Since the NDP was sworn in, commentators have pondered how long it would last. (Including me, as recently as January.)

Since then, Horgan has enjoyed extraordinarily good polling numbers, buoyed by the province’s all-things-considered successful response to COVID-19. But polls between election campaigns are dubious. It’s not that they’re inaccurate, but that opinion often shifts very quickly in campaigns; Adrian Dix famously led Christy Clark by 20 points in 2013.

Further, his comment that an election is “mandated, by next October” isn’t quite right. The next election—by law—is mandated for next October, not by next October. A subtle difference, but a profound one. He should know; it was his government that legislated the move from a May 2021 election to October 2021, pinning the need for “clarity” on BC’s budget numbers for voters to consider.

Setting aside all that, here’s the thing: outside the political bubble, most Canadians hate elections. They’re divisive, signs are everywhere, and the phone/inbox/doorbell never leaves them alone. Voters tolerate them every few years, but tend to look dimly on governments that force early elections because of promising polls.

In other words, you need a better reason than “we thought we could win.” Especially in a pandemic, but hang on, I’m getting to that point.

Yes, it’s a minority government – but a stable one

Horgan also said “we’re always just one day from an election” – but that’s not exactly true, or indeed, fair.

For one thing, his BC Green partners have been remarkably loyal. Remarkable, because they haven’t gotten their way on Site C (still being built), LNG (ditto), Trans Mountain (though the NDP tried) and proportional representation (a disastrously botched referendum). Throughout it all, the Greens have been content to ask occasionally pointed questions, work behind the scenes, and remain steadfast when it counts.

So to intimate the Greens were unpredictable and could bring the house down (literally) at any moment drove interim leader Adam Olsen to understandable frustration.

Even if Horgan was hell bent on an early election, he can’t just snap his fingers and make it so. Much ado was made this month over MLA Jinny Sims somehow missing a key vote, almost causing the NDP a major embarrassment. But even if she had, that’s all it would have been – embarrassing. Losing a random vote does not trigger an election.

Losing a confidence vote traditionally does, and yes, one looms in August. But the Greens are in the middle of a leadership contest; they’re in no position to push for a snap election. Barring some bizarre subterfuge (a handful of NDP MLAs suffer tech issues on voting day, wink wink), the government isn’t in any immediate danger.

Will polling stations be in schools that are empty because it’s too dangerous?

Oddly, the spectre of an early election came up exactly one month before.

Seizing on comments Horgan made to supporters that an election “could come at any time,” the BC Liberals shared a letter from Elections BC confirming they were working on election contingency plans.

That’s not surprising, or even a bad thing – but interestingly, the letter quoted Dr. Bonnie Henry as calling an election “a significant public health risk” which should be deferred as long as possible. Not just early elections, mind you: “Worldwide, many scheduled elections have already been postponed.”

It should be self-evident that a month of increased travel, events, and even partial lineups at voting stations is, at the absolute minimum, an increased risk for infection and community transmission. Doing so for a calculated political reason, and not the lawfully scheduled date, would simply be irresponsible.

And yet, Horgan called it an “opportunity.” All the more hard to swallow, because just moments earlier, Horgan confirmed that it might be too dangerous to fully re-open schools to in-class instruction. All the more space for pep rallies and polling stations, I guess.

It’s possible this all comes down to poor phrasing. It’s possible that, for the second week in a row, Horgan just used the wrong word (it happens) and winced as it sparked speculation like the one you’re reading. Fair enough; had he changed nothing else but referred to “possible windows” or another neutral term, we’re not having this conversation.

But speaking of an “opportunity” just a month after laughing off fears raised by his opponents – and less than two minutes after saying it might be too dangerous to send kids back to school – wasn’t ideal.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca

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