BC Premier calls Early Election

After days of speculation, BC Premier John Horgan today announced the dissolution of his New Democratic Party’s (NDP) minority government and called an election to take place on Saturday, October 24th, a full year ahead of the next scheduled election.  In a plea to voters to choose stability, Horgan said “We are not at the end of COVID-19, we are at the beginning.  This pandemic will be with us for a year or more and that’s why I think we need to have an election now.”

How We Got Here

In the aftermath of the tumultuous 2017 provincial election, the BC Liberal Party (a provincial amalgam of federal Liberals and Conservatives) under Christy Clark was left with 43 seats – one seat short of a majority – and the NDP gained six to raise their total seat count to 41. Andrew Weaver led the Green Party to a historic first (federally and provincially) by winning three seats in the Legislature. After Clark was defeated on her Throne Speech and after weeks of negotiations, the Greens agreed to a confidence and supply agreement with the NDP, and handed them the province’s first non-majority government since 1952.

While the confidence agreement was set to last until October 2021, tensions between the NDP and the Greens peaked when they and the BC Liberals forced the government to put two high-priority bills on hold and to cancel a proposed extension of the government’s ability to spend money during a crisis without the approval of the Legislature via “special warrants”.

The Green Party’s intransigence came at an unusual time in the province’s political environment. Weaver, citing a family health issue, stepped down as leader of the party and caucus in January 2020. The new leader, Sonia Furstenau, won a close race on September 14 and will be thrust into a campaign right away.

The BC Liberals, under new Leader Andrew Wilkinson, have yet to recapture the support of the winning coalition that propelled Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark to the Premier’s office.  Two recent polls by Ekos and the Angus Reid Institute show approximately 48 per cent of voters intend to support the governing NDP; that number rises to 53 per cent in the strategically important Metro Vancouver area. Concerningly for the BC Liberals, the NDP is virtually deadlocked with them in their traditional BC Interior stronghold.

Policies and Priorities

The government’s rollout last Thursday of an economic recovery and stimulus package entitled “StrongerBC” includes all the notes of an election platform, including strengthening food security and supply chains, more infrastructure spending, investments in zero-emission vehicles, more support for the tourism industry and some spending on innovation.  Some of this package was also a “Greatest Hits” list of recent BC NDP announcements.  They also came in for criticism over accusations that the numbers in the package didn’t add up, resulting in delays in its launch.

The BC Liberals have been focusing on a “Restore Confidence, Rebuild BC” message but had planned for an online policy convention on October 17 that will be pre-empted by the election.  As for the Greens, new Leader Furstenau already stated that she told the NDP’s Horgan there was no need for an election and that she was willing to honour the agreement they previously had.  It would be no surprise for Greens to campaign on trust and try and peel away progressive voters from the NDP.  In any case, expect both Opposition parties to be squarely focused on this issue of election timing throughout the campaign.

Electoral Lookahead

Campaigns and elections matter, so even though Horgan and the BC NDP have a strong base to start from, BC’s political culture is unique and can often buck conventional wisdom seen in other jurisdictions.  In addition, the new realities of COVID mean that parties will not be able to hold large rallies, with crowds of more than 50 banned under health orders.  The campaign will no doubt be more virtual than ever, with social media and phone banking an even greater priority.  There will also be more advance voting dates provided.

For John Horgan and the BC NDP, calling an election a year earlier than anticipated during a pandemic certainly has its risks, especially in a province which has had its share of COVID-19 cases.  However, Horgan has consistently remained at or near the top of Canada’s most popular Premiers, topping out at a 69 per cent approval rating just three weeks ago (Angus Reid, Aug. 31).

In addition, since May, most polls have the BC NDP’s support between 42 per cent and 51 per cent, numbers that would certainly propel Horgan into strong majority government territory.  Horgan and the NDP also must be looking with some envy at what New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs accomplished in last week’s election by turning the narrowest of minorities into a solid working majority government.

If public sentiment turns against Canada’s most popular Premier for holding an election during COVID times, the race to October 24 could be more interesting than some might suggest.