When Christy Clark announced July 29 she was resigning both as BC Liberal Party leader and MLA for Kelowna West, it gave the NDP some leeway to pass legislation that otherwise might have been politically tricky.
Until a byelection is held for Clark’s riding, Kelowna West – considered a safe Liberal seat – the Liberals are reduced from 43 seats to 42, giving the NDP and BC Green Party a temporary edge.
But if Clark’s departure opened a window of opportunity for the NDP, it also opened one for Liberals to reinvent themselves. Key to that reinvention will be winning back support in Metro Vancouver – possibly by way of Surrey – says University of British Columbia political scientist Richard Johnston.
This explains why political observers are throwing the name of Dianne Watts around so much as an ideal replacement for Clark.
“The party would be well-advised to think about how it can tunnel back into Metro Vancouver,” Johnston said. “That’s part of the appeal of Dianne Watts.
The Liberals fixated on jobs and the economy, but did not pay enough attention to the things that matter most to Metro Vancouver voters – like housing affordability, transportation, child care and public education.
“All the stuff Christy Clark said about development, I think that still resonates, but she had so completely neglected the urban side of things that the party paid for it, and I do think that they need to consider how they can refurbish that side of the party,” Johnston said.
Watts served as the mayor of Surrey for nearly a decade before running federally and winning South Surrey-White Rock in the last federal election for the Conservative Party, which lost the election to the Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
“Given that, in a way, Surrey was the pivot that cost them (the BC Liberals) the election, she’s a very appealing prospect,” Johnston said. “And she probably would rather be premier of British Columbia than an opposition backbencher in Ottawa.”
The Liberals may not choose a new leader in time for the Kelowna West byelection. This would mean Watts – or Kevin Falcon or any other contender who is not a sitting MLA – would either become a leader without a seat in the legislature, or some other Liberal MLA would have to sacrifice his/her seat to allow the new leader to run in yet another byelection.
Geoff Plant, a former BC Liberal attorney general, thinks the most important leadership question for the BC Liberals will not be “who?” but rather “what?”
“What is the BC Liberal Party going to stand for?” Plant asked. “What are they going to offer as the vision for British Columbia the next time there is an election? I think the ‘what’ question should answer the ‘who’ question.”
The Liberals faced an identity crisis with the last throne speech, which suddenly sounded more NDP than Liberal. Plant thinks the Liberals need to decide what they really stand for.
“I think our politics has been both polarized and relatively free of serious policy debate,” he said.
With Clark resigning her seat in Kelowna West, a byelection must be held within six months, although Premier John Horgan could choose to call a byelection sooner than that. Last week, Ben Stewart, the former Liberal MLA for Kelowna who vacated his seat so Clark could run there in 2013, announced his plans to seek the Liberal nomination for Kelowna West.
Kelowna is a safe riding for the Liberals, so its unlikely the current makeup would change in the legislature: 43 Liberals, 41 NDP and 3 Green.
But for the next few months, the NDP are on slightly firmer ground – and not just because the Liberals have one less seat.
“To me, the real breathing room is that there’s no leader and the Liberals are in no position to bring the government down,” Johnston said.
“Christy Clark has given the NDP a gift,” said Norma Ruff, political science professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. “She’s relieved the pressure, and the Liberals are going to be preoccupied.”
“There’s no doubt that the additional one-seat cushion is going to make it possible for the NDP to pass legislation now without compromising the impartiality of the Speaker,” Plant said. “But a one-seat cushion is a pretty nerve-wracking way to run a government. So they are in better shape, but it’s not as though they suddenly discovered a huge mandate.”
The NDP and Greens will have their hands full for the next few weeks because they need to pass their first budget by the end of September. They also have prioritized sending the Site C dam for review to the BC Utilities Commission, which they can do by cabinet order without having to pass legislation.
There may be some key pieces of legislation the NDP did not plan to pass right away that they might now be inclined to fast-track.
For example, having now acknowledged they may not have the legal authority to deny permits – which are statutory decisions, not political ones – to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, the NDP could try to pass new legislation that applies additional conditions to the project, beyond those already attached by the federal government, as has been recommended by West Coast Environmental Law.
Johnston said he wouldn’t be surprised if the NDP tried to pass legislation the Greens don’t support, just to show them who’s boss. The NDP could, for example, pass legislation scrapping secret ballot voting for union certification.
That was a key NDP promise to labour, but it’s one that Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver opposes. So do the Liberals. But if the Liberals were inclined to make mischief, all it would take is for a couple of Liberal MLAs to suddenly come down with the flu on the day a new bill came to a vote.
“I think, legislatively, at this point, I would be asking myself, ‘What could they (the NDP) pull on Andrew Weaver right now?’” Johnston said. “The Liberals couldn’t vote for it, but they could have strategic absentees.
“I think, if I were Horgan, I would like to send a message or two to them, lest they think they are the government.”