Transparent or Translucent?

An auspicious day coming up next Tuesday, July 18. It marks the anniversary of the day Brennus of Gaul sacked and burned Rome in 390 BC. It was Nero who watched Rome burn a second time 454 years later on July 18, AD 64 and it’s the day John Horgan is scheduled to delete “designated” from his title and become Premier John Horgan, British Columbia’s 36th.
On the natural side of things, he faces real time forest fires that reduce the ancient Rome burning to camp fire size equivalence; on the political side he faces problems every other premier has faced plus a few he can be guaranteed will be unanticipated.
At his inauguration Tuesday, he will be trotting onto the field of political endeavour as captain of his hand-picked cabinet team of New Democrats, every one of them fulfilling a 16-year-old – or longer – dream of playing big time.
Selecting a cabinet is not easy, never has been. The social and physical geography of a province as vast as BC is so varied in life styles and economics that it is often difficult to find suitable personality matches. Finding men or women who meet high decision-making standards can be even more difficult, but can be eased somewhat if experienced deputy ministers and assistant deputies are already in place and dedicated to traditional public service ideals of serving the government and the people – whatever the government’s political name. Good deputies and their management teams have saved many a rookie minister from disaster.
Then there is – always – caucus, possibly the hardest group to please, yet the easiest to feel and harbour individual hurt if, after years of service, they are over-looked for promotion. Keeping caucus happy can be a premier’s toughest task. And, with no vote losses to spare in this most frail of new administrations, an unhappy caucus could prove the NDP’s undoing.
Adding to the expectation of serving faithfully, NDP caucus members overlooked for cabinet posts will also be coping with, and dependant for survival on, a yet-to-be-tested Confidence and Supply Agreement.
Premier Horgan has recognized that problem early with the appointment of Donna Sanford as executive director of a new secretariat in the premier’s office tasked with “overseeing” the NDP-Green agreement. No salary given yet, no staff recruited, no word on what the secretariat will cost or how those costs will be shared other than the constant truth in all such costs sharing ventures – taxpayers will pick up the tab.
I do not doubt that Ms. Sanford will do a good job but I don’t envy her the task of soothing caucus rebels (every caucus has them) the day they hear that the Greens were briefed earlier on pending policy changes than the NDP foot soldiers.
Green leader Andrew Weaver doesn’t hesitate to remind us he and his back-seat riding trio have been assured they will be kept informed every step of the way. The collective agreement does promise details of deputy minister and ministry staff briefings, adequate background documents – in fact everything “necessary to enable informed participation.”
Premier Horgan has been quoted by local news reporter Amy Smart as saying the new secretariat will boost transparency. It is designed “to be open and transparent so the public understands that we want to make this minority situation work.”
Fair enough, even though he and Mr. Weaver laboured mightily a short time back to make sure an opposing minority failed. I am left wondering if translucent would more accurately describe their tenuous agreement. Dictionaries tell us: “Transparent materials let light pass through them in straight lines so that you can see clearly through them. Translucent materials let some light through, but they scatter the light in all directions so that you cannot see clearly. Tissue paper is an example of translucent….”
I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Diminishing Trust in Public Service

The revolving door designed to provide compensated exits for senior public servants and easy entrances for hand-picked, politically-correct replacements, is now activated.

It will take some weeks, and hefty payouts, to process selected Liberal administration personnel departures and NDP arrivals, which is mildly surprising considering transitional firing and hiring has been around for some time.

And, each time it has been used, trust in the public service – pledged to faithfully serve governments regardless of political stripe – is eroded.

Back in 1996, I was privileged to hear Ted Hughes OC, QC review the weakening condition of once-proudly neutral public servants at both federal and provincial levels in Canada. The title of his speech to the Victoria Branch of the Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) was Political Neutrality and Political Rights – Rebalancing the Scales.

He opened with a brief review of what had happened in his former stomping ground of Saskatchewan when in the early 1980s Allan Blakeney’s NDP government was defeated and Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives assumed power. It was, Ted reported with modest understatement but scalpel-like accuracy, “a time of some disruption in the province.”

Premier Devine, ignoring 40 years of politically neutral public service in Saskatchewan – and most of the rest of Canada – was determined to re-shape his neutral public service with a Conservative tilt.

Ted read from a report by professors Michelmann and Steeves, University of Saskatchewan: “Rather than seeing the public sector as a vibrant, progressive servant of the people they (Devine and his MLAs), while in opposition, were inclined to characterize it as an overblown leviathan, staffed with numerous political hacks, unaccountable to the people and given the proclivities of the (governing party) undermining the liberties of Saskatchewan people.”

It is worth remembering his warning of 21 years ago: “The Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service in Canada may be increasingly under challenge … It is not out of control but the trend is there … In my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtues of Canadian tradition and to appeal to the reason and the logic of our elected representatives so that they, and the people they represent, will appreciate that they will all be better served by an adherence to the time-tested procedures of the past rather than moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

This past week I called Ted to ask him if he thought we had made any progress in the past 21 years in re-establishing faith in a public service designed to offer politically neutral advice to any duly-elected government. “I don’t think so,” was his softly spoken answer.

In my opinion, (not to be confused with Ted’s) in British Columbia the loyalty of the public service to the elected government and the people has been in question since 1972 when the NDP brought an end to 20 years of Social Credit rule by W.A.C. Bennett. After a nervous takeover, the new government launched a weeding out of high-placed civil servants they feared would remain loyal to Social Credit and W.A.C.

When son Bill Bennett defeated the NDP in 1975, the civil service purge went into reverse as his administration sifted out NDP appointees for replacement by more “trustworthy” candidates. The revolving door spun, inexorably, and the public service could no longer claim genuine political neutrality.

The NDP followed Social Credit in 1991. The revolving doors spun … senior bureaucrats out, shiny new party faithful in. There were 10 years of relative bureaucratic stability as New Democrats went through four successive premiers – Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh. In 2001, the doors spun again as Gordon Campbell’s Liberals began what would be 16 years of continuous power culminating with the defeat in May of Premier Christy Clark.

With the NDP now replacing the Liberals the door is swinging yet again to confirm that in BC loyalty to party will continue to replace merit as the standard for success and promotion in public service.

Back to Ted Hughes who ended his 1996 speech with an appeal to IPAC and an acknowledgment of the personal sacrifices made by dedicated public servants. “They have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally irrespective of the party or person in power and irrespective of their personal opinion.” Tough choices, especially if a newly-elected boss is appointing a party supporter to be in charge of your policy team with party loyalty as a job requisite.

The old loyalty rules governing middle and senior management have been replaced by partisan politics. “The balance,” Ted told his IPAC audience, has been tipped and “the scales are now somewhat out of balance … the Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service is becoming increasingly under challenge.”

His final advice was to governments new and old that push public service to ever lower standards of political neutrality: “You and I know,” he told IPAC, “that politics in British Columbia is a deadly serious business – it is no game. If I am correct in that, then if a superbly qualified professional public service is to be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them, is it not incumbent – if not imperative – to foster a neutral public service where purges will not be the order of the day when a government changes, but rather where continuity will abound, where merit will be awarded and morale maintained at a high level? I hope so.”

I would hope so, too, but pessimistically.

(It is hard to believe that some readers may not be familiar with Ted Hughes,Order of Canada, Queen’s Counsel. But,just in case, a Google of his name will demonstrate why he is worth listening to.)

“Hindsight” – An Exact Science

It was Dr. Laurence J. Peter who, back in the 1980s, wrote: “Hindsight is an exact science.” It is a truth and one which we all learn in life as we look back on things we should have done but didn’t and mumble “if only.”
Premier Christy Clark gave us a classic example a few days ago when she presented the list of promises she intended to fulfill if her minority government was allowed the opportunity. Among the substantial list of citizen benefits was a sprinkle of proposals from political rivals – the opposition in the Legislature.
She said, and I believed her, that she had seen the error of her ways in failing to embrace these ideas earlier, but included them now to demonstrate she was ready to embark on a voyage of cooperation never before seen in a legislature traditionally fractured by dissent rooted in political party dogma.
New Democratic Party members, numbering 41, the main opposition in the 87-seat Legislature, mocked her late conversion to “good ideas” and remained determined to bring her down. They did not trust her to deliver on her promises and, solemnly, moved a vote of non-confidence. With Andrew Weaver’s three Green Party members riding in tag-along tumbril the non-confidence guillotine fell.
The vote to pull the pin was 44-42 – the Speaker, a Liberal Party MLA, did not vote.
In the new legislature, scheduled to sit as soon as Premier John Horgan’s cabinet gets up to speed, the gap between government and opposition will be one vote – 44-43. A precarious position, but one Premier Horgan assured Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon he could make work and provide stable government.
IF – and the capital is intentional – Christy Clark still leads the Liberals and follows through on her stated preference for reasoned, courteous debate in the Legislature then Horgan’s NDP can survive for months or even four years. However, only an addicted gambler would bet on it.
What will Ms. Clark be reviewing in hindsight as she and her colleagues sharpen their minds and tongues for the in-house re-match to open soon in the Bellville Street theatre? I would think she would be reviewing her last two years as premier when she forgot the time-honoured routine of all governments seeking continuation in office.
In a four-year mandate, the first two are spent doing all the nasty stuff that needs to be done. In the third year, the government loosens the screws and hands out a few modest good news projects. In the fourth year, they open the vault, take care of social programs, modestly increase minimum wages, pump a few more millions into health care and education, take a couple of worthy opposition projects and make sure they work. And then, after thanking the people for making all this possible, they call an election with the promise of even better times ahead.
It was the formula used by W.A.C. Bennett for 20 years of unbroken, reasonably happy and prosperous years.
Ms. Christy forgot the playbook, neglected her people in that fourth year, tried catch-up on the hustings, won a squeaker, delivered a Throne Speech full of promises and relief for those in need and discovered she was at least a year late in the actual delivery of good things. Politically it was a fatal mistake.
Any thoughts on a Premier Horgan government? Not really. He has been given the chance and should now be judged on his performance. I hope he softens his belligerent approach to issues and uses his strength to build rather than destroy. His task will not be easy. The BC electorate is not easily pleased – especially the hard NDP members who demand high, party-pleasing standards from their leaders. They seem to get a little confused in their “us versus them” philosophy when their leader becomes one of “them.” The last time the NDP started a power run was in 1991. In 2001, they were defeated by the Liberals. In 10 years in office the party went through four leader-premiers and never-ending, internal wrangling over who should be in charge.
Premier Horgan should be wary of in-house backslapping. It may not be as brotherly as it seems.
And, Andrew Weaver’s role as the key player keeping Horgan and the NDP in power? Another wait and see scenario. They both condemned Premier Clark’s attempt to cling to power while shamelessly uniting to grasp it for themselves. Their moral ground in politics is not exactly high; both appear to have a “lean and hungry look” for power and “think too much” which, as Shakespeare wrote, “makes such men dangerous.”
We’ll watch to the end of the play – which could be short.

“May Selfish Pride Not Divide Us…”

I have never been sure if the Gods hear our prayers or even listen to them. I am sure that I, and my fellow humans, often hear prayers spoken, but all too rarely do we really listen to the words.
I felt that way Thursday afternoon when Rabbi Harry Brechner from the Congregation Emanu-El synagogue in Victoria opened the First Session of British Columbia’s 41st Parliament with the traditional prayer for guidance in forthcoming deliberations.
Some of his words echoed a prayer said every Saturday in his Victoria synagogue; others were from a prayer written by his predecessor Rabbi Victor Reinstein.
They are worth repeating, even reciting, but only if we hear what they are saying.
“Divine source, we call to you using many names that reflect our divine understanding of you and our individual and collective relationships with you. We ask on behalf of our great province of British Columbia – a shining place of beauty, goodness and abundance – to guide our provincial government in compassion.
“May selfish pride not divide us. May pride in one another unite us. Banish hatred, despair and cynicism that together we may work towards peace and harmony creating prosperity so that all who call British Columbia home may flourish.
“May we honour with humility those who first dwelled in this land and learn from them the sacredness of earth, sky and water. May we come to know the blessing of unity through diversity.
“Sacred source of life, in our rapidly changing and evolving world, we ask that you provide our leaders with clarity, compassion, strength, wisdom and resolve to ensure that British Columbia is an influence for good, a voice of conscience and a leader in seeking peace and justice.
Chazak ve’ematz – Strength and courage. Amen.”
A long list of attributes for legislators old and new to seek. Banishment of hatred, cynicism, and the conversion of selfish pride to pride in one another. Not impossible goals with or without divine guidance – but a tough learning curve for a legislature steeped more in the desire to harm those with different beliefs than in the desire to embrace compassion, peace and harmony.
Premier Christy Clark’s Throne Speech – read by Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon following the Rabbi’s prayer – was, as forecast over the past two weeks, loaded with promises of benefits, including two or three NDP-Green favourites. The new alliance has indicated it will have no difficulty in voting against those inclusions as outlined by Clark’s Liberals when it moves its anticipated non-confidence vote to end her life as premier.
Last week I forecast that the House – having missed a mandatory deadline for framing an agenda for a Private Members’ day Monday June 26 – would adjourn until Tuesday the 27th then miss a second Monday Member’s day July 3 courtesy of the Canada Day long weekend.
However, at the conclusion of Thursday’s sitting the government tabled a motion that adjusted the mandatory agenda deadline to all allow for Private Member’s Day on the 26th. The government motion was unanimously approved thus inadvertently maintaining my reputation as a less than reliable political events forecaster. Such a minor setback will not deter me from future prognostications carefully disguised as questions as our ping-pong “who’s in charge” contest continues.
Like, will Christy Clark – tied to the railway track as the NDP express with its Green baggage car threatens dismemberment – rejoice in last minute salvation? If she survives pending disaster, will she proceed with her spending program challenging the Opposition to deny the people the benefits they have earned?
Or, if she is retired from the premiership, will Ms. Christy regret she didn’t shovel money off the back of the truck sooner?
Then, will the new Premier John Horgan launch his brand new government with a throne speech equal or even better in spending promises than his predecessor’s? In addition, if he does, will he remember to say his big spending was made possible by the Liberal’s often parsimonious spending that balanced budgets for years and stashed the fortune the NDP could spend at will?
What will Andrew Weaver’s role be if Clark retains premiership? A reliable, articulate critic? And if Horgan takes over? Future unknown, but as even the most amicable coalitions can have only one leader, and Mr. Weaver doesn’t have a reputation for enjoying the game of tag-along, it would be unwise to make large bets.
Talking of bets, it would be wonderful to wager that our newly assembled legislators heard and listened to Rabbi Brechner’s prayer and will surrender to divine or human guidance. I fear the distrust, and the lust for power, among politicians worldwide is too entrenched to be eliminated in one precariously balanced BC parliament.
And, I would love nothing better than to be proved wrong – again.

The Brass Ring Proves Hard To Grasp

As we have stumbled toward the June 22 witching hour to watch the final dramatic act in our May 9 Political Passion Play there has been a faint hope that election rhetoric might be replaced by confidence-building debate and modest courtesies.

Alas, the three parties emerging from the fray have done so in full battle mode with the Liberals waving the Orders Of The Day (the BC Parliamentary Procedure rule book); the New Democrats, who came in second at the polls, crying foul before the curtain rises for the grand finale; and the tepid Greens meekly pledging their troth and offering three Legislature seats as a dowry to the NDP.

Premier Christy Clark has insisted that although Andrew Weaver’s hasty NDP marriage announcement could cost her the right to govern, she would “not go gentle into that goodnight.” She would depart, but only when a majority of MLAs told her they no longer had confidence in her ability to govern and she had reported that decision to the Lieutenant Governor.

John Horgan has protested she is unfairly delaying her departure just to keep him sitting in the waiting room when he should sitting in the premier’s chair. Although Christy’s Liberals defeated Horgan’s NDP 43-41 in the big contest, Weaver’s grinning addition of three Greens has given Horgan his now oft-repeated claim of overwhelming victory. Actually, he doesn’t really claim victory; just that Premier Clark was overwhelmingly defeated.

His latest whine about his political opposition is the claim that attempts are already being made to sow seeds of division between the Green and New Democrat leaders. They are united, Horgan says, and will stay united – a pledge well known and profitably enjoyed by millions of divorce lawyers. We shall watch with interest the history of the Green-NDP marriage of ideals with the first test coming up in the days following the Throne Speech.

The Legislature sits on Thursday, June 22, with the first order of business being the election of a Speaker who will preside over the Throne Speech debate and the anticipated demise of the Liberal government. It’s a moment Horgan and Weaver are looking forward to – albeit perhaps prematurely – with unrestrained and sometimes unseemly delight.

They would welcome a Liberal Speaker and the modest – but not overwhelming – vote-cushion his/her appointment would bring. But, they would want that in-House election to continue when the NDP formally became government. Liberal House Leader and Minister of Finance Mike de Jong has dismissed Horgan’s suggestion saying it is “bizarre” to suggest the newly-defeated government should voluntarily gift the NDP-Greens the non-voting Speaker’s seat and reduce Liberal MLAs by one.

Once again, we shall have to wait while they get that sorted and the time-limited Throne Debate “which shall not exceed six sitting days comprising not less than eight sittings” can commence.

The mover and seconder of the Throne Speech debate are allowed 40 minutes each to make their presentation; the Premier “or a designated member” follows with a two-hour speech time limit. The same two-hour speech limit is extended to “leaders of recognized opposition parties” which would appear to exclude Weaver whose Green’s are expecting, but do not yet hold, designated party status. It could produce a little bump in the road when Weaver takes his turn after the big guys speak and floor is open to anyone recognized by The Speaker – with a 30-minute time limit.

Amendments and sub-amendments can be made and voted on but defeat of a government amendment is not regarded as a non-confidence vote. That opportunity doesn’t arise until “the main motion is disposed of on the sixth day.” So, does all that jabberwocky add up to a final decision on who runs the province for the next four years on June 28 – six days after kick-off.

Could be, but a few legitimate house rule technicalities including the hassle to get a Speaker in place, plus cancellation of two Members’ Days sittings could disrupt the timetable. In the rule book Monday is the designated day when private member’s bills can be introduced and  possibly provide a first opportunity for a non-confidence motion to be called. But the rule book states a detailed content agenda for Member’s Day must be prepared and printed for distribution on the Wednesday before the Monday sitting. As the Legislature is reconvening on a Thursday that means no agenda for the following Monday, June 26. No agenda, no meeting. The next Monday would be July 3 — but that’s a national Canada Day holiday. Nothing to despair about. Just the need for a little more patience while listening to yet more complaints from the newly united NDP-Greens leaders reaching for the brass ring of power but finding it a little slippery to grasp.

And before you ask “who writes these rules?” — the members of the legislature write them, amend them from time to time, but insist they be strictly oberved once they’re in the book.

It could take until July to clear the air – or even longer if the electorate is asked to take another attempt provide a clear cut decision at the ballot box on whom we best trust to be in charge as we travel through troubled times.

 

“When Two Men Ride a Horse – One Must Ride Behind”

(with changes to orignal final paragraphs)

There’s an old proverb: “When two men ride a horse, one must ride behind.”  Green Party leader Andrew Weaver should have it framed and prominently displayed in his office as a constant reminder of where he sits on NDP Leader John Horgan’s political mount.

It’s right behind Horgan who controls the animal and has a tendency to pull hard on the bit when his temper’s on edge. Weaver may feel comfortable, but he shouldn’t. He’s just along for the ride and has no idea where it’s heading or whether it will be at cautious trot or reckless gallop when dismount could be hazardous.

He should be having some concern already, although the tandem riders have barely started on their single common-cause mission to bring down the Liberal government as soon as possible after the Legislature convenes on June 22.

Rider Horgan was in full skimble-skamble style a few days ago when my local newspaper quoted him chanting his favourite riding song since the May 9 vote when, as the Horgan song goes, the electorate “voted overwhelmingly to replace” Christy Clark and the Liberal government.

If a 43-seat victory was “overwhelming rejection” for Clark, what would you call 41 for Horgan’s NDP and three for Weaver’s Greens?

Both riders on the Horgan-Weaver hybrid would better spend their time figuring out what they’re going to do if Premier Clark hobbles their horse in the Throne Speech on the 22nd. That’s the speech and following debate Horgan and Weaver can’t wait to end to enable them to dramatically move their non-confidence motion and topple the Liberals.

I wonder if they’re rehearsing that dramatic moment with Horgan making the motion and Weaver obediently seconding it from the rump? And, I wonder if they’re considering what could go wrong to spoil the day when three MLAs fire one government and replace it with another?

Let me offer one scenario. Christy Clark, love her or hate her, is tough. She’s one of those women described by Shakespeare: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” She is also astutely clever politically.

A Throne Speech is traditionally a government’s shopping list for the next year and beyond. While read by the Lieutenant Governor, it is a government promissory note. Consider the position of jockey Horgan and easy rider Weaver if the June 22 Throne Speech is jammed with good things – including more than a few long coveted by NDP and Greens.

That they would scream foul is a given – but would they vote against programs and policies long demanded and now within reach? Could they be faced with a Throne Speech and following Budget it would be political suicide to reject? Could the mount they are both riding collapse under the weight of their expansive sometimes arrogant egos as the back-seat rider becomes aware how uncomfortable his position has become even before they cross the finish line?

We shall find out on June 22 or a few debate days later. While waiting, it might be wise for Weaver to consider returning to his well trusted, balanced and dependable Green riding colours horse to ride into the future – and for Horgan to seek another windmill at which to tilt if things go south.

Is The Tail Wagging The Dog?

Let’s see if I get this straight. In British Columbia, the golden Canadian province with mountains ranging from sea to sky, valleys rich in rivers, lakes, food and fodder production and beauty beyond compare, we seem to have marched our paradise into a strange form of democratic limbo.

While others rejoice in final election vote counts, I, always feckless when dealing with numbers, fret. I’m trying to understand how the political party winning the most seats (43) in our May 9 general election can be delegated to official Opposition in the new legislative assembly while the party with two less seats (41) supported by a rump party with only three seats is standing by waiting to be proclaimed government for the next four years.

I understand the minority arithmetic – 41 plus three is 44, which is one numeral higher than 43 and the magic number required to capture the right to govern. But, is it democracy at work when the party with only three seats can actually ‘elect’ a second-place finisher rejected by voters in 43 ridings?

I’m not saying that Andrew Weaver and his ‘band of two’ broke any rules when they decided New Democrats would be more comfortable bedfellows than the Liberals. Rather, I just think he let his unexpected power overrule his well-earned reputation for thoughtful decision making. His delight when he and his two Green colleagues signed the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement – endorsing the NDP’s right to govern and deliver peace and wise government in the Legislature – was not reassuring.

Am I suggesting he would have been better advised to have pledged his support to the Liberals, keeping them in power? Not at all. I just think he would have been wiser to have spent a little more time reflecting on the influence he and his two MLAs could have held as arbiters between Liberals and NDP in the debating chamber. The Green influence in that role, calling for reason to replace the raucous decibel level that has been the legislative norm for far too many years, could have brought desired stability and peace more surely than the 10 sheets of paper comprising the flimsy “peace in our time” treaty.

While we wait for final transition timing and outcome, we can remember a forecast made in this space just a short while ago – we are in for tough times and none tougher than for the MLAs charged with governance. John Horgan’s New Democrats with his newly recruited Green support hold a one seat majority reduced to a 43-43 seat tie with the election of a Speaker from NDP or Green ranks.

We can expect a flurry of tied votes resolved by the Speaker’s tie breaker with nerve wracking – for the government – moments when there could be a hesitant twinge of conscience as the Greens consider a vote in favour of an expenditure they’re not entirely happy with. They have pledged to support the NDP when money bills are debated. Four years of budget support with the NDP’s proclivity to spend could prove too long for Andrew Weaver to keep his powder dry.

Of course, he may never need to fire a fatal shot at such a fragile government. When soon to be called “Premier Horgan” gets around to naming his cabinet, there will be much rejoicing among those selected. But, we can also anticipate that seeds of dissention will sprout amongst some of those rejected after having served long and well in the lean years.

Crossing the floor – switching from one party to another or choosing to sit as an independent, is not unknown in BC. It would take only two dissenters to shatter the NDP dream and leave the Green’s thinking how much wiser it would have been to stand fast, divorced from the big guys; independent, proud in policy and modest in the way they used the powers fate had granted.

In the next election, which surely will be much less than four years away, Mr. Weaver could find the electorate a little less understanding of his hasty embrace of an erstwhile political rival than he anticipated. He should never forget Disraeli’s advice to politicians that “all power is a trust; that we are accountable for the exercise; that from the people and for the people all springs….”

The day of accounting could come sooner than he thinks.

 

 

 

Let’s Be Careful What We Wish For

Tough times ahead for our Legislative Assembly remodelled somewhat indecisively in May. Times that will test the true mettle of those so nervously asked to govern our affairs for the next four years in a world of fear and uncertainty.

Members of the Association of Former MLAs of BC who served in the late 1970s will be aware – none more so than those who survived the election of 1979 – that the NDP came within six seats of regaining the right to govern they had lost in 1975.

Social Credit had a majority of five seats, reduced to four with the appointment of Harvey Schroeder as Speaker – but still a seemingly, comfortable and safe majority when push came to shove on a vote in the House. By today’s measure, it would look like a landslide.

But, it wasn’t. There came a day when George Mussallem, a veteran MLA from Dewdney and the government “whip” responsible for making sure in-house voting strength was solid, noted he needed only a couple of MLAs sick, one or two others out of the city on government business or attending to constituency problems for a four-seat majority to vanish.

Whether it was George’s idea or one floated down from a higher authority, he never said. But, early in the 1979 legislative session, George began to maintain what he once told me was his “whereabouts” book. He wanted to know where all MLAs were if they were not in their seats in the debating chamber. Cabinet members were not exempt. If they had business outside Victoria, they needed to give George notice to enable him to make sure key government votes would always be strong enough to resist challenge.

It was restrictive and some felt an invasion of privacy, but it was accepted as essential by the government to maintain its slim majority lifeline.

Lacking the perfect crystal ball to forecast the future, we must now wait with understandable apprehension to see how our new Legislature of 43 Liberals, 41 New Democrats and three Green Party MLAs will handle what could be a daily voting crisis once the new Legislative Assembly gathers in normal session.

Will they remember that in the excitement of the photo finish to the May 9 epic  1,356,668 registered voters opted not to vote? Much has been said and written about the result being an indicator that the voters wanted change. Little has been said about the close to 1.4 million who took the time to register but failed to vote. Could it be that they were happy with the status quo? Or maybe convinced that whoever holds power will do a bad job? Were they just too lazy? Sad, really. Such a great, genuine, balance of power not persuaded to support any party or candidate.

It is something to be considered by the Liberals who could retain the right to govern by such a slender thread; the NDP who came so close to the driver’s seat and now stand ready to take control at the first opportunity; and the three seat Greens holding the enormous power to keep the Liberals in office or send them packing – and all of us back to the polls.

The last time BC had a minority government was in 1952 when the Liberal-Conservative coalition listened to those demanding change and called an election that was held with a new electoral system. It was called the preferential ballot or the transferable vote system. I have mentioned it before but it needs repeating as the cries for electoral reform increase without too much explanation as to how they would work.

In the 1952-53 experiment voters had a list of all candidates in their riding and were required to place “1” for a first choice, “2” for a second choice and so on. The candidate with the least votes in each riding would be crossed from the list with his or her alternate votes assigned as requested to alternate choices still in the race.

On the June 12, 1952, voting day, Frank Calder of Nisga’a native fame made it on the first vote count in Atlin with 56 per cent. Ralph Chetwynd won a first count for the Social Credit League with 52 per cent in Cariboo. Social Credit newcomer W.A.C. Bennett waltzed across the finish line in Kelowna with a first count of 51 per cent and CCF leader Harold Winch swept Vancouver East with 51 on the first count.

They were the only four out of 212 candidates to break the 50+ per cent mark on the first count. Most winners needed at least three counts, a few four and two ridings – Vancouver Burrard and North Vancouver – needed five and six counts respectively before a winner was declared.

The final seat count was Social Credit – 19, CCF – 18, Liberals – 6, Conservatives – 4 and Labour – 1. The CCF topped the popular vote with 34 per cent; Social Credit won with 30 per cent; and Liberals got 25 per cent. It’s an old story in BC … the party with the most seats wins elections, not necessarily the party with the most votes.

In its few weeks of life the government of 1952 featured crackerjack exchanges between Winch and Bennett. On March 24,1953, the government engineered its own defeat on a question of financing for schools. Winch wanted to govern, but Bennett asked Lieutenant Governor Clarence Wallace to dissolve the parliament and let the people decide. Wallace agreed to the dismay of Winch.

Premier Bennett set June 9, 1953 for his re-match of the June 12, 1952 cliff hanger he had won by one seat. It was a gamble that paid off. Social Credit expanded its popular vote to 46 per cent over the CCF at 29 per cent and increased the Socred’s seats from 19 to 28 after innumerable counts and distributions of alternative votes. But, although alternative balloting had undoubtedly helped Bennett and his infant Social Credit Party win two elections over well established rivals, he never again used it during his 20-years as premier.

Whether history is about to repeat itself remains unknown, but there are lessons to be learned from experience by those who govern and those who strive to govern. Waiting to see what they have learned will be fascinating – as BC politics have always been.

 

Were 1,356,668 Voters Status Quo Content or Just Indifferent?

The politicking re-started on May 10, just hours after we got word a final decision on the May 9 vote would not be available until after May 24. Elections BC declared “the Writ” would be returned May 31, the final whistle on sudden death overtime Election 2017.

While we, the great unwashed, wait for those final numbers to find out who’s really holding the key to the executive wing of government, two of our three political leaders are scrambling to control the agenda. And, they’ve been at it since the major polls closed with the Liberals clinging to government and the NDP and Greens pondering whether to extend a temporary helping hand – or stamp on fingers grasping for a firmer hold on power.

It’s an interesting scenario, a made in BC special with the NDP, renowned for its pit bull approach to problem solving, suggesting the Greens join them to force the government to make policy decisions according their “loser’s” agenda. All quite legal of course, even if a little conscience-stretching to see the least supported party on election day denying policy decisions proposed by the party with the most support.

Leaves me wondering how Green Party supporters and the general electorate would react to opposition threats to ‘do it our way or we’ll destroy this government’ and force a replay of May 9.

It is a debating method unrelated to anything we have seen to date from Andrew Weaver. His constant appeals for reasoned debate in favour of rhetorical demands won him much May 9 support. It also garnered sympathy for his party’s goal of being granted official party status in the House, a status that includes financial and legislature staffing benefits. Bully talk doesn’t fit the Green character we have come to know and respect.

Since my retirement from active duty in the political trenches, I am reliant on media reports for knowledge of political happenings – and confess to a diminishing faith in reporting accuracy when I read editorial comment woven into news stories which should be opinion-neutral – opinion being just that and always open to challenge.

I make this point because I have been hearing and reading that, if Andrew Weaver and his three Green seats hold firm in the final tally, they will hold the balance of power in a divided Legislature – and use that balance to demand concessions to Green Party policies. “Demand” is not the best of words to use in a democracy where “compromise” and “cooperation” are the favoured ways to solve problems. I read a few days ago in my local newspaper that Andrew Weaver now had “the muscle” to back up his demands.” Muscle? Demands? Makes it sound like a back-alley brawl is planned. I would hope logic, compromise and cooperation would be his weapons of choice.

However, as the rest of 2017 unfolds in BC, there will be many difficult decisions for the balance of power Green leader to make. Mahatma Ghandi once advised that on such occasions “when restraint and courtesy are added to the strength (of your reasoning) the latter become irresistible.”

Mr. Weaver will do better following Ghandi’s advice than flexing rhetorical muscle and seconding the NDP claim that the tight election result was a voters’ cry for change. It may be so. However, for sure it was also a cry for a change in attitudes when the Legislature is in session, a cry for reason and respect in debate to replace rancour and insult.always, a final sobering thought on the cry of the electorate: Elections BC states BC had 3,156,991 registered voters on as of April 11 this year. Preliminary counts record 1,800,323 valid votes were cast which means 1,356,668 voters remain content with the status quo or are too lazy to change it.

 

Don’t Panic – The Sky Ain’t Falling

 

Oh dear, oh dear, we have a minority government; the sky is falling and, in post-election confusion, British Columbia is collapsing back into the dark ages. Across the country, pundits and news reporters – who should know better – are gloomily wondering what the future holds now that voters have again stuttered in lock-step disarray and failed to appoint a clear-cut board of directors to run their affairs.

The doomsayers fearfully shout that it’s 65 years since we had the crisis of minority government. Yes, it is, and in 1952, many regarded an election result as a cataclysmic collapse of political order but BC soon dusted itself off, cleared away the election wreckage and spent the next 20 years as an envied, well ordered, prosperous province.

I touched on the 1952 general election last week, but it’s worth taking a second look. That was the year the Liberal-Conservative coalition government listened to those demanding change to the electoral process and introduced the preferential ballot –sometimes called the transferable vote system – for a general election tryout.  Voters would place “1” for a first choice, “2” for a second choice. The candidate with the least votes in each riding would be crossed off the list with his or her second votes assigned as requested to alternate choices still in the race. First to reach 50+per cent would be elected.

On June 12, 1952, voting day, Frank Calder, of Nisga’a native fame, made it on the first ballot in Atlin with 56.61 per cent. Ralph Chetwynd won a first count for the Social Credit League with 51.84 per cent in Cariboo. Social Credit newcomer W.A.C. Bennett waltzed across the finish line with a first count of 51.24 per cent and CCF leader Harold Winch swept Vancouver East with 51.42 on the first count.

They were the only four out of 212 candidates to make it through without “alternative vote” support to break the 50+ per cent mark.

Harold Winch’s father, Ernest, a lifetime member of the CCF and one of the NDP’s founding fathers, needed three counts of alternative votes before finally crossing the “elected” threshold with 51.37 per cent in Burnaby.

Most winners needed at least three counts; a few four, and candidates in two ridings – Vancouver-Burrard and North Vancouver – needed five and six counts respectively before a winner was declared. In Vancouver-Burrard, Social Credit won both available seats. Bert Price was declared a squeaky winner with 50.47 per cent after four counts, and fellow Socred Eric Martin garnered 51.25 per cent on the fifth count.

Of interest to electoral reform advocates, it’s worth noting that if the election had been run on traditional first-past-the-post rules, Alex Macdonald and Charles MacNeil would have won both Burrard seats quite handily for the CCF. They were among the few who held healthy leads on first counts but fell behind when alternate votes were distributed.

In North Vancouver, it took six alternative vote counts to push Liberal Martin Sowden over the threshold with 53.40 per cent to defeat CCF Dorothy Steeves with 46.60 per cent. A tight, tight race all the way.

The final seat count as noted a week ago was 19 Social Credit, 18 CCF, six Liberals, four Conservatives and – undefeated whenever he ran – Fernie’s Tom Uphill, Labour. The final popular vote counts saw the CCF well ahead with 231,756 – 34.30 per cent; Social Credit 203,932 – 30.18 per cent and Liberals 170,674 – 25.26 per cent.

It’s an old story in BC that it’s the party with the most seats that wins elections, not necessarily the party with the most votes.

The government of 1952 didn’t last more than a few weeks of crackerjack exchanges between CCF leader Harold Winch and Premier Bennett. The Legislature went into session in early February 1953. On March 24, the government was defeated on a school financing vote. Winch was quick to suggest Bennett should resign and let the CCF, with only one less seat, be asked to govern. Bennett countered with a request that Lieutenant Governor Clarence Wallace dissolve parliament, still formally in session, and let the people decide who should be in charge. To Winch’s dismay, the Lieutenant Governor agreed.

In the subsequent 1953 election, Social Credit won all the marbles. After innumerable counts and distributions of alternative votes, its popular vote expanded to 300,372 – 45.54 per cent, over the CCF’s194,000 votes – 29.48 per cent, thus increasing Socred seats from 19 to 28.

Bennett savoured his victory. However, having recognized the danger to a government of hard-to-sway second and third alternative vote choices, he never again in his 20 years as premier departed from first-past-the-post elections.

In 1952-53, politics in BC were in confused free fall on election day, but the end of the world was not nigh. And, 65 years later, I hope it won’t be for some time. There will be no descent into chaos and economic darkness following May 9 – but we could require a 1953 style final play-off election in the not too distant future to get things back on track.

Expensive, but perhaps needed in order to find a more certain way to govern..

In the meantime, let’s do what we do best in the west where we figure problems are made to be conquered by common understanding and respect, and that governments –elected or pending – need constant reminders of their fragile tenure.