Political skills of premier secured re-election for B.C. Liberals

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Christy Clark’s minority government, which could turn into razor-thin majority, will set the stage for some political chess played by all three parties.


First published in The Hill Times on Monday, May 15, 2017.

OTTAWA—The minority victory of the Liberal Party in British Columbia will shortly become a majority.

The nine-vote New Democratic Party margin in Courtenay-Comox will flip when the results of the military and absentee vote are counted. As the Liberal candidate was formerly the base commander in that riding before the election, he will surely lap the NDP to deliver a razor-thin majority to the Grits.

After 16 years in government, it is a credit to Premier Christy Clark’s campaign skills that the Liberals are even there at all.

And while the focus has been on her tenuous hold on government, the real story is the split vote on the left.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne will be poring over these results, looking for clues as to how the Ontario Liberals can trump their hat trick in an election next June.

But the real power grab in the British Columbia election is that of the Green Party. With three new players in the legislature, their clear agenda on financing reform is a no-brainer.

Less clear is where the province goes on resource development. The Liberals were able to carve out a new base in rural British Columbia by promoting the link between jobs and energy.

The New Democrats, if they are ever to form the government, need to square that circle. But with the Greens nipping at their environmental heels, the path to government is less clear.

Much has been written about the majority three-peat of prime minister Jean Chrétien,

As part of his team, I would like to think that the combination of good government and financial management had a lot to do with his success. Chrétien also know when to step into an issue and when to merely brush it off with a casual quip. Who can forget the pepper-spray malapropism?

But another element that played in favour of the federal Liberals was the split on the left between the Bloc Québécois and the New Democratic Party.

Until last week, such a split did not exist in British Columbia. Indeed, similar to the swing between the left and the right in France, British Columbia voters always managed to choose either extreme in any given election.

The arrival of the Green Party will change that scenario. Depending on the skill of leader Andrew Weaver, last week’s Green breakthrough could either be a flash in the pan or a game changer.

Federal counterpart Elisabeth May was publicly encouraging her provincial counterparts to make common cause with the NDP.

That is a great strategy for the Greens, as it provides a possible wedge into the block of environmental supporters that have historically voted for the New Dems. But it provides a huge risk to the traditional NDP base, because if the Greens look good, they garner support at the expense of the other party on the left.

Greens will argue, rightly so, that their platform is not left-leaning, but rather based on the conservative values of not consuming more than you can reasonable produce without damage to Mother Earth.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was in Alaska last week, meeting with other members of the Arctic Council on the thorny issue of global warming.

If anyone needs a keen example of what happens to water levels when ice caps melt, they only have to review the recent havoc wreaked on eastern Canadian water levels.

But when the waters recede, and the insurance haggling commences, most Canadians vote with their pocketbook. And the party that can present the most reasonable prospect of economic growth will carry the day.

Clark’s resource development agenda will undoubtedly have to be reworked, given the makeup of the legislature.

But she is also sitting with an important advantage. In a hung parliament, the government gets to return to the people.

And with a growing split on the left, and the chance for the Greens to grow in numbers in their newfound role as kingmaker, Clark is probably already planning her next move.

Politics is where Clark shines. Her mid-campaign call to block transport of American coal likely carried her over the top.

The next year will be a harrowing game of political chess for all three parties. At the moment, the newfound strength of the Greens could actually set the stage for an environmental showdown and another election in the near term.

That scenario is a winning one for the Libs and the Greens.

New Democrats are left wondering how to unite the left.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.