PV Vancouver Bureau

 As 2019 begins, the NDP-Green coalition which holds office in British Columbia is coming off a bruising referendum loss, and faces a strange by-election which could bring down the government.

Results of the eagerly-anticipated provincial referendum on electoral reform were announced in early December, and it was bad news for Premier Horgan’s government. While the turnout for the mail-in vote was a respectable 41%, most observers were shocked that only 39% of voters backed the proposal to switch to a proportional representation system. PR was supported by both the NDP and the Greens, who took office in July 2017 after winning a combined 57% of votes in the provincial election which saw the Liberals lose their majority.

Initial opinion surveys had indicated strong support (about 57%) for a “yes” vote on electoral reform. That figure dwindled as the referendum began, but the final result dismayed Fair Vote Canada and other PR supporters. After defeats in similar votes in other provinces in recent years, it appears that only an unusually undemocratic result in a future “first past the post” election could lead any major party to campaign for a new referendum on PR.

There are many factors in this outcome, starting with the scare tactics used by the corporate sector and their favoured party, the BC Liberals (who have no formal relationship with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals). For months, business leaders and the corporate media warned that PR would help elect “dangerous fringe parties”, destabilizing the provincial economy.

Unfortunately, the complex nature of the referendum gave the right-wing forces plenty of ammunition to work with. “Yes” campaigners (including the Communist Party of BC) found in conversations with voters that many were confused to the point of indecision by the second part of the mail-in ballot, which asked voters to rank three different versions of proportional representation. This allowed the “NO” campaign to bog debates in a morass of complex discussions over the details of these three options.

On the other hand, a referendum on only the first part of the ballot – a simple “yes” for PR or “no” for first past the post – would have been attacked just as viciously, on the grounds of “insufficient details” about proportional representation systems. The government was caught in a tactical dilemma, which perhaps could have been avoided by putting forward only the most popular and easily understood reform – a mixed-member PR system. Instead, it appears that the NDP (which essentially drew up the ballot) may have outsmarted itself.

Meanwhile, other dramatic developments have taken centre stage. Back in October, the government’s razor-thin majority in the Legislature was weakened by the election of NDP MLA Leonard Krog as mayor of Nanaimo. Krog’s subsequent resignation as MLA forced a January 30th by-election for his Nanaimo seat, which has been held by the NDP (or its CCF predecessor) for most of the past sixty years.

While the NDP should have a big advantage in the riding, nothing is certain. Governments in British Columbia rarely win by-elections, but this one could be an exception, since voters in Nanaimo seem unlikely to want the Liberals back in office. However, this case is bizarre for another reason – the by-election is being contested by two government candidates (Nanaimo federal MP Sheila Malcolmson, and Michele Ney for the Greens). This means that the Liberals’ Tony Harris could win with as few as 34-40% of the votes.

Even that might not topple Horgan, since such a result would give Darryl Plecas, the Speaker of the Legislature, the power to break tie votes. However, Plecas, who was enticed to become Speaker after being elected as a Liberal, is currently embroiled in a murky situation at the Legislature. Acting on his advice, prosecutors and the RCMP are investigating the Clerk and the Sergent-at-Arms of the Legislature, who are both suspended with pay. If Plecas is ultimately seen to have uncovered corruption at the Legislature, he could be hailed for his courageous action. But if his accusations are found to be groundless, it’s hard to see how he could remain in office. That could trigger another by-election in his riding, which would be an easy win for the Liberals.

If this was all just a political soap opera, it might be a popular TV series. But it’s not. As the Communist Party of BC pointed out after the 2017 election, the defeat of the big business Liberals and the subsequent “supply and confidence agreement” which let the NDP and Greens take office was a limited but important victory for the working class of British Columbia. Those events opened the door for a chance (now lost) at real electoral reform, but also for a turn away from the right-wing neoliberal policies of the Liberals. The defeat of the Horgan government under these circumstances could give the Liberals an opportunity to roll back any gains achieved over the past 18 months, such as steps towards a provincial child care plan, and a limited minimum wage increase.

Speaking to People’s Voice on January 7, Communist Party of BC lead George Gidora said, “We remain sharply critical of the Horgan government’s shortcomings, such as its approval of the Site C dam, or its refusal to roll back Gordon Campbell’s huge tax cuts for the rich and the corporations. But this by-election must not set in motion events leading to a new Liberal government. We urge the people of Nanaimo to take account of this reality. In these circumstances, the best outcome on January 30 would be a win for the NDP candidate.”

 (The above article is from the January 1-31, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)