Monday, December 16, 2019

Mike Smyth: The Drama and Reality of Politics, Will John Horgan call a snap election in 2020?

Opinion: The next scheduled B.C. election is not until October 2021. But could the premier roll the dice on an earlier call in the new year?

The theory burning along the B.C. political grapevine goes something like this:

Premier John Horgan can legally govern the province until the fall of 2021, as long as his ruling New Democrats maintain their alliance with the Green party in the minority parliament.

But political storm clouds are gathering. The economy could wobble and tilt the province’s balanced budget into the red. Unhappy teachers could shut down schools with yet another strike.

The ICBC dumpster fire could burn drivers with big auto-insurance rate hikes. The slumping forest industry could slump even worse, exacerbated by the brutal five-month-long strike on Vancouver Island.

Likable Green party Leader Andrew Weaver is stepping down next month. What if a new Green leader is even more likable and starts stealing NDP votes?

And then there’s the great unknown. The Horgan government has led a charmed life for two years with few major problems.

But what if some unforeseen scandal or crisis suddenly punctures Horgan’s approval ratings and drags the NDP down in the polls?

Put all those factors together and what do you get? A lot of reasons to call an early election, instead of waiting for things to get worse.

As I described the scenario to Horgan during an interview in his office, he just looked at me with an inscrutable smile.

“I can’t guarantee anything,” he told me. “And I don’t.”

So he can’t guarantee there won’t be an election in 2020?

“I can’t,” he said. “It’s not in my control.”

He’s referring there to the historic confidence and supply agreement he signed with Weaver, in which the three Green MLAs agreed to vote with the NDP in the legislature and keep Horgan in power.

“Andrew’s leaving and he’s the signatory to the agreement,” Horgan said. “We don’t know what will emerge from the Green caucus. So I tell my colleagues, ‘Work today like it’s your last day.’”

If a new Green leader rips up the power-sharing agreement, obviously it could trigger an earlier election call.

But I pressed Horgan on whether he would call an early election in a bid to win a majority government, so he doesn’t have to worry about the Greens anymore.

“I could call an election tomorrow,” he said. “That’s my prerogative as premier. But it’s not my intention to do that.

“No one wants an election except the hyper-partisans,” he went on. “But regular people are happy. The books are balanced. Services are being delivered. Medical Services Plan premiums are gone. People are happy about a lot of things. So why would I disrupt that?”

You disrupt it because those happy people could become unhappy if things go wrong, I told him. He smiled again and shrugged.

I asked him if any of his advisers had discussed with him the idea of an early election call in 2020. He thought for a second and then told me a story he heard from the late Allan Blakeney, the former NDP premier of Saskatchewan.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “When you’re first sworn in as premier, it’s like they hand you a bright shiny new backpack. And every day, someone puts a rock in it.

“Tomorrow is going to be another rock. And the day after that it’s another rock. It gets heavier and heavier. And it gets harder and harder to keep on walking because you’re weighted down with the issues of the day. That’s government.”

I suggest to him the story means a “Yes” to my question, and his advisers have indeed discussed an early election with him.

“That’s not my intention,” he repeated. “There may be situations in the future that make me reassess that.”

Rolling the dice on a snap election carries as many downside risks as upside ones, of course.

The New Democrats appear to enjoy the trappings of power. Many NDP insiders might not want to risk giving up their cushy jobs so soon.

And Horgan is right when he says people don’t want an election. They rarely do. And if he suddenly calls one, voters might not like it.

But I still see pre-election signs and clues out there.

Like Horgan’s recent campaign-style news conference to re-announce the end of MSP premiums. The event included a grateful family of those “real people” he likes, including an adorable kid, perfect for the mandatory photo-op.

There was also the re-announcement of a new hospital in Surrey, a crucial political battleground, and Horgan’s stated determination to quickly end that brutal loggers’ strike on the island.

On Friday, Attorney General David Eby ordered a delay on any new ICBC rate hike as he continues to find ways to drive down car insurance costs.

Maybe the Christmas spirit has me imagining things. Or maybe there really are some snap-election elves working behind the scenes.

The Liberals sense it, too.

“The NDP are going to be under pressure to call an early election if the economy continues to deteriorate,” Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson told me. “If they do, we’ll be ready.”

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