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Rocky road ahead for the NDP and Green parties

Veteran political analyst Keith Baldrey thinks the NDP/Green alliance will be lucky to last a year.
Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart (seated) being sworn in by Premier Christy Clark in Victoria on June 8. Submitted

This is the second part of a two-part interview with veteran political correspondent Keith Baldrey, legislative bureau chief for Global BC News, about the current state of B.C. politics (current as of the time of writing, at least).

The Journal: Looking at tolls in the Lower Mainland, which the NDP/Greens have said they’ll remove, the cynic in me says that the Coquihalla was tolled for 20-odd years. Only a handful of people commuted through there every day, I’m sure—it’s not like the Port Mann Bridge—but looking at the trucking industry, I’m sure they’d have liked to see those tolls removed a lot sooner than they were. So outside the Lower Mainland a lot of people are probably thinking “Hang on; one rule for them, another for us?”

Keith Baldrey: It’s very much an urban/suburban-centric platform that has been put together by the Greens and the NDP. They really zeroed in on a relatively small geographical place in B.C., and ignored much of the rest of the province. Now, one of the big unknowns is are we really looking at a four-year government? I don’t think this thing’s going to last too long, perhaps a year or so.

Minority governments in Canada have a history of lasting about 18 months, and I don’t think they can even get to 18 months. The regulations of the legislature will make it almost impossible to govern in the house. Everything this new government’s going to do will virtually have to be done through cabinet order. It can’t be done through legislation because they won’t be able to get much legislation through the legislature to pass into law. It’s going to have to be done by regulation and by cabinet order.

You jumped ahead about how long an NDP/Green government could last, because that was going to be my next question. Horgan and Weaver sound very confident that they can last four years, easy-peasy [laughter from Baldrey], but you’d say 18 months if you were a betting person?

I’d say that’s maximum. I think if they can get through to next spring that will be quite an accomplishment. All it takes is one MLA on their side to be sick or incapacitated at the critical time when these confidence votes are taken, on things like the throne speech, on money supply bills, and on the budget. If anybody is sick on any of those days, the government will fall. The odds of them being able to keep it together for four years I don’t think are very good at all.

And of the 44 [NDP and Green] MLAs, 17 are brand new; no experience whatsoever. The experience lies on the Liberal side of the house. Also, the experience on the really tricky manoeuvres I think is more instilled on the government side than it is on the NDP side.

The most important positions in government now are not going to be the premier, or the finance minister; it’s going to be the whip, the party whip, who has to ensure that they have attendance when they need it. And it’s going to be the house leader, who will have to know all the rocky shoals that they’re going to be hitting on a daily basis. And it’s going to be the speaker, who may find him- or herself in that chair without even having a bathroom break, because they’ll have to sit there the entire time.

And they’ll have to side with government over and over again, on every vote, and that’s the other thing that’s going to happen. For the first time in history, the speaker is going to evolve into a very partisan position. I think I’ve only seen two times when the speaker has voted, only to break a tie, and now we’re going to have a speaker breaking ties constantly and always voting for the government. So the sense of independence and non-partisanship that has traditionally been part of that institution will be shed over time, and that’s further going to contribute to the chaos that’s going to be taking place in that historic assembly.

Looking at the policies the Greens and NDP came up with, what the compromises ended up being, it looks to me as if the Greens have compromised on a lot more of their policies than the NDP have.

I don’t see much of anything that the Greens got here that wasn’t already in the NDP platform. I think the NDP out-manoeuvred them big time. I think they realized that Weaver could not deliver his caucus to the Liberals, so they suddenly hardened their positions. Yes, they agreed to put obstacles in front of Kinder Morgan, but saying there will be a review of Site C while construction continues for months is a far cry from shutting the dam down, which is what the Greens were demanding.

So the Greens lost on Site C, lost on a ban on fracking for natural gas, lost on the issue of tolls—they want more tolls, not less—and they lost on a number of other fronts as well. They also lost on the demand that they would impose a new electoral system on the electorate rather than sending it to referendum. So on all of their key policies they didn’t get it done. The NDP stood fast on their own platform, and did not accede to the Green demands at all. The only thing the Greens really got was access to deputy ministers and briefings and documents and those types of things, which are nice, but hardly translate to policy positions.

How is this going to play to their base?

What the Greens are going to discover is that they’re going to be wearing the controversies that inevitably come with any government. The junior partner in a coalition wears these issues just as much as the major partner. When we come to the next election the Greens will not be seen as a new, virginal type of political party that’s never done anything, that has no record. Their track record is going to be yoked to the NDP’s track record. If the NDP does anything that seems to be unpopular, or if they’re on the wrong side, the Greens will be on the wrong side too.

When they go to the electorate the next time the Greens aren’t going to have that air of innocence that they had this time. I think they’re going to be judged in far more serious ways. They won’t be given a free pass like they’ve been given, and they’re going to be held accountable for both the good and the bad things that inevitably occur with governments.

The Liberal Democrats in Great Britain are a great example of this; they won 57 seats and propped up David Cameron’s minority Conservatives, then at the next election were punished by the voters and reduced to only nine seats.

That’s happened to other junior partners as well, in governments. That’s why I’m surprised; Weaver didn’t really get much out of this other than some access to levels of power. In terms of a policy embracement, he really didn’t get much, so why commit yourself to a four-year plan—not that it’s going to go that long—that now has them committed to support NDP budgets no matter what’s in them? They don’t have to support all the laws that are introduced, but budgets are a key part of any government’s agenda. It’s not just one document; we’re talking 20 bills coming out of a budget, and the Greens have got to support them.

And you have to support the tough choices governments make. Now what if the welfare rates aren’t increased as much as the Greens want? They’re going to have to support that. What if the other things they’ve been calling for, like early childhood funding, isn’t as much as the Greens were expecting? They’re still going to have to support it. That’s not going to reflect well, necessarily, for a lot of people who voted for them.

Are the Greens bound to support these things, or will they support them just to keep in power?

By signing this document, they are bound to support confidence and money supply issues, which is throne speech and budget issues. Now, there is an “out” in it, in that they are free to walk away if there are, quote, “surprises”, or things done in bad faith, which can be very subjectively interpreted. What counts as a surprise? That hasn’t been defined yet. Presumably the Greens, if they’re really choked at what the NDP is doing, could define “surprise” along terms that allow them to get out of this. But right now they’re in lock, stock, and barrel with the New Democrats.

Official party status for the Greens was much talked about, but it seems to have dropped off the radar. What’s the situation with that?

I think that’s what they’re going to get, but it’s not going to happen immediately. The Constitution Act has to be amended to do that, so I think they’ll get a speaker in place first. The document as I read it recognizes that the government will treat the Greens as a collective, as a caucus, rather than as individuals. So it may mean that the Act is not amended.

The ironic thing is that if they qualify as Independent members, their collective budgets will be bigger than what they would get if they were deemed to be an official party within the house. The details are still being worked out. I don’t think the Greens want to lose money in terms of funding, because the caucus budget is set by one formula, and the Independents’ budget is set by another formula, and they have to work that out. The big thing for them is that they want to be treated as a caucus rather than as Independents.

You said you think it might be quiet, or quieter, for a period of time now.

There’s not much else to do until the house comes back. The government is still the government, so there’ll still be some things that they’ll do, but I don’t think you’re going to see any splashy announcements from Christy Clark or her government about new policies or anything. Everybody’s just going to get ready to sit in the house when it comes back on June 22; and that’ll be fun.

Everyone is going to be spending a heck of a lot more time in that chamber than they normally would. For years the focus has been on question period; now it’s going to be on a lot more than that, because we’re going to be sitting there and the chamber is going to be a lot more crowded for much of the day than it ever has been.

It’s usually virtually empty when there’s a throne speech debate or in much of the committee phase; it’s usually just the critic in the house with the minister, and maybe a couple of other MLAs to establish quorum. Now nobody can be very far from that place for any stretch of time. You’ve got to be able to get in there after the bells ring for a vote, because those doors get locked after five minutes and you’re not getting in. That’s why the whip might not be just a proverbial whip; he might need an actual one.