On the morning after Tuesday’s British Columbia election, there was no ready acknowledgement by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office of the results of the provincial vote in Canada’s third-largest province and no boilerplate salute to the dawn of a new mandate.
It is hard to put into words the sound of one hand clapping.
In the wake of an election that failed to give either of the province’s main parties a clear win, it will take weeks—and probably at some point in the not-so-distant future another election—for the political landscape in British Columbia to sort itself out.
On May 9, the province’s voters left the incumbent Liberals on the doorstep of a majority, just one seat short of the 44 required to keep control of the B.C. legislature.
There is still a possibility that a handful of recounts and/or the outcome of the absentee vote will help premier Christy Clark to cross the threshold.
Under that best-case scenario for her party, she would lead a government so fragile it would be at the mercy, for its survival, of the whims of a few maverick MPs from her own ranks. It does not enhance the moral authority of an incumbent to need a recount to be reconfirmed in the job. Only two seats separate the first-place Liberals from the New Democrats. The recount could also flip the result in favour of the NDP.
But under just about any configuration of the final seat-count, Clark and NDP Leader John Horgan will have to try to come to terms with the Green Party. With three seats, it has the capacity to anchor one or the other to power and provide B.C. with some measure of governing stability.
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver could do that by joining the Liberals or the NDP in a coalition government, as the Saskatchewan Liberals did in 1999 or as the Ontario NDP did in 1985, by agreeing to support one of the other parties in government for some period of time in exchange for policies that are close to his heart.
But whether Clark remains at the helm beyond the first confidence vote of the opening session of the mandate or not, or even if she ends up clinging to a razor-thin majority, it will hardly be business as usual.
As of now and until B.C. returns to the polls at some unspecified time, the province stands to be in permanent campaign mode.
In the interval, the uncertain outcome of Tuesday’s vote could force Clark’s Liberals to belatedly renounce their rich diet of corporate donations and join the political fundraising Canadian mainstream.
It could also restore some impetus to the electoral reform debate. Both the B.C. Greens and the NDP advocate a more proportional voting system. The province has done more legwork on the issue than most other Canadian jurisdictions.
There may be a window to try—for the third time—to replace the first-past-the-post system.
One way or another, though, this is not the result the Trudeau government wanted or needed.
As things stand today, a majority of the elected members of the next B.C. legislature are on record as opposing the Kinder Morgan plans to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline.
Clark offered only tepid support for the plan.
Should she form a viable government, it is unlikely to be the hill she would choose to die on.
The project is a key piece in Trudeau’s energy/environment puzzle but not one that his own caucus is unanimously enamoured with.
The prime minister has always claimed that he did not believe such projects should proceed without a social licence.
It was not the only issue on the B.C. ballot, but it was in the mix. Clark’s Liberals took most of the hits that cost them their soft majority cushion in and around the ground zero of the Trans Mountain project, in the larger Vancouver area.
That will be duly noted not only in the Liberal backrooms of Parliament Hill but also in the constituency offices of Trudeau’s 17 B.C. MPs.
This is just the first of a series of provincial elections that could weaken Trudeau’s hand at the federal-provincial table.
By the time the next federal election comes around in 2019, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta will also have gone to the polls and each of those provincial votes has the potential to result in more complications for the agenda of the ruling federal Liberals.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer for The Toronto Star. This column was released on May 11.
The Hill Times