British Columbians could know the final results of the provincial election before they will know who will govern them. That is one of the scenarios emerging after voters delivered a historic outcome, with preliminary results showing the BC Liberals with 43 seats, the New Democrats with 41 seats and the BC Greens with three seats.
These counts mean neither of the two main parties currently controls a majority of seats in the B.C. Legislative Assembly, where the BC Greens will hold the balance of power. Their leader Andrew Weaver has already received several overtures from Christy Clark of the BC Liberals and John Horgan of the New Democrats, and the coming weeks, if not months, will likely witness intense negotiations more common in the continental democracies of Europe, where proportional voting systems regularly produce outcomes like Tuesday’s.
Weaver for his part is playing it coy. During a speech before supporters, he told them that he had already reached out to Clark and Horgan to “start the conversation about the next step for our province in the days ahead.”
Two scenarios appear likely. The first sees the BC Greens tolerate Christy Clark as head of a minority government, that is a government in which the governing cabinet controls less than half of the seats. The second scenario could see the New Democrats woo the BC Greens with rewards that would likely have to be more substantial than what the BC Liberals would be prepared to offer. The Liberals are short one seat of a majority, whereas the New Democrats are short three seats – the very number of seats held by the Greens. One possibility could see the New Democrats offer the Greens – Weaver specifically – a cabinet post.
If the New Democrats and BC Greens were to strike a formal coalition government, they would form what some have dismissively called a “coalition of losers.” While this very prospect triggered a constitutional crisis in 2008, when federal Liberals and New Democrats struck an ultimately unsuccessful arrangement with the separatist Bloc Quebecois to replace the Conservative minority government of Stephen Harper, it is totally legitimate under the Westminster system of parliamentary government as used in British Columbia. A “coalition of losers” between Liberals and New Democrats in Ontario governed that province between 1985 and 1987 and are common place in European democracies.
All of these potential scenarios come with a caveat. Results do not include several types of votes such as absentee ballots, and the BC Liberals may yet win a fifth straight majority if the riding of Courtenay Comox flips to them. They currently trail by nine votes. So much remains in the air, at least until May 24, when all the counting has concluded.
But if uncertainty is the defining mood of these political times, so much remains certain. Clark remains premier at least until the newly elected legislature meets for the first time. The parliamentary calendar shows its first scheduled meeting on Oct. 2.
The unwritten conventions of Westminster parliamentary democracy grant the previous government a chance to face the new legislature, regardless of how many seats it commands.
In 1925, William Lyon McKenzie King tested and won the confidence of House of Commons, even though his Liberals had 15 fewer seats than the Conservatives under Arthur Meighen. King managed to stay in office (albeit for a short time) by courting the Progressives and their 28 seats in a move that set the stage for the King-Byng Affair of 1926.
Should Clark lose the confidence of the legislative assembly, she must resign her premiership. Once she has resigned, two potential paths emerge. One points towards a new election. “On Day 28 of a very hard-fought campaign, that seems very daunting,” said returning Saanich South MLA Lana Popham.
The second scenario would see New Democrats take power without an election, on the provision that they can command the confidence of the House, presumably with the support of the Greens.
Which of these scenarios unfolds will depend on a number of factors and ultimately hinge on one figure: Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon.