By Jim Quail
| March 29, 2012
B.C.’s next non-binding "fixed" provincial election date isn’t scheduled until May 14 2013, but I think there is an increasing possibility that we’ll be going to the polls sooner than that. Not because the government is anxious to refresh its mandate, but because too many wheels are falling off the governing party.
I won’t list all the catastrophes that have beset Christy Clark’s "BC Liberal" coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives. On top of all Clark’s gaffes and miscues, on top of her failure to get ahead of the morass she inherited from her predecessor, Gordon Campbell (including the Harmonized Sales Tax fiasco), the pieces are now falling off with a crash.
The latest round of crises: first the defection from her caucus to the upstart BC Conservative Party, Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen. And now, vacillations by her two most politically important Cabinet Ministers (and her two top rivals for party leader last year), Kevin Falcon and George Abbott (Finance and Education).
Falcon and Abbot each volunteered that they may not stand for re-election. The timing could not have been worse for Clark: Falcon is in charge of the agonizingly slow painful transition of BC’s sales tax back to the pre-HST regime, thanks to Clark and Falcon’s failure to stem the tide of popular outrage in last year’s referendum. At the same time, he is at the helm of a rocky provincial budget in the election lead-up. Abbott is responsible for somehow finding a resolution of the long-simmering dispute between the province and its teachers, and has just appointed a right-leaning novice mediator who seems to agree with everyone else that he is destined to fail. (The government’s real plan is obviously to use his anti-union recommendations as the template for an imposed contract). The lid may blow off that pot by late summer.
Both of these powerful players have cast doubt on their continued role on the Liberal team, and donned the status of lame duck, right on the heels of van Dongen’s bombshell floor-crossing to sit as the first Conservative MLA in decades. Both are seasoned and intelligent politicians, and it is hard to imagine that the impact of these moves, in rapid succession, is not calculated.
Meanwhile, Falcon is the de facto leader of the Conservative faction in the BC Liberal coalition of forces. His signal that he is pulling out (or considering it – which amounts to much the same thing in politics) right at the time when the government is bleeding on its right flank, can only intensify the political crisis gripping Clark’s collapsing regime.
Can they hold out for another thirteen and a half months, to May 2013? Possibly, but I would not bet on it. Once a government hits the death-spiral mode, there is a tendency for the disintegration process to accelerate. Insiders and bureaucrats have less and less reason to maintain their loyalty. The government starts to leak secrets like a sieve. More and more people start looking for more secure places to roost. Everything starts going wrong, and all at once. Those of us who recall the dying days of the last BC Social Credit government – Van der Zalm/Rita Johnston (anyone remember her?) – can expect a similar spectacle over the coming weeks and months.
Assuming that Clark loses both of the by-elections in ‘safe’ Liberal seats, set for April 19, all it takes is four more defections from her caucus and she has lost her majority in the legislature. Even failing that development, things can reach the point where a government is so plagued by catastrophes that it simply loses the capacity to carry on.
The Liberals seem to have contemplated that possibility themselves. Look at their recent budget. They appear to be over-stating revenues, particularly from natural gas royalties. They are basing their forecast of heftier royalties on a stated expectation of increased extraction activity and rising natural gas prices. Nobody else seems to agree with that assessment – supply is glutted, commodity prices are well below the cost of production, and overseas export markets (which are very profitable) will remain inaccessible until at least 2015, when the first Liquefied Natural Gas port facilities are expected to open.
Why fudge the revenue side of your budget, if you are going to have to face the electorate shortly after the end of the fiscal year, when all the real numbers are in? I detect at least a glance by Clark at pulling the plug this fall.
That timing avoids another dilemma for the governing Liberals: if Falcon and Abbott don’t confirm they will be running in the next election, they will need to be replaced by next autumn with incumbents who will be in the race. Nobody in Clark’s Cabinet supported her as party leader. Pushing out either Falcon or Abbott would cost her dearly, in terms of her last vestiges of support in caucus and in the party at large. A snap election call in September pre-empts that issue.
So I’d say, mark the May 14 2013 election day only in pencil on your calendar, and look for the possibility that we’ll be going to the polls this autumn.
Jim Quail is a Vancouver, B.C. lawyer with a long background in social justice litigation, labour law and trade unionism, progressive politics and rabble rousing. By logging in to this blog you are consenting to being subjected to random thoughts, harangues and observations about everything and about nothing at all.