The Big BC Shift?

Is the 2017 Provincial Election the Start of New Era of Political Culture and Power in British Columbia?

Abstract

Is the May 9, 2017 provincial election, which marked the first minority government in BC since 1952, with seat numbers of 43 for the BC Liberals, 41 for the NDP and three for the  Green Party, the big BC shift?  With 44 seats required to form the slimmest majority government in BC, the Green Party was handed the balance of power with three seats.  With Andrew Weaver’s Green Party agreeing to support John Horgan and the NDP, their alliance has a single seat advantage in the legislature over Christy Clark and the BC Liberals.  If a BC Liberal MLA is successfully wooed to be an independent speaker, then the keys to the premier’s office will have been handed to John Horgan.  This election, the rise of the Green Party and the subsequent drama represent a dramatic and possibly permanent change in the traditional political landscape of the province.

This Westernmost province, on the far edge of Canada, of vast rugged mountain ranges and coastlines, lakes, rivers, arid plains and old growth forests, has long been elusive to identify, other than by its political polarization and populist tinge.  The centre, as W.B. Yeats might say, has trouble holding in British Columbia.[2]   If the culture of place can be thought of as a shared understanding of our shared history, shared values and a shared future, an historic cultural divide characterized as a battle between left and right has long dominated and polarized the political landscape, reinforced by politicians with a keen awareness of the value of populist appeals.

The ideological left/right divide is being crosscut with other, evolving value conflicts including populist vs. elite appeals, urban vs. rural dwellers, materialists vs. post-materialists/progressives, a traditional resource extraction vs. a newer service and technology-focused economy, gender divides, generational divides, socio-economic/class divides particularly around housing and affordability, and land use and rights conflicts between labour, environmental, First Nations and business interests.  These ever-shifting divisions, together with seismic demographic changes produced by large-scale immigration, particularly from Asia, have profound implications for the evolution of BC political culture and power in the modern era.  

It may be that with an increasingly complex and pluralistic society, the old anti-socialist, centre-right “free enterprise” rhetoric which stubbornly drove electoral politics in the province in the past no longer resonates with BC voters.  An argument can be made that there are now four rival narratives competing to define BC electoral politics going forward:

  1. A neo-liberal narrative personified by Bill Bennett, Gordon Campbell and possibly Kevin Falcon in the future, emphasizing free markets where British Columbians are primarily viewed as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers and tax payers;
  2. A globalized, technological and green driven narrative personified by the current Green Party and Andrew Weaver, emphasizing new technologies, the environment and skilled workers where British Columbians are primarily viewed as global, connected, lifelong learners working in the new economy;
  3. A progressive, liberal narrative personified by the current New Democratic Party and John Horgan, emphasizing multiculturalism, social justice and government as a socio-economic tool where British Columbians are primarily viewed as citizens defined by their constituent identity groups; and
  4. A populist, BC first narrative, personified by the current BC Liberals, W.A.C. Bennett and Christy Clark, emphasizing resource development, large public province-building projects and strong advocacy for BC interests in the Canadian federal system, where British Columbians are primarily seen as family-focused, independent workers, defined by the West.

Social conservative voters don’t fit easily into any of these narratives, but they are an ever-decreasing percentage of the voting public. [3] Social values research as well as polling indicates that Canadians generally are becoming more socially liberal; more at ease with diverse family models, diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.  Seat heavy Metro Vancouver in particular has the fewest inhabitants of any Canadian metropolitan area who call themselves Christian.[4]  That said, whether social conservatives flock to the neo-liberal or populist, BC first narratives, or find a home with a revived BC Conservative Party, will be a further variable in whether the balance of power shifts permanently left, with vote splitting on the right.

Finally, Mr. Weaver’s requirement that a proportional representation electoral system be imposed as a condition for the support of his three-member caucus for the NDP could be a fundamental change in the state of party competition in the province, with potentially national repercussions.  Pursuant to the “Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC Green Caucus and the BC New Democrat Caucus”, the NDP government plans to hold a referendum on changing the province’s electoral system alongside with the October 2018 municipal elections.[5]  Given that BC voters have twice rejected electoral reform in province-wide votes, in 2005 and 2009, the future of such a significant change to the current first-past-the-post electoral system is highly uncertain.  

The Green party appears to assume that proportional representation will allow stable, minority governments to function, hopefully defined by commonalities of a greener, more progressive agenda.  The changes ahead under a proportional representation system are highly unknown, and could also mean the rise of long-term right-of-centre alliances, for example, a neo-liberal/populist, BC first/social conservative alliance.  Just look at the legacy of Stephen Harper’s decade in power balancing such constituent groups under the Conservative tent for reference.  Or, BC could become like Italy, with a proportional representation electoral system widely blamed for producing fragile and ineffective governments for years.  Whatever happens, what will remain the same is BC politics being novel and exciting.

 

Table of Contents

Abstract

Culture, Conflict and Politics Generally

Culture, Conflict and Politics in BC

A Wacky World?

The Rush for Spoils: 1871 to 1933

Origins of Polarization: 1933 to 1952

Politics of Polarization: 1952 to 1991

NDP Leadership: 1991 to 2001

Liberal Leadership: 2001 to 2017

Cultural Cleavages Past, Present and Going Forward in a New Political Landscape

Bibliography 

Culture, Conflict, and Politics Generally

Culture is the shared, often unspoken, understandings in a group.[6]  Culture frames our ideas of what is important, influences our attitudes and values, and animates our behaviors.[7]  Culture comes not only from groups that share race, ethnicity and nationality, but from cleavages of generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, differing abilities, political and religious affiliation, language, gender, region and more.[8]  

Since it was first described as a “particular pattern of orientations to political action,” the concept of political culture has come to be understood as a set of collective assumptions about the political world, both cognitive and affective.[9]  As Berns-McGown has stated:

Political culture is the crucible of forces in which that set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments – those individually held values if you will – combine with historical and current events, as well as with myth and symbol, to produce a collective response that is then translated into policy and practice, and that itself comes to be seen as a shared value.  Political culture is both the space in which, and the process by which, context and events translate into individual and collective political behavior.[10]

Conflict on a fundamental level can be understood as a difference within a person or  between two or more people that affects them in a significant way. [11] Only differences we perceive as challenges to something we believe in or need, or to some aspect of our individual or shared identities, become actual conflicts. [12] Greater than a small difference, conflicts can play out over resources, power, status, hierarchy in relationships or deeper issues rooted in identity, and worldview that inform how we understand ourselves and our communities.[13]  As we are all cultural beings, conflicts are always cultural in some respect.[14]  Political culture can be thought of as the collective characteristics of a society that relate to how people think about the political in their communities, and it informs who the legitimate actors are, what conflicts are of public concern and what kind of options are available to deal with those conflicts.[15]

Culture, Conflict and Politics in BC

A Wacky World?

It has been said that the history of British Columbia is the story of adventurers, rogues and rebels, dreamers and schemers, traders and crusaders, who made British Columbia what it is today.[16]  Indeed, BC has a long-held reputation for colourful politics, based on larger than life personalities, including newspaperman William Smith, the province’s second premier who changed his name to Amor de Cosmos, or Lover of the 

Universe.  In the mid-1900s, Phil Gaglardi earned the nickname “Flying Phil” due to the number of speeding tickets he racked up during his time as highways minister.  Gaglardi served under Social Credit premier W.A.C. Bennett, whose nickname “Wacky” Bennett didn’t prevent him from winning seven consecutive provincial elections.[17]  Bill Vander Zalm, the colourful populist premier, resigned in the early 1990s over allegations he had mixed public and private business in the sale of Fantasy Gardens, a religious-themed amusement park where he and his wife lived in a castle.[18]

The province’s penchant for eccentric politics may have been the result of the alchemy of a British parliamentary and legal system imposed upon a frontier economy and people, isolated by the Rockies on the far edge of the continent.  The Pacific Ocean facing Asia provides the Western boundary, a daunting chain of mountains borders almost entirely on the east and the United States bound it to the South and part of the North.  BC was one of the last areas of North America to be colonized by Europeans. [19]

The Rush for Spoils: 1871 to 1933

Despite BC’s reputation as battleground between a “free enterprise” centre-right coalition and the left, it was not always this way.  The period of 1871, when British Columbia joined Confederation, to 1903 was characterized by official non-partisanship in the provincial legislature.[20]  The first thirty years were dominated by issues such as the terms of the union with Canada, and politicians focused on harnessing and directing the development boom produced by the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Legislative politics revolved around individual and local self-interest, a context in which political principles and party attachments had little place. [21]

Non-partisanship in the provincial legislature was ultimately abandoned in the face of chronic government instability, scandal and an emerging threat from the left. [22] Parties and organizations ranging from groups of mild reformers to bands of militant socialists appeared in British Columbia at the turn of the century in association with the struggle for the rights of workers and the recognition of trade unions.[23]  When Liberal and Conservative party labels were finally imported from the East on behalf of the establishment to organize itself against the left, the differences in the parties appeared to be based on little more than the distinction of being in or out of office.[24]

Origins of Polarization: 1933 to 1952

While battles were fought and lives lost in these early struggles between capitalists and workers,[25] it was not until 1933 that the left had sufficient strength to win more than a token presence in the legislature.  In that year, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) received one-third of the vote and with seven seats became the official opposition in the BC legislature.[26]  The CCF was a Canada–wide federation of farmer, labour and socialist parties committed more to reform for working conditions than to revolution.  However, the BC branch of the CCF contained a much higher proportion of Marxist socialists committed to fundamental change than was the case elsewhere.  Hence it could be argued that by the 1930s the left pole of BC’s provincial party system was firmly established.  [27]

The Liberals were elected at the onset of the Great Depression, and with policies including massive public works projects, improved welfare programs and support for a national unemployment insurance program, moved to the left to contain the rise of the CCF.  By the end of the decade, Liberals controlled the centre, facing the CCF on the left and the conservatives on the right.[28]  The 1941 provincial election failed to produce a legislative majority for any party which resulted in a Liberal/Conservative governing coalition.  Ten years of coalition government and two elections in which the CCF and coalition were the only choices produced the first emergence of the left/right divide in BC.

Politics of Polarization: 1952 to 1991

The collapse of the coalition and the subsequent election of a minority Social Credit government in 1952 marked a new stage in the development of the  polarization pattern.[29]  Before the decade was out, the Social Credit Party, lead by W.A.C. Bennett, the longest serving premier in BC history and the grandfather of populist politics in BC, had emerged as the dominant centre-right party.  The CCF dominated the opposition ranks, but with a vote share hovering around one-third, it was never a serious threat to challenge Social Credit’s hold on government.  “Free Enterprise versus Socialism” was W.A.C. Bennett’s favorite election slogan and there is evidence the electorate accepted this description of BC politics at the time. [30] The CCF were similarly convinced that Social Credit was simply a front for powerful capitalists.  Both parties portrayed the contest between them as urgent and dangerously close.[31]

An examination of actual government policy reveals a more complex picture as W.A.C. Bennett’s attitude towards the economy was certainly not laissez-faire.  W.A.C. Bennett created provincial Crown corporations, including BC Ferries in 1960 and BC Hydro in 1961.  BC Rail, formerly the Pacific Great Eastern Railway and owned by the province since 1918, underwent a series of significant expansions as a major instrument for opening up the interior and north to economic development. [32] His Minister of Highways, Phil Gaglardi, oversaw major highway expansions and improvements. Major hydro-electric dam-building projects were undertaken on the Columbia and Peace Rivers which produced fundamental changes in the provincial economy and the distribution of industry.  The style with which the W.A.C. Bennett government pursued these major public province building initiatives was typical of an action orientation associated with populism. [33]

Indeed, the Social Credit government was not simply right-wing and the left/right cleavage did not completely characterize the political culture.  Both parties also represented a British Columbian variant of populism.  In the prairie West, populism had its roots in an agrarian society, which, faced with what it took to be economic exploitation of the farming community by the institutions and elites of central Canada, called for a greater direct democracy and the decentralization of power to ordinary people as a means to achieve more equitable policies.  Reflecting these rural origins, an emphasis on grassroots action was accompanied by a distrust of modern urban life and the alleged superiority of educated professionals and bureaucrats. [34]

The Social Credit in BC owed much of its initial success to financial and organizational support from the Alberta party and electoral support from expatriate Albertans.  As a protest movement, however, its attention focused on established provincial and economic elites and the dominant position of Vancouver as a finance, trade and service centre.  Cross-party populism in BC has been described as an institutionalized protest against established social elites of all kinds, whether they be located in the labour movement, big business or the universities.[35]

The CCF’s party also had populist roots with an emphasis on democracy and an antipathy to centralized bureaucratic institutions such as banks and large corporations.  That said, the populist strain came into internal conflict with its commitment to cooperative enterprises and an activist government which required bureaucratic structures and competent professionals to administer.  Economic development, population growth and changes in the character of BC socialism transformed the CCF into the New Democratic Party (NDP), confirming a shift away from pure socialism toward social democracy.[36]

The NDP also faced more favourable electoral conditions through the 1960’s as the province’s economic boom extended the resource economy with its highly unionized workforce into areas previously hostile to the left.  Public sector growth increased the number of voters sympathetic to the NDP’s economic and social message, particularly with the Social Credit government’s weak track record on issues such as public sector unionization and teacher salaries.[37]  Increased competitiveness and the temporary disintegration of the Social Credit’s anti-left coalition, marked by the resurgence in the BC Conservative party support as W.A.C. Bennett failed to provide for his party’s renewal, culminated in the 1972 NDP victory under premier Dave Barrett.[38]

Over the next 39 months, the Barrett government unleashed the most sweeping reform agenda the province had ever seen. Altogether, the government passed an astonishing 367 bills, many of them radical, even for those stirring times.  But many, such as the Agricultural Land Reserve, a provincial ambulance service and the Insurance Corporation of BC, were transformative as well, and Dave Barrett’s legacy is clearly seen in BC today.  When the dust cleared, however, the NDP was voted out of office, in large part because of a feeling it had done too much, too soon.[39]

Reaction to the victory of the left signaled the final stage in the development of a two party system with highly antagonistic opponents.  William R. Bennett secured the Social Party leadership in 1973 after his father’s retirement and immediately began to rebuild the party’s mass base, playing on fear of the NDP.  It became clear to right-of-centre political elites that opponents to the left must unite under the Social Credit or else face the prospect of continued NDP victories linked to growth of the NDP base and fragmentation on the right.  The 1975 election restored a Social Credit government with one Liberal MLA and by 1979 all centre-right MLA’s were elected under the Social Credit banner.  [40]

Bill Bennett took steps to consolidate the party’s hold on the anti-NDP vote and to downplay its populist past.  This was part of his personal, more reserved style, but also represented an effort to retain the support of groups such as urban professionals, the mainstay of the provincial Liberals throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, many of whose leaders moved to Social Credit during the realignments of the 1970’s.[41]  The NDP increasingly replaced candidates from blue collar occupations with public sector professionals, administrators and the professions including law, medicine and accountancy, further blurring the lines of class and populism across the two main parties.[42]

Despite the accession of Bill Bennett to the Social Credit Party leadership and premiership and the return of the Social Credit to its familiar position as the governing party, rather than representing a continuity, the party was transformed.  This happened not only by a retreat from populism but also a modernization in the hands of a new generation of political professionals familiar with the techniques of fundraising, polling and sophisticated election campaigning.  Following his third election victory and a significant decline in the provincial economy following the global recession of the early 1980’s, Bill Bennett declared a “new economic reality,” and heralded in the introduction of a battery of neo-liberal policies analogous to those implemented by the Reagan and Thatcher governments in the U.S. and U.K. respectively.[43]

Inspired by conservative economist Milton Friedman, Bill Bennett’s government passed a series of laws, known as the “restraint” program, which slashed social services and gutted labour laws in response to economic woes, provoking a general strike which further crippled the economy.  The bruising battle with the Solidarity protest movement over the “restraint program” left the province more polarized than ever. [44]

On the other hand, Bill Bennett’s ostensibly anti-socialist government spent hundreds of millions of dollars to bring Expo ‘86 to Vancouver and related projects including BC Place, the SkyTrain rapid transit system, and the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre.  His government also built the Coquihalla Highway at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars with non-union Kerkhoff Construction Company as the main contractor.[45]  The historian David Mitchell explains that these decisions, including Bill Bennett’s choice not to dismantle numerous NDP initiatives launched during Dave Barrett’s government, including the Agricultural Land Reserve, Pharmacare and the Insurance Corporation of BC,  illustrate something most people don’t understand. “BC is not really that ideological; it’s not really split left/right,” he says. “It’s generally populist/centrist with a bias to free enterprise, which I would define as an economy in which small business is able to succeed without too big a burden of the state. Bill Bennett understood that the state has a legitimate role to provide the infrastructure that business needs to succeed. Both Bennetts were very pragmatic in their thinking and less ideological.”[46] Perhaps, but history does continue to evidence that BC political culture is in fact far more complex than a pure left-right divide.  

Upon Bill Bennett’s resignation before the 1986 general election, Bill Vander Zalm won a contested leadership convention which represented a return of the Social Credit Party to its populist, anti-establishment old guard and a repudiation of Bill Bennett’s leadership style and attempts to modernize the party organization.  After a relatively easy electoral victory the same year, the Vander Zalm government proceeded to engage in a series of controversial policy moves and embarrassing scandals, seriously damaging its support.  Amid revelations that the premier had used his office to expedite the sale of his biblical theme park Fantasy Gardens and that he had accepted an envelope stuffed with $20,000 in cash from a Taiwanese billionaire as partial payment, Vander Zalm stepped down as premier and leader of the party. [47]

Vander Zalm was replaced by Rita Johnson, who called an election at the very end of  the government’s five year mandate.  The once powerful Social Credit Party lost in a third place finish to the New Democrats under Mike Harcourt, while the previously marginalized Liberal Party, led by Gordon Wilson, formed the official opposition.  Mike Harcourt, who had been elected leader of the NDP by acclamation in 1987, represented the newer professional, urban, middle class, activist wing of the party that had been swelling the party’s ranks over the previous decade.  Following a series of resignations and defections, the once-dominant Social Credit Party was reduced soon to a single member in the legislature. [48]

NDP Leadership: 1991 to 2001

The election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for the next decade.  To finally obtain power in a political age where right wing ideals and institutions in the Western world set the tone of political debate, Premier Harcourt, helped by the implosion of the Social Credit under the shaky stewardship of Vander Zalm, presented a restrained, social democratic leftism.  The balancing act was to offer a positive business climate and control government spending, while at the same time defending a role for the state, the merits of social programs, as well as equality and union rights. [49]

Mike Harcourt, a congenial lawyer and former mayor of Vancouver, who would have been at home in the federal Liberal Party, was the NDP premier from 1991 to 1996. [50] Harcourt was replaced by Glen Clark, who was closer to the union movement and more biting in his attacks on the right, and Clark managed to eke out a win in the 1996 provincial election.  Clark resigned in 1999 and the new leader, Ujjal Dosanjh, led the NDP party to be defeated by the BC Liberals in 2001.  Dosanjh moved to the federal Liberal Party in 2004 and became a high profile MP and federal cabinet minister.[51]

Despite its moderate posture in the 1990s, the NDP relationship with the environmental lobby was often stormy.  In opposition, the NDP party offered a green platform that included doubling the amount of protected wilderness areas in the province from 6 to 12 per cent, and in the 1991 election the NDP won the support of many greens who were for change.  Once in power, the green lobby came into conflict with the wish of the NDP to satisfy workers and unions concerned about jobs and financial security in a difficult economic time.  The NDP had long focused on social justice and worker’s rights, and as such, environmental issues were seen through this lens.  Under Harcourt, the NDP clashed with environmentalists in the “War of the Woods” to save the old growth forests of Clayoquot Sound.  Harcourt managed to end the protracted “War of the Woods” over logging in Clayoquot Sound with a comprehensive compromise that restricted clear-cuts.  In 1997, Premier Glen Clark declared Greenpeace an “enemy of BC” because of their international campaign to get consumers to boycott BC wood products made from old-growth trees.[52]

The distance between the left and environmentalists existed not only because left sometimes lacked sympathy for environmental issues, but also because the environmental movements at the time often had little sympathy for the concerns of union workers and their families.  Whereas the depth of working-class antipathy towards environmentalists was hard to overestimate, especially in rural communities, many environmentalists saw this working-class hatred as a fact to be expected, rather than a serious deficiency to be counteracted.  The stubborn refusal to incorporate people’s social needs into ecological concerns was possibly the biggest weakness of the environmental movement at the time.[53]

The divisions heightened the influence and power of the BC Green Party, which had originally been founded in 1983.  Whereas the NDP was preoccupied with wealth distribution, class issues, and social justice through the 1990’s, the Greens pushed an agenda of post-materialist values of democracy, personal autonomy and identity. [54] Its support continued to grow, and the Green party won its first seat in the 2013 provincial election with the election of Andrew Weaver and the three seats in the most recent election, making it the first Green Caucus in North America under the agreement with the NDP.  

In addition to attempting to accommodate green interests, the NDP sought to build bridges with and address First Nations issues.  Building on actions by the previous Social Credit government, Premier Mike Harcourt established the BC Treaty Commission in 1992, and this put in place a process to help facilitate treaty settlements.  In addition, the NDP government under Premier Glen Clark negotiated the Nisga’a Treaty, covering a large area in northwestern BC that came into effect in 2000, the first native land claims agreement in BC since the 1800’s.  NDP treaty initiatives were attacked by labour and business interests and general anti-First Nations sentiment in the population, with arguments that the social democrats were giving up too much at the expense of the non-Indigenous British Columbians. [55]

Despite sympathy on the left for Indigenous struggles for a better standard of living, access to education and land rights, there were important points of conflict.  Treaty claims including aboriginal control of fish, timber, minerals and territorial land would have serious adverse impacts on non-Indigenous workers and their communities.  Further, First Nations initiatives in logging and fishing conflicted with environmental goals of protection.  Additionally, with equality as an important value of the left, the claims that Indigenous peoples deserved “special treatment” because they lived in British Columbia for generations before the arrival of European settlers and experienced the debilitating effects of colonialism, were difficult to reconcile.  

Another impact of the decade in power by the NDP was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC as the party was virtually wiped off the map in 2001, winning only two seats.[56]  The alienation of the environmental movement and success of the BC Green Party chipped away, as did an accumulation of scandals, including Bingogate, a scandal over a mishandling of charity funds by former NDP MP and provincial agriculture minister Dave Stupich.  Although not personally implicated in Bingogate, Mr. Harcourt decided to resign as the party plummeted in the polls.  Casinogate was the controversy over Mr. Clark’s acceptance of a deal from his neighbour to build a deck on his family home, at the same time as the neighbour was involved in a casino application.  When it was learned that he was the subject of a police investigation, Mr. Clark resigned.  A judge subsequently cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.  The “fast ferry scandal”, a project to build a fleet of new ferries in BC, was poorly managed and led to major cost overruns, reinforcing the view of NDP as poor economic managers, and regularly hammered by the Liberal opposition.

The Social Credit Party had effectively disappeared by 1991 and a new anti-left political alliance emerged in the guise of the provincial Liberal Party, led originally by Gordon Wilson, who severed formal links between the provincial party and its federal counterpart for political and financial reasons.  After Gordon Campbell, a former developer and mayor of Vancouver, won leadership of the party, it adopted the name BC Liberals, a new logo and new colours of red and blue to distinguish it more clearly in the minds of voters from the federal Liberal Party.  In early 1994, Gordon Campbell was elected to the legislature in a by-election and under his leadership the party began moving to the right.  

The party was more socially progressive than the Social Credit and socially conservative elements were marginalized.  A recognition of women’s equality and lesbian and gay rights was merged with a message of economic management and development, reflecting the economic values of neo-liberalism.  Some supporters of the federal Reform Party of Canada and former Social Credit members became attracted to the BC Liberals. Some moderate Socreds had begun voting Liberal as far back as the Vander Zalm era.  The Liberals won two former Socred seats in by-elections held in the Fraser Valley region, solidifying their claim to be the clear alternative to the existing BC NDP government.

In the 1996 election, the BC Liberals won the popular vote.  However, much of the Liberal vote was in the outer regions of the province and they only won eight seats in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.  In rural British Columbia, particularly in the Interior where the railway was the lifeblood of the local economy, the BC Liberals lost several contests because of discomfort that the electorate had with some of Campbell’s policies, principally his promise to sell BC Rail.  The net result was to consign the Liberals to opposition again, though they managed to slash the NDP’s majority from thirteen to three.

Liberal Leadership: 2001 to 2017

In the 2001 election, the BC Liberals won a definitive 77 seats, while the NDP won only two seats (Joy MacPhail representing Vancouver-Hastings and Jenny Kwan for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant).[57]

Premier Campbell introduced a 25% cut in all provincial income taxes on the first day he was installed to office. To improve BC’s investment climate, the BC Liberals also reduced the corporate income tax and abolished the corporate capital tax for most businesses, the tax on investment and employment that had been introduced by the New Democrats.  Campbell’s first term was also noted for fiscal austerity, including reductions in welfare rolls and some social services, deregulation, the sale of some government assets, and in particular the “Fast ferries” built by the previous government, which were sold off for a fraction of their price to the original builders – the BC based company, Seaspan.  

There were several significant labour disputes, some of which were settled through government legislation but which included significant confrontations with the province’s teachers and doctors.  Campbell also downsized the civil service, with staff cutbacks of more than fifty per cent in some government departments, and despite promises of smaller government the size of cabinet nearly doubled and parliamentary salaries raised.  Power was consolidated in the Premier’s office including governance being rearranged such that Deputy Ministers were now to report to the Chief of Staff in the Premier’s office, rather than to their respective ministers.

The Liberals were re-elected in the 2005 election with a reduced majority of seven seats, with 46 seats for the BC Liberals and 33 seats for the NDP.  The Liberals were again re-elected in the 2009 election.  Shortly after this election, the introduction of the Harmonized Sales Tax (“HST”) to replace the PST was announced, despite no mention being made of it during the election campaign to wide public uproar.  On November 3, 2010, facing an imminent caucus revolt over his management style, the political backlash against the HST, a BC Rail scandal, and with his approval rating as low as 9% in polls, Gordon Campbell announced his resignation.

At the party’s 2011 leadership convention, an outsider who was only supported by one member of the BC Liberal caucus, the radio talk show host and former education minister Christy Clark managed a surprise victory over favorites to win (such as sitting ministers Kevin Falcon, Mike de Jong and George Abbott), and become the province’s 35th premier.  Under Premier Christy Clark, the party charted a more centrist outlook to maintain a coalition of federal Liberal and federal Conservative supporters and staunch the rise of the BC Conservative party and a potentially damaging vote split on the right.  Premier Clark quickly raised the minimum wage from $8/hour to $10.25/hour and introduced a province-wide Family Day.  Premier Clark continued to hold the line on government spending, introducing two deficit budgets before the 2013/14 fiscal year, which included a tax increase for high-income British Columbians.  Clark also sought to champion the potential of BC’s liquefied natural gas (“LNG”) reserves, positioning the budding LNG industry as the major economic development opportunity for British Columbia over the next decades.

While the final years of Gordon Campbell’s administration had seen far-reaching and progressive environmental legislation enacted, Clark was more measured in her approach to environmental policy.  While continuing with Campbell’s BC’s first-in-North-America carbon tax, she promised to freeze the rate during the 2013 election and her LNG development aspirations seemed to contradict greenhouse gas emissions targets set by the Campbell government in 2007.  Clark  also announced in 2012 that any future pipeline that crosses BC would have to meet five conditions that included environmental requirements and Aboriginal consultation.

During the 2013 election, Clark entered the campaign low in public opinion polls that had her trailing her main rival, Adrian Dix of the NDP, by as much as 20 points.  The BC Liberals campaign slogan was “Strong Economy, Secure Tomorrow” and highlighted a balanced budget and strong development opportunities in the LNG sector as a reason for voters to elect them for a fourth term in office.  Clark brought in strategists affiliated with the Ontario Liberal Party, such as Don Guy and Laura Miller, federal Liberal figures, such as Mike McDonald, to run her office and campaign and federal Conservative figures, such as Dimitri Pantazopoulos to conduct polling.

The BC Liberals surprised the pundits and handily won fourth term in office.  Although Clark was defeated in her Vancouver riding by the up and coming NDP MLA David Eby, she won a subsequent by-election in the Okanagan riding of Westside-Kelowna.

After the 2013 election which secured her mandate, Clark moved to secure the government’s power across the Interior and across Northern BC with strong support for resource development, including setting up a tax regime for the LNG industry that has largely failed to materialize with historically low oil prices, and the $9 billion Site C Dam project.  Clark is largely seen to look to W.A.C. Bennett as an inspiration with his populist appeals, pursuit of resource industry jobs, leadership on large scale public projects such as the Site C Dam and an ardent defender of BC’s interests in negotiations with Ottawa.  A 15 per cent surcharge on Property Transfer Tax for non-resident home buyers in Metro Vancouver was a gesture to address rising public concerns with affordability and soaring price increases for Metro Vancouver homes.  

Premier Clark went into the 2017 election largely touting the government economic record with BC outperforming the rest of the country in several key categories, including a leading low unemployment rate of 5.8 per cent and a record 2.4 million British Columbians working.  John Horgan, a long time NDP MLA, campaigned as leader primarily on affordability issues, arguing that most economic benefits have gone to the wealthy and the average British Columbian struggles with cost of living issues, particularly housing.  The Green Party’s key messages under its leader and sole MLA Andrew Weaver were an end to corporate and union campaign donations, implementing a new proportional representation electoral system and reducing a reliance of fossil fuels, and in particular terminating the pipeline projects including Kinder Morgan.  

The May 9, 2017 provincial election, marking the first minority government in BC since 1952, with seat numbers of 43 for the BC Liberals, 41 for the NDP and three for the  Green Party was historic in that a minority government hadn’t been elected in BC since 1952.  With 44 seats required to form the slimmest majority government in BC, the Green Party was handed the balance of power with three seats.  With Andrew Weaver’s Green Party agreeing to support John Horgan and the NDP on supply and confidence issues, their alliance has a single seat advantage in the legislature over Christy Clark and the BC Liberals.  The document setting out their agreement sets out, among other goals, an effort to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, a referendum on proportional representation in the fall of 2018, a ban on donations to political parties by corporations, unions and non-residents, a carbon tax increase, a review of the Site C Dam project by the BC Utilities Commission and housing efforts to increase affordable housing. [58]

There is an open question about what MLA will be appointed Speaker and accordingly whether the NDP/Green agreement is a viable alliance at 44 seats.  If the Speaker of the House, who is constitutionally and by convention required to be neutral, is a Green or NDP MLA, it would reduce the balance of MLA’s in the House to 43 for each side, raising the question of how legislation will be passed.

Cultural Cleavages Past, Present and Going Forward in a New Political Landscape

The May, 2017 election, with the rise of the Green Party and the subsequent, evolving events represent a dramatic and possibly permanent change in the traditional political landscape of the province. The long term ideological left/right divide is still very much present but is being crosscut with other, evolving value conflicts including populist vs. elite appeals, urban vs. rural dwellers, materialists vs. post-materialists/progressives, a traditional resource extraction vs. a newer service and technology focused economy, gender divides, generational divides, socio-economic/class divides, particularly around housing and affordability, and land use and rights conflicts between labour, environmental, First Nations and business interests.  These ever-shifting divisions, together with seismic demographic changes produced by large-scale immigration, particularly from Asia, have profound implications for the evolution of BC political culture and power in the modern era.  

A review of over a century of BC politics reveals two central cultural cleavages: polarized politics, driven largely by a class/socio-economic divide playing out as a result of the conditions of ownership and conditions of employment of the resource sector and a populist individual citizen vs. elite divide playing out as a result of marginalized groups, including rural residents and smaller business owners, seeking a larger share of the wealth generated by the resource sector.

As the 20th century has drawn to a close and the 21st century unfolds, BC, like many societies is evolving into a more complex, pluralistic political arena with vast waves of immigration (particularly from Asia), the slow decline of the core resource economy in favor of a service and increasingly technologically based economy, key legal victories and increased power and influence of the First Nations, a growth in the power and influence of the environmental lobby, rapid technological changes and fundamental changes in communications, and the role of media.  

Although the politics of resource wealth is clearly still important in British Columbia, the NDP dominance of the 2017election in the seat-heavy Metro Vancouver region shows that the primary class battle is evolving into an urban fight for a more equal distribution of rising prosperity as more citizens struggle with basic affordability issues, with skyrocketing Metro Vancouver housing prices being the biggest lightening rod.  The continuing battle for land use and rights rages on, cutting across party and class lines as labour, environmental, Indigenous and business interests compete for dominance.  

The urban/rural divide continues to play out, with the BC Liberals currently dominating in the interior and North with an emphasis on resource extraction and large scale public projects such as Site C.  The NDP struggles to hold onto its shrinking industrial working class base while it pursues a more middle class, urban agenda with economic policies to assist urban service-sector workers and a progressive social agenda.  The BC Liberals are straddling support  of rural working-class resource workers and urban higher income earners in Metro Vancouver as the wealthiest ridings such as West Vancouver-Capilano remain firmly under its fold.  

It may be that with an increasingly complex and pluralistic society, the old anti-socialist, centre-right “free enterprise” rhetoric which stubbornly drove electoral politics in the province in the past no longer resonates with BC voters.  An argument can be made that there are now four rival narratives competing to define BC electoral politics going forward:

  1. A neo-liberal narrative personified by Bill Bennett, Gordon Campbell and possibly Kevin Falcon in the future, emphasizing free markets where British Columbians are primarily viewed as consumers, entrepreneurs, workers and tax payers;
  2. A globalized, technological and green driven narrative personified by the current Green Party and Andrew Weaver, emphasizing new technologies, the environment and skilled workers where British Columbians are primarily viewed as global, connected, lifelong learners working in the new economy;
  3. A progressive, liberal narrative personified by the current New Democratic Party and John Horgan, emphasizing multiculturalism, social justice and government as a socio-economic tool where British Columbians are primarily viewed as citizens defined by their constituent identity groups; and 
  4. A populist, BC first narrative, personified by the current BC Liberals, W.A.C. Bennett and Christy Clark, emphasizing resource development, large public province-building projects and strong advocacy for BC interests in the Canadian federal system, where British Columbians are primarily seen as family focused, independent workers, defined by the West.

Social conservative voters don’t fit easily into any of these narratives, but they are an ever-decreasing percentage of the voting public.[59]  Social values research as well as polling indicates that Canadians generally are becoming more socially liberal; more at ease with diverse family models, diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.  Seat-heavy Metro Vancouver in particular has the fewest inhabitants of any Canadian metropolitan area who call themselves Christian. [60] That said, whether social conservatives flock to the neo-liberal or populist, BC first narratives, or find a home with a revived BC Conservative Party, will be a further variable in whether the balance of power shifts permanently left, with vote-splitting on the right.

Finally, Mr. Weaver’s requirement that a proportional representation electoral system be imposed as a condition for the support of his three-member caucus for the NDP could be a fundamental change in the state of party competition in the province, with potentially national repercussions.  Pursuant to the “Confidence and Supply Agreement between the BC Green Caucus and the BC New Democrat Caucus”, the NDP government plans to hold a referendum on changing the province’s electoral system alongside with the October 2018 municipal elections.[61]  Given that BC voters have twice rejected electoral reform in province-wide votes, in 2005 and 2009, the future of such a significant change to the current first-past-the-post electoral system is highly uncertain.

The Green party appears to assume that proportional representation will allow stable, minority governments to function, hopefully defined by commonalities of a greener, more progressive agenda.  The changes ahead under a proportional representation system are highly unknown, and could also mean the rise of long-term right-of-centre alliances, for example a neo-liberal/populist, BC first/social conservative alliance. Just look at the legacy of Stephen Harper’s decade in power balancing such constituent groups under the Conservative tent for reference.  Or, BC could become like Italy, with a proportional representation electoral system widely blamed for producing fragile and ineffective governments for years.  Whatever happens, what will remain the same is BC politics being novel and exciting.

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  1. Nicole Garton is a lawyer, mediator and the principal of Heritage Law.  This paper was submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies at York University in partial fulfillment of the requirements for a Masters of Law in Dispute Resolution at Osgoode Hall Law School.
  2. Douglas Todd Published on: November 29, 2008 | Last Updated: September 29 & 2016 1:23 Pm Pdt, “Cascadians find meaning in nature and fresh future”, (30 November 2008), online: Vanc Sun <http://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/cascadians-find-meaning-in-nature-and-in-yearning-for-a-fresh-future>.
  3. “The myth of conservative Canada – Policy Options”, online: <http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/the-age-of-man/adams/>
  4. “BC breaks records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof | Vancouver Sun”, online: <http://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/b-c-breaks-records-when-it-comes-to-religion-and-the-lack-thereof>
  5. John Horgan et al, “It’s time for a new kind of government in British Columbia.”, online: BC NDP <http://bcndp.ca/latest/its-time-new-kind-government-british-columbia>.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. James Bickerton & Alain-G Gagnon, eds, Canadian Politics, Sixth Edition, 6th revised ed. edition ed (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division, 2014) at 229.
  9. Rima Berns-McGown, “Political Culture, not Values” (2005) 60:2 Int J Canada’s J Glob Policy Anal 341 at 343.
  10. Michelle Lebaron & Vanashri Pillay, Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences, 1 edition ed (Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2006) at 12.
  11. Ibid.  
  12. Lebaron & Pillay, supra note 11 at 13.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Bickerton & Gagnon, supra note 9 at 244.
  15. T Reksten, Illustrated History Of British Columbia, canadian first edition (Vancouver: D&M Adult, 2001).
  16. David J Mitchell, W.A.C: Bennett and the rise of British Columbia, first edition ed (Vancouver: HarperCollins Canada / D & M Adult, 1983).
  17. Geordon Omand, “Experts reflect on British Columbia’s reputation for political eccentricity | Metro Vancouver”, online: <http://www.metronews.ca/news/vancouver/2017/04/20/experts-reflect-on-british-columbia-s-reputation-for-political-eccentricity.html>.
  18. Jean Barman, The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia, 3 edition ed (Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, 2007) at 4. Also noting that the history of BC started when the first human beings arrived in BC at least 20,000 years ago, not just when Europeans arrived.
  19. Donald E Blake, Two Political Worlds: Parties and Voting in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1985) at 12.
  20. Barman, supra note 19 at 107.
  21. Blake, supra note 20.
  22. A Ross McCormack, “The Emergence of the Socialist Movement in British Columbia” (1974) 21 BC Stud Br Columbian Q 3.
  23. Blake, supra note 20 at 15.
  24. Gordon Hak, Left in British Columbia, The: A History of Struggle (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2013).
  25. Donald E Blake, R Kenneth Carty & Lynda Erickson, Grassroots Politicians: Party Activists in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1991) at 3.
  26. Ibid at 4.
  27. Martin Robin, The Rush For Spoils: The Company Province, 1871-1933., first paperback edition ed (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972).
  28. David Elkins, “Politics makes strange bedfellows: The BC party system in the 1952 and 1953 provincial elections” (1976) 30 BC Stud Br Columbian Q 3.
  29. Blake, supra note 20 at 85
  30. Blake, Carty & Erickson, supra note 26 at 9.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Mitchell, supra note 17.
  33. David H Laycock, Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies: 1910 to 1945 (University of Toronto Press, 1990).
  34. R Kenneth Carty, Politics, Policy, and Government in British Columbia (UBC Press, 1996) at 16.
  35. Hak, supra note 25.
  36. Blake, Carty & Erickson, supra note 26 at 6.
  37. Donald E Blake, Richard Johnston & David J Elkins, “Sources of change in the BC party system” (1981) 50 BC Stud Br Columbian Q 3.
  38. ROD MICKLEBURGH, “Past NDP governments offer lessons to Adrian Dix: Practical makes perfect”, (4 May 2013), online: <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/past-ndp-governments-offer-lessons-to-adrian-dix-practical-makes-perfect/article11717634/>.
  39. G L Kristianson, “The Non-partisan Approach to BC Politics: The Search for a Unity Party-1972-1975” (1977) 33 BC Stud Br Columbian Q 13.
  40. Mitchell, supra note 17.
  41. Blake, Carty & Erickson, supra note 26 at 8.
  42. Trevor J Barnes & Roger Hayter, “British Columbia’s private sector in recession, 1981-86: Employment flexibility without trade diversification” (1993) 98 BC Stud Br Columbian Q 20 at 26.
  43. Hak, supra note 25 at 150.
  44. Kevin Hinton & Ryan Mckenzie, “BCBusiness”, online: BCBusiness <https://www.bcbusiness.ca/the-kelowna-conservative-who-built-vancouver>.
  45. Ibid.
  46. Carty, supra note 35 at 325.
  47. Ibid at 75.
  48. “The New Democratic Party in the Era of Neoliberalism”, online: ResearchGate <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/266144603_The_New_Democratic_Party_in_the_Era_of_Neoliberalism>.
  49. Daniel Gawthrop, Highwire Act: Power, Pragmatism and the Harcourt Legacy, 1 edition ed (Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 1996) at 23
  50. Hak, supra note 25 at 171.
  51. William T Stanbury, Environmental Groups and the International Conflict Over the Forests of British Columbia, 1990 to 2000 (Vancouver: Simon Fraser University, 2000).
  52. Hak, supra note 25 at 174.
  53. Ibid at 175.
  54. Ibid at 176.
  55. “1991: The election that transformed BC politics | Rosedeer”, online: <https://rosedeer.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/1991-the-election-that-transformed-bc-politics/>.
  56. Hak, supra note 25 at 177.
  57. “What’s ahead for BC politics after the NDP-Green Party agreement”, online: <https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/whats-ahead-for-bc-politics-after-the-ndp-green-partyagreement/article35160029/>.
  58. note 3.
  59. note 4.
  60. Horgan et al, supra note 5.
  61. Michelle Lebaron & Vanashri Pillay, Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences, 1 edition ed (Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2006) at 14.

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