VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan found his character under attack moments after calling a snap election Monday, with opponents and former allies questioning how voters can trust a leader who reneged on written agreement with the B.C. Greens to not call an early election.
Horgan announced the election campaign in his suburban Langford riding, flanked by a backyard lacrosse net and a cul-de-sac of ordinary homes that he said represented voters who want to go to the polls early to secure him a four-year mandate.
“I want to get the election behind us, not for myself but for the people of B.C. because they can’t afford to have partisan hectoring and uncertainty about whether bills will pass or not, which is what we’ve experienced over the past 3½ years,” said Horgan, who added that a proper economic recovery plan requires a new full term in office.
“I believe stability will come by asking the people of British Columbia where they want to go and who they want to lead them.”
British Columbians will vote Oct. 24, with advance voting starting Oct. 15, according to Elections B.C.
The snap vote appears to be a gamble by Horgan that his public popularity will overcome any voter blowback caused by plunging the province into electoral uncertainty during record-high COVID-19 cases. B.C. recorded 366 new cases over the weekend.
“I’ve struggled mightily with this decision and it did not come easily to me,” said Horgan. “This pandemic will be with us for a year or more and that’s why I believe we need to have an election now.”
His decision violated the written power-sharing agreement he signed with the B.C. Greens in 2017, in which he promised to wait until the next scheduled election in Oct. 16, 2021. He also disregarded B.C.’s fixed election date law, though there is no penalty for doing so.
“He has to recognize that he cannot lay blame for this election on anybody except for himself,” said B.C. Green leader Sonia Furstenau. “There’s no reason in any world to call an unnecessary election during a global pandemic. This is on John Horgan and on John Horgan alone.”
New Democrats hope a snap vote will turn the party’s 41-seat minority government into a majority of at least 44 seats, shaking off the need for any further Green co-operation and, perhaps, eliminating their former allies entirely by targeting the three Vancouver Island seats last won by the Greens.
Furstenau said she met with Horgan Friday to assure him the Greens would continue to provide the votes necessary for the NDP to pass matters of confidence, as the two parties have done consistently since 2017. But Horgan said he was upset the Greens tried to amend and block some of his bills this spring, and he no longer felt bound by the deal.
“He’s mistaking that, which is our job in this legislature, with obedience,” said Furstenau. “And there is nothing in the confidence and supply agreement that says that we have to obey, or that we have to agree with absolutely everything that the NDP put forward.”
B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson sought to make Horgan’s betrayal of the Greens’ a wider issue of trust in the premier’s leadership, describing it as a “cynical, self-serving, selfish move.”
“What kind of person does that, in the middle of a pandemic rip up a deal that would have led to stable government for the next year?” Wilkinson said to reporters. “Who would do that? And the answer is John Horgan and the NDP.”
The snap election call is a high-risk, high-reward move by a premier whose government received widespread acclaim for its public health response to COVID-19 in the spring, but faces a worsening situation this fall. B.C. has the highest per capita number of COVID-19 cases in Canada, but Horgan countered that by saying the province has only a low rate of positives in COVID-19 testing.
It is the first time in B.C. history that voters will go to the polls during a provincial state of emergency, which the NDP government declared in response to COVID-19 on March 18. B.C. has also held three elections when the War Measures Act was in force.
The early campaign will clearly centre on the extent to which Horgan can advance the narrative that it is the public who will benefit from a snap election at the height of B.C.’s pandemic, when cases are at record-highs and exposure notifications are sounding in 18 public schools.
He missed the mark on Day 1, offering a confusing argument that British Columbians expect him to be focused on the pandemic 24/7, except, for some reason, for the next 35 days, said Hamish Telford, a political-science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.
The NDP has only one play left, to push through the initial wave of criticism and hope voters turn their mind to other issues later in the campaign, he said.
“I think that they the risk that they run is that people just won’t engage beyond the hardcore partisans,” said Telford.
“That’s a problem for the NDP because they won ridings last time that are not hard core NDP ridings and so if it’s just partisans, in some ridings the NDP won last time might come up short.
“So I think it’s going to be difficult to engage people. People are rightly concerned about their health, their jobs, the economy and the safety of their kids in school. I don’t think they want to be thinking about this right now.”
Horgan started Monday by visiting Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin in Victoria on Monday morning to ask she dissolve the legislature. He told reporters at a mid-day press conference that she granted his request, thereby starting the campaign for B.C.’s 42nd provincial general election.
Horgan said he believes voters are “worried about their future, they are worried about the impacts of COVID-19 and they want to make sure their government is secure and stable and focused 24-7 on their needs hopes and aspirations.”
“For 12 months, to wait for the next election, seems to me to be time wasted when we could be rolling up our sleeves and focusing on the things that matter most to British Columbians,” he added.
Horgan said the deputy premier and finance minister, Carole James, who is not running again, will continue to serve as a “caretaker minister” during the campaign. And he said the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, has assured him an election can be held safely during the pandemic.
“I believe that we are involved in politics, we have been involved in politics for the past 3½ years and we’ve been able to accomplish a great deal,” he said.
“But the challenges ahead of us in a global pandemic are unprecedented. And I believe stability is what’s required, not just for the next 12 months but for the next four years. That’s something I’m asking British Columbians to support me about. And if they don’t they don’t.”
Horgan also pushed back at the contradiction between Henry encouraging people to “pull back” on social contacts at a time when he’s launching the largest public engagement process possible in an election. He said the biggest challenge is people disregarding health advice, not an election.
Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals indicated the public will get more information about its platform later this week.
Wilkinson said the Liberal campaign will focus on a “bold” plan of economic recovery, job creation, drug addiction treatment, combating crime, securing housing and making it easier for parents with children to work.
The Greens did not indicate when a platform may be forthcoming, but instead Monday continued to question Horgan’s honesty in his rationale for calling the vote.
Furstenau had attempted in recent weeks to dissuade Horgan from an election, arguing he had a higher duty to provide stable leadership during a provincial state of emergency. Pushing the province into an early vote merely to take advantage of high polling numbers and weak opponents represents the same kind of political opportunism Horgan has in the past criticized, Furstenau argued.
Horgan said he disliked the Greens attempting to amend some legislation this summer, and cited the departure of former Green leader Andrew Weaver as another reason to set the agreement aside.
“The stability I believe we had over the course of our minority government is not as strong as when it began,” said Horgan. “Particularly, this summer, it was clear to me there was a great divide between the two sides.”
Horgan cited the Greens blocking legislation that would have allowed youth under the age of 19 to be detained in hospital for a week after they overdose.
“I was not prepared to accept that,” Horgan said Monday. “That was really the deciding issue for me.”
However, at the time the bill was delayed in July, Mental Health Minister Judy Darcy said the deferral was due to scheduling conflicts and welcomed the chance to get more feedback on a contentious issue. And other groups called for the bill’s delay as well, including B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, the children and youth representative, Jennifer Charlesworth, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
All parties must now prepare to navigate an election campaign unlike any held previously in B.C. history.
Parties will be forbidden from holding large rallies or gathering mass supporters, as crowds of more than 50 people are banned under public health orders. Election tours by party leaders, which normally criss-cross the province, have largely been scrapped. It’s unclear if candidates will even knock on doors, given public anxiety over social distancing.
Instead, party war rooms are expected to blitz social media with advertising in an attempt to reach housebound voters. Phone banks and electronic outreach will prove crucial.
Elections B.C., meanwhile, is also preparing for an unprecedented situation. It has extended advance voting dates, and is promising enhanced cleaning, crowd management and social distancing to ensure the health of voters.
The election agency has encouraged anyone uncomfortable with voting in person to request a mail-in ballot instead, and is expecting as many as one-third of voters to go the mail-in route.
The mail-in demand couldpresent a problem for Elections B.C. because such ballots aren’t counted until typically 13 days after voting day. That raises the potential the public may not know exactly which party won on election night, Oct. 24, because one-third of the votes will not have be counted. It could be as late as Nov. 16 before final results are certified.
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