John Horgan is a man with a plan. His party is riding high in the polls. His government has received accolades for its handling of the COVID health crisis, and his campaign war chest is overflowing with cash. The NDP caucus is outwardly united, energized and confident of victory.
The plan is simple; call a snap election while the Greens and BC Liberals are off balance, pick up a few extra seats and sail to a majority government.
What could go wrong?
While the odds may not be in their favour, the opposition has plenty of opportunity to spoil Horgan’s plans. Here is how they might do it:
A relentless focus on the BCNDP environmental record
The Greens could argue that Horgan is not the environmentalist that urban progressives had hoped he would be. He acquiesced to the construction of the Site C dam. He championed the building of Canada’s biggest LNG project. His government has continued the controversial practice of logging old growth forests in ecologically sensitive areas of the province. Horgan even suspended the planned increase of the price on carbon.
While these policies are designed to appeal to extractive resource workers, they are a liability with young, university-educated voters who may be susceptible to the Green Party message.
Newly minted BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau could make a huge breakthrough in the Lower Mainland if she is willing to zero in on Horgan’s environmental record. The Greens might have a difficult time winning a plurality of seats, but they could once again emerge from this election with a controlling stake in a coalition government.
Crowd the centre
The BC Liberals have always performed best when they gave centrist urban voters a good reason to support them. Gordon Campbell understood this when he pioneered the revenue-neutral carbon tax policy in 2008. The result was a dramatic reduction in emissions and a decade head start on economy-wide decarbonization. This was not only good politics — it was visionary economic policy. BC has a cleaner, more efficient and diversified economy because of BC Liberal climate leadership.
The Liberals also built the Canada Line – one of greatest pieces of public transportation infrastructure in Canada. The rapid transit line services 50 million riders a year while removing tens of thousands of vehicles from the road. The Canada Line was not just good climate policy — it materially improved the lives of people who live in the Greater Vancouver region.
BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson could double down on this legacy. He could squeeze Horgan on the environment by proposing a simple, aggressive climate policy and a massive public transit plan that dwarfs anything being proposed by the spendthrift BCNDP. Not only is this sound economic policy in an era of cheap debt, but it would put a large number of urban ridings in play, forcing the NDP to expend resources defending seats they previously thought safe.
Get aggressive on COVID
Up until August, it appeared that BC had avoided the type of public health disaster that befell Ontario and Quebec. With the rate of infection in the single digits and hospital resources freed up, BC officials took something of a victory lap in early Summer. The BC approach to COVID thus far has been marked by a relatively light touch when it came to public behavior, and a focus on shoring up institutional capacity to prevent infections at places like hospitals and long- term care homes.
This fall has brought surging rates of infection and a huge amount of uncertainty around the resumption of the school year. Teachers have criticized the government approach to school re-openings as haphazard, potentially setting the stage for a public health and political disaster. While the opposition has avoided criticizing Premier Horgan on COVID policy thus far, no such guarantee can be made in an election. The school reopening policy was a decision made by the NDP government, and it will have to answer for whatever result it produces.
Polls suggest that people support stronger public health measures on COVID. The BC Green and Liberal parties can seize on this by proposing tough policies to manage the rate of infection. Policies like mandatory public mask wearing, universal access to remote learning options and mandatory quarantine for out-of-province travelers could see huge purchase with voters experiencing high levels of COVID anxiety.
Focus on housing
Even before COVID, the housing crisis in British Columbia was set to be a central controversy in any election campaign. The average selling price for a home in Vancouver has hit $1.4 million – up 20% just this year. Simultaneously, the health crisis has slashed the incomes of hundreds of thousands of BCers who were already expending a large proportion of their paycheck on rent or mortgage payments. Once federal income supports dry up, BC could face an unprecedented wave of foreclosures and evictions.
Whatever is proposed by the BC Liberal and Green Parties will have to be dramatic enough to cut through the noise. Tax credits and building incentives will probably not move the needle. Whoever articulates the clearest, boldest housing policy is going to connect with the biggest economic anxiety of most British Columbians.
Still an uphill battle
Despite these policy vulnerabilities, Premier Horgan goes into an election with multiple advantages. The new Green leader, Sonia Furstenau will have had roughly one week to settle into her new role before fighting a general election. BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson has struggled to build public profile amidst the pandemic. The BCNDP has a huge financial advantage that they will use to drown out their opponents on TV and social media.
That said, running down a 20-point BCNDP lead in a 28-day general election may seem impossible — just as it seemed before Christy Clark did precisely that just seven years ago.
Ben Parsons is an Account Director of Federal Advocacy at Counsel. He worked on the central election campaigns of the Federal Liberals in 2008, 2011 and 2015 and the BC Liberals in 2013.