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How ’the system’ failed B.C. voters

B.C. is now being ruled by a ramshackle regime beholden to a fringe party. This is not good democracy at work.
J.J. McCullough
British Columbia Premier-designate, NDP Leader John Horgan pauses while speaking outside Government House after meeting with Lt-Gov. Judith Guichon in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
British Columbia Premier-designate, NDP Leader John Horgan pauses while speaking outside Government House after meeting with Lt-Gov. Judith Guichon in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
British Columbia Premier-designate, NDP Leader John Horgan pauses while speaking outside Government House after meeting with Lt-Gov. Judith Guichon in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, June 29, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Judith Guichon gave British Columbia a new premier last week. She is a woman of such exceeding obscurity provincial journalists were forced to run “who is Judith Guichon?” stories to supplement coverage of her decision.

Guichon is a rancher by trade, they told us. Her current title is Lieutenant-Governor, a job assigned to her by Ottawa in 2012. She possesses no political or legal experience.

The premier Guichon chose was John Horgan, leader of the New Democratic Party of British Columbia—a man who had, in the last provincial election, failed to win either a plurality of seats in the provincial legislature or a plurality of the popular vote.

Horgan was made premier because his New Democrats aligned with the third-place faction in the B.C. legislature, the Greens (which holds only three seats and are thus not officially recognized as a “party”) to vote, by narrow majority, that they had no confidence in the incumbent administration of Liberal premier Christy Clark, who had won both a plurality of seats and the popular vote. Clark submitted her resignation to Guichon and the Lieutenant-Governor appointed Horgan in her place.

With 44 seats in the 87-seat legislature, Premier Horgan will only remain in power by subjecting his legislative caucus to tyrannical control, and drowning the Green leader, Andrew Weaver, in obsequiousness. Since the NDP/Green alliance will have a wafer-thin majority, the only way anything will get done—the sole way Horgan will pass any laws or budgetary measures—will be through the strangled loyalty of his people. There must be absolutely no dissent or objection when something comes to a vote—a unanimous “yes” must be the NDP’s answer to his every ask.

But so too must Horgan prostrate before the Green leader. Over 80 per cent of British Columbians made a conscious choice to not elect Green candidates in the last election, yet Weaver expects his platform will be thoroughly implemented by the Horgan administration. Weaver’s most ardent partnership preconditions consisted largely of demands to permanently strengthen and entrench the power of his small party—official status in the legislature, a ban on corporate and union party donations (assumed to weaken his competitors), and a new electoral system biased towards small parties.

Horgan can afford to do nothing less, for at the first opportunity Clark’s Liberals will do what the NDP just finished doing to her, and pass a vote of no-confidence. This will force B.C. into a new election that will serve no purpose other than scolding the electorate for voting badly the last time around. The voters, they say, are never wrong, but British Columbians can be excused for thinking they made some grievous error given what a logistical mess their government will be.

This is the reality of B.C. politics at present: rule by a premier most voters did not elect, subordinate to the whims of a fringe three-man party an even larger number of voters did not elect, installed in power by a woman no voters elected at all. This preposterous outcome, writes David Moscrop on this site, is proof “the system worked.”

Canadian political scientists like Moscrop expect us to chirp a grateful “isn’t that nice” at any convoluted outcome our parliamentary regime produces, but rarely do their conclusions begin from a place of principle, and judge upwards from there. Instead, they tend to fetishize the system that already exists, lecturing about conventions and precedents, then attempt to rationalize principle from the top down (if at all).

As British Columbians begin life under the rule of a truly ramshackle regime, our thoughts should focus less on celebrating the flowchart of rules that produced this result, and more on whether we’d ever devise a democracy that works this way if forced to start from scratch.

Unless you’re living in the midst of a civil war, every system of government on earth “works,” in the modest sense of the word. Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy “works” just as well as the Swiss Confederation, in the sense both provide their citizens with a stable political system operating according to clear procedures and protocols. Yet many would argue Saudi Arabia’s stable system of hereditary dictatorship is not a terribly moral system of government, and others would say Switzerland’s system of extreme devolution—in which citizens vote directly on many important matters—isn’t terribly moral either (particularly in B.C. where there has been much debate on the merits of dictating public policy through referenda).

The system of government British Columbia uses—and indeed, Canada itself—is one still largely tethered to the values of Victorian colonialism from which it emerged. It’s a system based on the assumption that democratic government exists primarily as an advisory board to an unelected representative of the British monarch, and that premiers should be more accountable to the legislature and Crown than the voters who bear the brunt of their decisions.

In many other countries with similarly British-derived systems, from India to Ireland to South Africa to Papua New Guinea, the office of the monarch’s representative has either been abolished and replaced with an elected official, or is at least appointed in a relatively democratic fashion. In America, governors are elected separately from legislatures in order to balance each others’ powers. These are systems that have chosen to emphasize principles different from our own, namely direct lines of accountability between voter and ruler.

Given how powerful premiers are, it is vital voters hold the ability to exert meaningful control over who gets the job. It is equally important voters be able to elect community representatives to the legislature able to effectively represent the wishes of their constituencies, which means holding the power to vote freely on bills and budgets without risk of triggering a pointless election. My personal conclusion is that an American-style checks-and-balances system, with separate elections for leader of the government and members of the legislature, is the best method of implementing these values in practice—values which I believe are far closer to the modern British Columbian/Canadian understanding of what democracy is supposed to do than the 19th century assumptions our present system embodies.

Partisanship being what it is, it can be hard to objectively evaluate the flaws of a political system. “Show me someone complaining about process,” a wise politician once said to me, “and I’ll show you someone upset with an outcome.” The polls indicated a majority of British Columbians wanted Christy Clark to leave, which Guichon made happen, but I’m sure plenty would have supported Clark getting overthrown by the army and hurled in prison, too.

When targeted questions are asked about component parts of our current system itself, however—say, would we like to see a directly-elected prime minister, or, do we think it’s right for an unelected figurehead to be making decisions about who should be in charge—Canadians often express opinions that don’t indicate a great degree of reverence for the rules of the status quo. In response, the nation’s political scientists furrow their brows and declare the country needs more educating (ideally, from themselves), but in a moral democracy public values should play a larger role shaping systems than the other way around.