Premier John Horgan and his government limped out of the spring legislative session this week in an unfamiliar position: On the defensive, with criticism on a number of controversies starting to stick.
The family doctor crisis, health care wait times, emergency room closures, crime, housing affordability, gas prices, inflation and rising cost-of-living all conspired to put the BC NDP on its heels the past five months — with few, if any, solutions on the immediate horizon.
In short: It was the worst session for the Horgan government since it took office in 2017.
“The real thing I notice is the unbelievable chasm between what they say and the actual results,” said BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon in his session-ending media scrum with reporters.
“British Columbians are now seeing the results. The NDP are on their second term. They’ve got no excuses for the disastrous results we’re getting.”
BC New Democrats won’t publicly acknowledge that anything’s wrong.
House leader Mike Farnworth told reporters the “session has gone very well.” The premier, meanwhile, couldn’t be bothered to make himself available to talk to reporters about it on the last sitting day.
Still, some New Democrats are privately grumbling that the unpopular $1 billion Royal BC Museum replacement project has the potential to become a larger flashpoint for public resentment. It’s the most expensive museum project in Canadian history, at a time when there’s enormous pressure for funding to solve a myriad of other more-pressing affordability issues.
“Mark my words, Friday, May 13th is the day that the NDP really have signed their own death warrant as a political party,” said Falcon, referencing the date of the museum announcement.
“If they continue to go ahead with that, this will be their Fast Ferries, and this will bring their government down.”
Leaders face off
The spring session culminated this week with the budget estimates for the Office of the Premier — a two-day head-to-head scrap between Horgan and Falcon.
Falcon used the exchange to try and paint Horgan as a “tone deaf” leader, more concerned with getting his cabinet bonuses and hiring a growing number of New Democrat staff to $150,000 a year jobs in his office, than helping the half of British Columbians who in a recent survey said they are $200 away from being unable to pay their bills at the end of a month.
Horgan fell back on eliminating bridge tolls in Metro Vancouver and scrapping Medical Services Plan premiums as evidence of his efforts to boost affordability — measures that are now more than five years old.
There was at times a heavy sense of ‘governmentitis’ in the premier’s answers — being too focused on esoteric procedural points and government statistics, while missing the much larger picture of public frustration.
On crime and prolific offenders, the premier said “the data does not confirm that crime rates are up” and that “government does not prosecute people, the Crown prosecutor’s office does” while Falcon pummelled him with stories about a revolving door justice system, fear of random assaults in downtown cores and rising disorder caused by mental health and addictions issues.
“That’s a typical do-nothing answer from a premier that is obviously so disconnected, he doesn’t understand what’s happening on the streets of cities right across this province,” said Falcon.
“It is chaos, and for you to stand here and pretend that you’re doing such a great job, and crime stats are down…. Maybe they’re down because 40 percent of the calls to the VPD aren’t even getting answered. Could that have something to do with it?”
On healthcare, Horgan got bogged down trying to argue Statistics Canada numbers on B.C.’s health staffing shortage weren’t accurate because of recent data reclassifications — while Falcon danced around him with horror stories about “total and utter chaos” in the system and the “crisis in our hospital settings” with emergency rooms closed, patients diverted hundreds of kilometres away and British Columbians unable to access basic services.
The inability to see the political forest through the trees is not a criticism often levelled at Horgan and the BC New Democrats. For the past five years, they’ve managed to successfully keep their eye on the big picture, and their finger on the pulse of public sentiment.
But Horgan was clearly not at his best this session.
He looked tired and frustrated the last five months — including the day in April when he dropped an f-bomb on the floor of the house and stormed out of the chamber.
Uncharacteristically, his attendance, too, has slipped. Horgan skipped far more question periods than ever before. His absence record was at points just as dismal as his predecessor Christy Clark, whom he frequently accused of disrespecting the legislature by barely attending its proceedings to take questions from members.
It’s an open question in the halls of the legislature whether Horgan’s health is still a concern (he was successfully treated for throat cancer in January and then contracted COVID-19 in April) or whether he’s simply getting set to retire.
Only Horgan knows for sure what he’s about to do.
But in the meantime, his government is drifting, and his opponents are gaining ground at his expense.