Premier John Horgan was crystal clear about why B.C. needed a strong majority New Democrat government when he called an early election just over a year ago.
“I cannot imagine 12 more months of bickering, 12 more months of not knowing whether a bill would pass the legislature because of uncertainty in numbers,” he said, while standing in a suburban cul de sac in the Greater Victoria bedroom community of Langford on Sept. 21, 2020.
“The best way forward is to resolve that now.”
Voters rewarded him with a landslide victory at the polls. But one year later, many are wondering what exactly he’s done with that supposedly crucial majority. And as for the political bickering he cited? It’s been alive and well the past 12 months — perhaps even worse than before.
“If it was so important to call an election after we went into the second wave of Covid, after seven months of historic collaboration across party lines in the B.C. legislature, and throwing that away, I would have expected at the very least a government with a strong vision for the province that it wants to be a part of creating,” said BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau. “But I have no idea what that vision is. None.”
Instead, the Horgan government found itself sideswiped by consecutive emergencies: a worsening Covid-19 pandemic; a wildfire season that burned to the ground the town of Lytton; a heat dome weather event that killed more than 500 people; and extreme flooding that forced the evacuation of more than 16,000 people, while heavily damaging the Fraser Valley agriculture sector, and destroying the town of Merritt.
To cap a miserable 2021, Horgan revealed in November he had throat cancer. He began radiation treatments just before Christmas and he’s promised to return to the job in the new year.
“We’ve had the worst fire season in B.C. history and now the worst flooding in B.C.’s history, so it’s been challenging all around,” Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon said in an interview. “But we’re still quite amazed we’ve been able to accomplish so much.”
Kahlon cited no-fault insurance reforms to the Insurance Corporation of B.C., rebate cheques for drivers this year, a $1,000 BC Recovery Benefit, a new sick-pay program, and an agreement with Ottawa that will accelerate the delivery of a twice-promised $10-a-day child care system.
The government also completed the not-insignificant-task of creating an online registration system for Covid-19 from scratch, then scheduled and vaccinated 4.4 million people within the last 13 months.
“While we’re dealing with the pandemic and many other challenges, we still continue to make very important changes I think are going to last generations,” said Kahlon. “So I’m proud of the work we’ve done in the last year.”
It’s debatable whether many of its accomplishments truly required a new majority government. ICBC reforms were first passed under the NDP-Green minority, the sick-pay program was a compromise between labour and business, and the childcare money was a gift from a federal Liberal party seeking votes in Metro Vancouver during a snap election campaign.
That’s not to say Horgan hasn’t taken his majority out for a test-run on occasion.
The best example was in February when he approved construction of the Site C dam for a second time — a decision that four years earlier almost toppled his confidence and supply agreement with the BC Greens, who contend the megadam is an environmental and economic boondoggle.
Given that Site C’s budget had since doubled to $16 billion, it’s unlikely a second approval of the megaproject could have survived a renewed NDP-BC Green coalition. But it was an easier call for a premier armed with a solid majority and a power base of Metro Vancouver voters who don’t appear to care much about the issue and certainly didn’t punish him for approving the dam the first time four years earlier.
In the legislature, the New Democrat majority has been off to a slow start compared to when it was a minority government and struck the power-sharing deal with the Greens in 2017.
“The first full year of the minority government there were 57 pieces of legislation. The first full year of the NDP majority government there were 30,” said Furstenau.
“I think the legislation tells a story in and of itself.”
Missing in action the past year have been two bills Horgan insisted during the election he specifically needed a majority government to pass: a bill to allow youth to be detained in hospital for treatment after a drug overdose, and a bill to allow BC Hydro to import renewable power from the United States. Neither has been resurrected by the new majority, though the premier insists they’ll return eventually.
“Those were used as an excuse to call an election at a time when the polls indicated they would get a majority, and that’s what’s happened,” said Furstenau.
Instead, the government introduced bills this year to enact no-protest bubble zones around schools and hospitals, regulate early childhood educators, make permanent taxpayer subsidies for political parties, and boost oversight of trampoline parks, among other things.
Most of that legislative agenda was not controversial.
On the few bills that were – including adding application fees to Freedom of Information requests, and reforming forestry practices and tenures – the NDP majority did come in handy, giving the government the voting clout to shut down debate and pass entire swaths of legislation without any questions, a tactic it used to decry in Opposition but now doesn’t hesitate to deploy in power.
“It screamed arrogance and not really caring about what any legislator had to say about any piece of law,” said Opposition Liberal house leader Peter Milobar.
Outside of the legislature, government’s unilateral changes to the autism funding system for children sparked protests and a backlash that appeared to catch New Democrats off guard. In the previous minority, government might have paused the plan and retreated for more consultation. But with a majority, it shows no plans of letting critics get in the way of its reforms.
Behind the scenes, the government’s decision-making process has streamlined since its election win.
Gone are the weekly meetings between NDP cabinet ministers and Green MLAs to discuss issues of the day, and the government shut down early access to legislation which had allowed the Greens to review and suggest improvements prior to a bill’s debut in the legislature.
The re-elected NDP government refuses to accept almost any amendments to its bills, in stark contrast to the previous years when both opposition parties could propose and pass changes.
“It’s almost a 180-degree difference,” said Furstenau. “All of the collaborative structure that existed in the minority is gone.”
One example was the BC Liberals’ attempt to add a clause into a forestry bill. The amendment would have emphasized cattle grazing areas as a type of land to be considered when drafting logging and preservation plans.
“It would have been a fairly simple addition… it wasn’t removing anything from the bill,” Milobar said. But it was rejected, he said, for no other reason than because the NDP could.
“Arrogance is the only word that fits,” he said.
At times in its first year, the new majority has also appeared confused and disorganized. At one point this fall, the government ran out of bills to debate in the legislature and so executed a kind of mini-filibuster against itself on a miscellaneous statutes bill; another time, the government had to fall back on debating its throne speech from six months prior, which is the legislative equivalent of doing nothing.
Opposition Liberal MLAs from the province’s Interior and North also say the new majority government further concentrated the New Democrat’s power in Metro Vancouver, where most of its MLAs are located, giving it a narrow view of the province.
“I think from the North and Interior’s perspective, this has brought into stark focus just how little time or worry this majority government seems to have for things that happen north of Hope,” said Milobar, the MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson. “From fire response to a wide range of issues, there just seems to be a feeling that the isolation from government is more than ever before.”
“There’s a growing worry with the electoral boundaries commission that the government would like to see rural B.C. and northern B.C. lose further seats, and don’t seem prepared to take any types of steps whatsoever to keep the scales somewhat balanced,” Milobar said. “I think that’s the underlying sentiment we are feeling.”
New Democrats, though, don’t appear too concerned with the criticism.
Horgan has consistently polled as one of the most popular premiers in the country since his 2017 election, and that continued through his first year of a majority.
That’s allowed him to shrug off criticism his government was too slow to respond to the heat dome, wildfires and flooding.
It’s also allowed him to stay-the-course on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Health Minister Adrian Dix’s approach appears unchanged by the majority victory in that he continues to defer to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on the public health science of the response, while working across party lines with Opposition BC Liberal MLAs to bring up vaccination rates in rural and remote communities in the province’s North.
Still, there is little doubt the impact of all the disasters in the past year derailed government’s agenda and will have an impact on how it uses its majority in the future.
“We’re not going back to normal,” said Kahlon. “That’s the reality. We’re going back to a new normal, and the new normal is exactly that – managing this pandemic and any future pandemics that may come, and managing the climate change impacts we feel now. Climate change isn’t coming; it’s here, and we’re dealing with the impacts of it.
“We’ve also seen during the pandemic there’s been a disproportionate impact on some communities and populations. We need to address that moving forward. All those three things are going to be critical moving forward and will help drive government’s agenda.”
Horgan himself closed the year by summarizing it as “tough.”
Back on that Langford cul de sac in late 2020, he had a different hope for what 2021 would look like.
“The best way to get going on the work ahead is to put the politics behind us,” he said.
That hasn’t happened.
But Horgan’s still in a much better position to have his way politically using the power of his new majority – once, and if, the seemingly never-ending parade of provincial emergencies finally end.