National Column: Green surge puts B.C. at centre of climate debate

by Thomas Walkom

British Columbians often complain they are an afterthought – that the big decisions are made in central Canada and only then relayed to those lucky enough to live west of the Rockies.

Now they have their revenge. The province’s uncertain election results have put B.C. back into the centre of the national climate-change debate.

The final results of Tuesday’s election won’t be known for two weeks. That’s when all of the absentee ballots are due to be counted and most of the mandatory recounts held.

But it is clear the Green Party will play a crucial role. Initial results give Premier Christy Clark’s Liberals 43 of the 87 seats in the legislature, two more than John Horgan’s New Democrats but not quite enough to form a majority government.

With three seats, the B.C. Greens under Andrew Weaver hold the balance of power – for now.

After recounts, a majority Liberal government is still possible. In one riding, the Liberal candidate lost to the NDP by just nine votes. But any majority promises to be so razor-thin that whatever government emerges will need some help from the opposition to survive.

All of this is unfamiliar territory for B.C. Ontario has experience with minority governments. So does the federal Parliament. But B.C. hasn’t had a minority government since 1952.

Since the 1940s, its polarized politics have left little room for viable third parties. Instead, voters are effectively presented with two stark choices: NDP or not-NDP. In the past, the not-NDP choice called itself Social Credit. Currently, it calls itself the B.C. Liberals.

The great accomplishment of Weaver’s Greens in this election has been to break that pattern.

If the Greens still hold the balance of power after the final votes are tallied, here are a few things to keep in mind.

First, they have a choice. They could agree to support Clark’s Liberal government. Or they could opt to put the second-place NDP in power. There are precedents for both.

They could demand a formal coalition that gives them a role in cabinet. Or they could stay out of cabinet but demand specific government actions as the price of their support.

Second, there are practical reasons for the Greens not to support the NDP. The two parties tend to appeal to the same voters. In this campaign, the NDP argued that those casting ballots for the Greens were wasting their votes. The Greens, meanwhile, accused the New Democrats of being faux environmentalists.

Third, the Liberals and Greens are not always at daggers drawn, Weaver, a climate scientist, helped devise the Liberal carbon tax before he entered politics. In the legislature, he has voted for some Liberal budgets.

The fact the Liberals won a slightly larger share of the popular vote than the NDP may make Clark more inviting to the Greens.

Fourth, for the Greens, this election wasn’t a referendum on pipelines. The NDP did promise to use every available legal remedy to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan heavy-oil pipeline from Alberta to Greater Vancouver.

But while Weaver remains a vocal critic of Kinder Morgan, the word “pipeline” does not appear in his party’s platform.

Those hoping for some kind of Green-NDP arrangement that would kill this particular pipeline expansion may be disappointed.

In the meantime, feelers are being extended. Weaver’s demands to date have been carefully chosen. He says he wants to bar corporations and unions from donating to political parties. He wants to change the voting system from first-past-the-post to proportional representation.

He does not express his opposition to Kinder Morgan unless asked. Then he acknowledges, as he did on
CBC Television on Wednesday, that the election has put new barriers in the way of a pipeline expansion that he still believes unwise.

If his status as kingmaker is confirmed, he may become more ambitious on the climate front. The Green platform, for instance, calls for a significant hike in the provincial carbon tax.

But his aim to date seems to be to convince the electorate that his Greens are not just a single-issue

All of this is fraught with danger. In Britain, Liberal-Democrat Nick Clegg was kingmaker after the inconclusive 2010 election produced a hung parliament. He demanded and received cabinet seats as his price for supporting David Cameron’s Conservatives.

For a brief moment, Clegg was a popular hero. But ultimately, he was blamed by his supporters for every sin of the Cameron Tories. At the next election, his Liberal Democrats were slaughtered.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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