#309 Christy Clark’s downfall
May 28th, 2018
A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC
by Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman
Victoria: Heritage House, 2018.
$22.95 / 9781772032543
Reviewed by Hamish Telford
The British Columbia provincial election on May 9, 2017 was one for the history books. After a long night of ballot counting the Liberal and New Democratic parties were locked in a virtual tie, with the upstart Green Party holding the balance of power in the legislature with three seats, but the final seat count was not known until two weeks later after a painstaking recount and count of absentee ballots in the riding of Courtenay-Comox.
When these ballots were finally tallied, Christy Clark and the Liberals had come up one seat short of a bare majority. The stage was set for the NDP to assume power with the support of the Green Party.
But Christy Clark was determined to call the Greens’ bluff, so she exercised her right to test the confidence of the legislature some six weeks after the election, only to be handed an inevitable defeat. As per convention, she visited the lieutenant-governor to inform her that she was not in a position to govern, but we now know — in violation of the convention that conversations between the first minister and the Crown’s representative remain secret — that she appealed to the lieutenant-governor to dissolve the legislature.
Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon refused Clark’s appeal and asked the leader of the NDP if he could obtain the confidence of the legislature. When Mr. Horgan indicated that he would have the confidence of the legislature with the support of the Green Party, the lieutenant-governor invited him to form a government.
A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC by veteran journalists Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman is a gripping account of B.C.’s most dramatic election. The 336-page book is a first-hand account of the election based on more than seventy interviews with political operatives, including all of the principal players (save the lieutenant-governor). This primary research has been supplement by a few newspaper reports; there are no direct references to the secondary (i.e., academic) literature on BC politics and history. The book reads like a fast paced political thriller.
While extensive reference to secondary sources would slow the book down, there are a few places when additional information would have been helpful. For example, the authors note that even though Clark was a trail-blazer for women in politics she was intensely disliked by many female voters, and “as she increased her efforts to speak out about the obstacles faced by women leaders … her credibility was simultaneously eroded by the growing, visceral, negative reaction she elicited from voters — especially, ironically, women.” I have no doubt that the narrative is accurate, but it would have been helpful to have some opinion poll data to support the assertion, as well as perhaps some explanation for this puzzling phenomenon.
The book provides some fascinating glimpses from behind the political lines. Two stand out in particular for me. The election was really won and lost in some of the areas outside Vancouver, principally Surrey as well as Maple Ridge and the defining issue in these communities was bridge tolls. Shaw and Zussman recount that the Liberal Party promised to cap bridge tolls at $500 per year, saving commuters up to $1,000 per year. When NDP campaign director Bob Dewar saw this announcement in the newspaper, he instantly decided that the NDP would respond with a promise to eliminate bridge tolls entirely and within five hours John Horgan was announcing the new policy to “thunderous applause at a rally in Surrey.”
The authors almost seem to celebrate this policy-making on the fly as a stroke of political genius, but it really amounts to a great condemnation of the populist tendencies in our democracy. The Port Mann Bridge was a $3.6 billion dollar project, and the Golden Ears Bridge cost $800 million. The NDP completely upset the financing of these projects on the spur of the moment for immediate political benefit – and damn the consequences or the greater good. Maybe the bridge tolls were unfair, but one would hope that a multi-billion dollar decision would be the product of long and considered deliberation. I certainly expect my students to work more than five hours on their essays.
The book’s account of the political negotiations that led to the formation of the new government is especially compelling. As kingmaker, the Greens entered into negotiations with both the Liberal and New Democratic parties. While there was always a better policy fit between the Greens and the NDP, Andrew Weaver had a better working relationship with Christy Clark and previously Gordon Campbell than with John Horgan. Indeed, the relationship between Weaver and Horgan was apparently frosty, at least initially. However, the Liberals reportedly did not offer the Greens much in their meetings, whereas the NDP was very keen to work with the Green Party to form a government.
But Shaw and Zussman report that the outcome of the negotiations was essentially pre-determined by the visceral dislike of the Liberals by Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, who had battled the Liberal government for years over the dumping of toxic waste in a quarry near her community of Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island.
Furstenau was the deal breaker. She “simply could not be brought onside to consider any type of deal that would allow the Liberal government to spend one more day in office.” There were hints of this enmity in the media at the time, but Shaw and Zussman offer a much fuller account of these tense negotiations.
In sum, Shaw and Zussman have provided a comprehensive and highly readable account not just of the B.C. election of 2017 and the first minority government in the province in sixty-five years, but the entire decade of politics in the province that preceded these historic events. A Matter of Confidence is a great summer read for any political junkie.
Hamish Telford is an associate professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. He is the author of Rules of the Game: An Introduction to Canadian Politics (Pearson Canada, 2014), and his new book Talking Past Each Other: Quebec and the Federal Dialogue in Canada, 1867-2017 was published in April 2018 by Peter Lang. He is a frequent commentator on B.C. and Canadian politics in the national and international media.
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