A month has passed since British Columbia’s general election was held and it’s still unclear who will serve as the next Premier of Canada’s Pacific province.
Liberals, who led majority governments for the past 16 years, came one seat short of forming a majority government in the last election. Led by Premier Christy Clark, the Liberal party won 43 seats, compared to 41 for the NDP and 3 for the Greens. To make matters more interesting, and arguably nerve wracking, the NDP defeated the Liberals in Courtenay-Comox riding by a mere nine votes (final vote count increased that share to 189 votes) – the closest election result in the history of the province.
The Green Party held talks with the Liberals and the NDP. But not surprisingly, they decided to form a four-year agreement to support an NDP government with the joint goal of ending the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, eliminating the role of money in politics and stopping the expansion of the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline which was recently approved by Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government.
With the support of 44 Members of the Legislative Assembly, the NDP leader John Horgan has the necessary support to become the 36th premier of British Columbia. Correct?
Not so fast!
Liberals Looking to Deny the NDP-Green Alliance from Taking Hold
Premier Clark vowed not to resign and unveiled her new cabinet on Monday. She will have a first chance to seek the confidence of the Legislative Assembly. A motion of no confidence is expected to pass following the Throne Speech, defeating the Liberal government and forcing Clark to resign. University of Toronto political science professor Grace Skogstad tells the Progressive Army that she believes that the Premier will ask the Lieutenant Governor, Judith Guichon, to dissolve the legislature and call for a new election.
The roles of the Lieutenant Governor (provincial) and Governor General (federal) are largely seen as ceremonial roles. It’s generally expected that the Governor would honor the requests of the Premier or the Prime Minister on almost every occasion. In 2008, the federal Liberals, NDP, and the Bloc Québécois formed an accord to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government. Harper, facing a non-confidence vote, asked the Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, to prorogue the government instead – a request the Governor General granted.
However, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia can deny Premier Clark’s request for dissolution, explains Skogstad. She points to the constitutional crisis of 1926, called the King-Byng affair, where Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy declined the request of Prime Minister William King to dissolve the parliament as he was facing a non-confidence vote. Byng requested that the Conservative party should be given the opportunity to form a government.
University of Calgary political science professor Barry Cooper agrees and points to the 1985 Ontario election. The Conservative government failed to secure a majority government, and the Liberal party and the NDP reached an agreement to support the Liberal government for two years. The Conservative Premier, Frank Miller, refused to resign and carried on. The Liberals and the NDP voted against the Throne Speech and Premier Miller went to the Lieutenant Governor to tender his letter of resignation. Lieutenant Governor John Black Aird didn’t dissolve the legislature but asked the Liberal leader Peterson to form a government.
The Special Role of the Speaker Complicates Matters
The constitutional crisis in British Columbia is much more precarious because the NDP-Greens alliance has only one more vote than the Liberals. While the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly is a prestigious role, it’s important to note that the “Speaker is neutral, responsible for making sure that all MLAs, no matter what party they belong to, are treated fairly and impartially. He or she votes only to break a tie.”
The Liberals confirmed that none of their members are interested in taking on the role of the Speaker. The NDP (or the Green Party) will be forced to nominate one of their own, or the Lieutenant Governor will have no choice but to dissolve the legislature in the absence of a Speaker. This means that there will be a 43-43 tie before the confidence vote, and the NDP Speaker would have to break the tie by voting against the Throne Speech in order to defeat the government.
“The conventions regarding how the speaker voters in the event of a tie vote were established in the British Parliament 150 years ago,” University of the Fraser Valley political science professor Hamish Telford tells the Progressive Army. He notes that this would mark the first time in the history of the Commonwealth – national or regional – where the tie-breaking vote of a Speaker defeated a government.
“It would be a precedent setting case in the Commonwealth,” Telford states.
Telford also highlights that tie votes are exceedingly rare, happening only twice in the last 100 years. But with a 43-43 tie, votes by the Speaker to break ties will be a common occurrence. For those reasons, Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon will be put in a very difficult position. “She may decide to enforce the convention herself by not asking the NDP to form a government,” Telford speculates.
“The NDP-Green alliance may want to go for an election as soon as possible,” University of Ryerson political science professor Colin Mooers argues. “On the other hand, as is evident in the UK right now, it might be to their advantage to give the Liberals more rope and avoid a backlash from fatigues voters by leaving the Liberals in power a bit longer.”
In short, no one knows what will happen next.