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B.C.’s NDP-Green alliance won’t all be smooth sailing

Friction points ahead for B.C.'s NDP-Green alliance

NDP leader John Horgan, left, and his Green Party counterpart Andrew Weaver at the May 30 signing of their pact.

'Good faith and no surprises' to be governing principle as parties with a testy past try to maintain B.C. Legislature's confidence, reports Mike Hager

The New Democrats' historic alliance with B.C.'s third-place Green Party is founded on the principle of "good faith and no surprises."

For that to survive, both parties must put aside the personal and political differences on display during a sometimes testy election campaign as they attempt to keep the NDP minority government alive, while navigating a number of contentious policy areas that could emerge as areas of conflict. The debate over a massive hydroelectric dam in the province's north, changes to labour laws and even campaign finance reform – on which the two parties largely agree – all have the potential to cause rifts between John Horgan's New Democrats and Andrew Weaver's Greens.

And pundits – not to mention the BC Liberals, who will soon find themselves in opposition after 16 years in power – will be waiting to jump on the smallest cracks in the nascent partnership.

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Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver have done their best to put such speculation to bed. They are now in constant contact and an amiable rapport has developed between their parties since they signed an agreement at the end of May to create an NDP government. A photo of them enjoying a rugby match together in Victoria just days before the announcement was finalized was held up as evidence they had buried the hatchet.

The 10-page written deal between the two parties – formally known as a confidence and supply agreement – sets out core priorities both have agreed to tackle in the next legislative session. Chief among the policies are campaign-finance laws, switching the electoral system to a form of proportional representation, as well as reassessing the province's major resource projects while combatting climate change. In exchange for those commitments, the Greens have agreed to vote with the NDP on confidence motions to ensure the government does not fall prematurely, but the Greens say they will vote on other issues on a case-by-case basis – and the party's three MLAs might not necessarily always vote together.

Carole James, the former NDP leader heading her party's transition to government, said the Greens will not be privy to cabinet discussions, but they will be informed beforehand of any major policy moves. She says the new government will take action on softwood lumber, the opioid crisis and securing public-school funding before the House returns in September. Green MLAs will also receive briefing notes and be given ample opportunity to propose their own bills in the legislature, where the NDP's agenda will be debated thoroughly by all parties, she said.

Since the Lieutenant-Governor asked Mr. Horgan to form government, his special adviser Bob Dewar has been meeting most mornings with Liz Lilly, architect of the Green Party's election platform and now chief of staff for its three-member caucus.

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Ms. Lilly, who ended her 25-year career with the B.C. government in 2015 as head of the province's climate-change strategy, agrees there will be substantive policy disagreements with the New Democrats. But those will not endanger the life of the government, she says.

"If we feel that they have acted in bad faith or they haven't adequately consulted with us or that they deliberately undermined the accord, for whatever reason, then, yeah, that's a deal-breaker," she said in an interview. "It's not, 'Do we agree on whether it's $10 a day [for subsidized child care] or $15 an hour [for minimum wage]?' – it's about the spirit of the accord.

"We're all trying to get things done and there are different ways of doing it."

Tensions between the two partners will likely flare in the months ahead, she acknowledges, especially with an outspoken leader such as Mr. Weaver. He must continue to critique the New Democrats in public and private not only to push his legislative agenda, but also to assert a unique identity for the party that isn't simply an extension of the governing NDP.

A preview of what's to come occurred last month, when Mr. Horgan told a crowd of B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union workers in Vancouver that the NDP would change the labour code to eliminate a secret ballot for employees wanting to unionize.

Mr. Weaver, who once led two separate rounds of collective bargaining at the University of Victoria as head of its professors' union, immediately blasted his new ally and declared that the Greens would never support such a move.

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Within minutes of Mr. Weaver's comments hitting social media, unhappy New Democrats had called up the Green Party's co-deputy leader Matt Toner.

"They felt at the time – because the Lieutenant-Governor hadn't made a decision yet – 'let's not rock the boat publicly,'" said Mr. Toner, who ran as an NDP candidate in 2013. "At the same time, people in the private sector [contacted me and said they] were interested to see us standing up for things we believe in.

"There will be that tightrope we walk of 'how do we stick to our principles?' Because there is so much overlap with the NDP, there is that risk that we might be seen as falling into their shadow."

The Greens have said they hope to work with the Liberals to craft bills and amend NDP legislation.

The Greens say their relationship with the Liberals remains frayed after that party waged a relentless campaign to detonate the NDP-Green accord that alternated between friendly pleas and threats.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan and B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver speak to media after arriving at Government House in Victoria to drop of a signed agreement between their parties on May 31, 2017.

Shortly before their defeat, Liberals unexpectedly tabled campaign finance legislation and a bill to give the Greens official party status in the legislature in what appeared to be an unsuccessful attempt to bait the Greens into voting against the NDP.

Andrew Wilkinson, a Vancouver MLA who will soon relinquish his portfolio as minister of justice to sit in opposition, said the Liberals are very concerned that the NDP will push controversial changes through the Premier's Office rather than the legislature, where the Speaker could be asked to break a 43-43 deadlock on every vote.

"They have the regulatory powers of cabinet and they have the spending powers of the executive to change many things, including substantial spending plans, which have a grave effect on the public," Mr. Wilkinson said. "Anything from bridge tolls, through child care, through the compensation system for health-care professionals – so the concern is that they will do all of that with minimal visibility and accountability.

"These are large budget items that need to be subject to the scrutiny of the legislature."

The Liberals will provide fierce opposition in the House, Mr. Wilkinson said, but do not want to force a snap election by bringing down the New Democrats on such bills.

"In the current circumstances, there's no appetite for an election in the near future," he said. He noted that a review of Christy Clark's leadership is not imminent, but "may happen a few years down the line."

By convention, the Throne Speech, its amendments and two budget-related bills are always treated as explicit tests of whether a party deserves to govern the province.

However, a government can declare any bill a confidence matter and a proposed law that makes substantial changes to the provincial budget has historically served the same function.

That means the NDP, with the support of the Greens, could wield confidence votes early on in their mandate as a cudgel to draw co-operation from the 43 Liberal MLAs, knowing they are reluctant to be seen as foisting another election on B.C.'s weary voters.

Still, Mr. Wilkinson, like many constitutional experts and political scientists, does not expect the government to last the traditional four-year term.

"It would be deeply surprising to most British Columbians if this brittle NDP-Green arrangement lasts for more than a couple of years, whether it runs for as much as two years remains to be seen."


Hot spots

The NDP's agreement with the Greens lays out more than two dozen policies both parties are set on addressing once the New Democrats form a minority government.

But several issues were left out – leaving potential friction points that could develop between the two parties.

Labour law

Shortly after the BC Liberals took power in 2001, the government changed the labour laws to, among other things, require secret ballots when workers vote on whether to unionize.

The NDP has long promised to reverse the change and return to a process whereby workers who want to unionize can do so if a majority of them sign union cards.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver has ruled out such a change, which would require legislation.

Site C dam

Both parties have agreed to a six-week review by the B.C. Utilities Commission of the massive earth-fill dam on the Peace River.

The commission will assess whether the project is truly needed to meet the province's future electricity demands.

The New Democrats have not said what they intend to do if the project is ruled economically viable, but the Greens say they are directly opposed to building such destructive and unnecessary "20th-century mega projects." Green Party co-deputy leader Matt Toner said the New Democrats, with their heavy support from unions, will likely be very sensitive about being seen as killing off any jobs.

Climate change

Both parties have agreed to increase the current $30-a-tonne carbon tax by $5 per tonne, per year, starting next April.

Their agreement also includes the creation of an emerging economy task force, which will report back to government within a year on how businesses will change over the next 10 to 25 years. But the Greens have often criticized New Democrats on their failure to embrace a more sustainable economy, noting in their platform that the NDP "lurches back and forth between their union wing and their environmentalists."

Road pricing and tolls

During the election campaign, the NDP promised to eliminate tolls on Metro Vancouver bridges. T

he party said it will cover the missing toll revenue in part from the province's Prosperity Fund, but did not commit to the Greens' proposal for road pricing across the region.

Michael Prince, a political scientist at the University of Victoria, said Mr. Weaver might seize this issue to criticize the NDP's promise to outlaw the tolls, which he called "election goodies" used by the Liberals and New Democrats to curry favour in those ridings. Prof. Prince said Mr. Weaver should be able to explain to the public his party's solid logic behind a policy proven to change driving behaviour and cut down on overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Housing

Both parties say they want to create more affordable housing and crack down on speculators and tax evaders. But just one bullet point in the NDP-Green agreement is dedicated to cooling Metro Vancouver's housing market, a central issue for all parties in the election campaign.

In the past, the New Democrats proposed a 2-per-cent speculation tax on properties in the Vancouver region if their owners pay little or no taxes in B.C.

The party also said it would review the province's current 15-per-cent tax on purchases in the Vancouver area involving foreign buyers.

The Greens proposed doubling the foreign-buyers tax to 30 per cent and expanding it across the entire province.


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