Canada’s Only Social-Democratic Government Has Been Decisively Reelected in British Columbia

British Columbia has historically been dominated by right-wing governments, so last weekend’s overwhelming New Democratic Party win is a significant moment. John Horgan, the first two-term NDP premier in the province's history, needs to set out a more ambitious agenda in his second term.

New Democratic Party premier John Horgan speaking in Comox, British Columbia, 2017. (BC NDP / Flickr)

British Columbia remains the only province in Canada governed by the New Democratic Party (NDP), after the social democrats won a decisive election on Saturday, October 24. Even with several ridings too close to call, and hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes still to be counted, the NDP’s lead is insurmountable, with the party leading or elected in fifty-five ridings, nearly double the BC Liberals’ twenty-nine.

NDP premier John Horgan called the snap election in order to capitalize on a near-consensus view that his government has managed COVID-19 better than most other jurisdictions in North America, with a total of 256 deaths. The NDP rode the wave of approval for their handling of the pandemic and presented their government as prudent, competent, compassionate managers, defeating a BC Liberal adversary weakened by a lack of corporate funding, internal divisions, and a dull and uninspiring leader in Andrew Wilkinson.

Relief From Right-Wing Dominance

With conservative and right-wing parties dominating at the provincial level across Canada, the results are a welcome relief. The Liberals, the latest iteration of the liberal-conservative right-wing coalition that traditionally dominates BC politics, ran a campaign almost entirely devoid of substantive policy proposals and focused on fearmongering about homeless camps, drug users, and street crime.

A case in point was their attempt to capitalize on homeowner anxieties about homeless encampments in the province’s biggest cities, Vancouver and Victoria. Even as they vowed to “end tent cities,” the Liberals complained that the NDP government’s purchases of empty hotels for use as emergency shelters and supportive housing amounted to “warehousing” the poor.

Having governed from 2001 to 2017, when the housing crisis in Vancouver spiraled out of control due to a frenzy of real-estate speculation, the Liberals essentially campaigned by demonizing the victims of their own policies. In a similar fashion, they sought to exploit the fears of condo owners in downtown Vancouver opposed to a new Overdose Prevention Site in their neighborhood. This mean-spirited, negative campaigning failed spectacularly, with the NDP sweeping the majority of ridings in Metro Vancouver.

In the final days of the campaign, fissures within the BC Liberals’ coalition burst into full view as Wilkinson was forced to kick veteran Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Laurie Throness out of the party after he likened the NDP’s promise of free contraception for women to eugenics. This expulsion may foreshadow the fracturing of the right-wing coalition that solidified in opposition to the Left in the twentieth century.

A Polarized History

Back in the 1950s and 60s, W. A. C. Bennett became the province’s longest-serving premier by uniting the right-wing vote behind his Social Credit Party, famously appealing against the threat of a social-democratic provincial government with his spittle-flecked warning that “the socialist hordes are at the gate.”

Finally, in 1972, the socialists broke through those gates, forming BC’s first NDP government. Premier Dave Barrett, a social worker from East Vancouver, implemented reforms at a furious pace, famously joking, “We’re here for a good time, not for a long time.”

To take just a few examples from the NDP’s deluge of legislation: the party brought in rent control; expanded and created public parks; bought paper mills; expanded public transit; banned public pay toilets; and ended spanking in schools.

Although the Barrett government only held office for three years, much of its legacy — including publicly-owned auto insurance, the Labour Relations Board, and the Agricultural Land Reserve — still endures forty-five years later. These achievements prompted Barron’s magazine to dub Barrett the “Allende of the North.”

It would be a much greater stretch to compare today’s NDP government with Allende or any other socialist administration. But the NDP has still carried out a number of important reforms in its first term, including the first steps toward establishing universal $10/day childcare, and an adjustment of the rent hike formula that ties increases to the rate of inflation and ends fixed-term leases. Sadly, they stopped short of bringing back meaningful rent control, which would be based on the unit not the tenant.

Other significant reforms include the elimination of fees on adult education, and the provision of free tuition and paid expenses for post-secondary education for children who have passed the age of government care. In addition, crucially, the NDP has stemmed the bleeding from sixteen years of privatization and other attacks on the public sector under the BC Liberals. In many cases, however, they have moved too slowly — or not at all — to undo the damage.

Doubling Down on Fossil Fuels

Unfortunately, on major issues of economic development and the environment, the NDP has doubled down on Liberal priorities. The party has, for example, expanded the regime of subsidies, in the form of tax and royalty breaks and cheap electricity, offered to the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry in BC.

This includes the misleadingly named LNG Canada, a joint multinational venture whose largest partner is Shell Oil, which, at $40 billion, represents the largest private investment mega-project in Canadian history. The planned expansion of LNG exports requires a major expansion of fracking operations in northeastern BC, as well as the construction of pipelines across Indigenous territories.

In February of this year, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) carried out raids on Wet’suwet’en territory, in northern BC, to make way for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is being constructed in order to bring gas from the northeast to LNG processing and export facilities on the coast, in Kitimat, BC. In response to the police raids against land defenders and a Wet’suwet’en healing center, Canada-wide protests shut down major infrastructure, including railways, for days.

This expansion of LNG and fracked gas in the northeast is very much related to the Site C Dam, a mega-project in the Peace River Valley begun by the BC Liberals. The NDP controversially decided in late 2017 to continue building the dam.

In a 2014 interview with the Georgia Straight, then opposition leader John Horgan asked rhetorically about LNG expansion:

What are the greenhouse-gas consequences of expanding the industry? Will that blow our legislated targets out of the water? Quite possibly.

During the latest campaign, however, Horgan voiced his support for LNG, even as he pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 — an improvement on the previous 80 percent emissions-reduction target. As a comprehensive report on BC’s climate targets by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released last year concluded: “If emissions from producing and liquefying the gas required for LNG Canada are added, BC’s 2050 target would be exceeded by 160 percent, even if emissions from the rest of the economy are reduced to zero by 2035.”

In 2017, Horgan and the NDP formed a minority government by making an agreement with the three-person caucus of the BC Green Party. Although this deal was joyously welcomed by all those who wanted an end to the BC Liberals’ long tenure in office, in many ways it served as an alibi for both parties, blocking many measures urgently demanded by labor and environmental movements.

When the NDP failed to restore card-check union certification, or when scheduled increases to the minimum wage or the rollout of affordable childcare spaces proved to be slower than hoped, it could be blamed on anti-labor elements in the Greens.

No More Excuses

With a clear majority, there is no excuse for the NDP not to take bold measures to alleviate inequality. In their previous term, the NDP did add a surtax to properties valued at over $3 million, and made small increases to corporate tax rates, but they now need to be much more ambitious about taxing the rich to build nonmarket housing and expand public services.

The BC Greens held on to their two seats on Vancouver Island and, for the first time ever, won a seat on the mainland, picking up West Vancouver-Sea to Sky from the Liberals. But the low seat count doesn’t tell the full story of their popular appeal. They won over 15 percent of the popular vote despite not being able to field candidates in over a dozen ridings due to the snap election call.

Their leader, Sonia Furstenau, campaigned effectively in opposition to fracking and fossil fuel subsidies. If the NDP maintain their course of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, the Greens have the potential to grow rapidly as a political force in BC.

One key flashpoint is the resistance to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which is currently under construction to bring more tar sands from Alberta for export through Vancouver’s harbor. The project has been fiercely resisted both in the courts and on the ground for years by a diverse coalition led by Indigenous peoples. The Justin Trudeau Liberals bought the existing pipeline and committed to building the expansion after Kinder Morgan was effectively scared off.

In 2017, Horgan won support for promising to use “every tool in the toolbox” to stop the pipeline expansion. But the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed BC’s plea for the power to regulate heavy oil, arguing that it was outside the province’s jurisdiction, and Horgan subsequently went quiet on the issue.

During this year’s campaign, his only notable reference to the pipeline was to chastise Secwépemc land defenders who had just been arrested for attempting to stop construction operations: “Disrupting other people’s activity only alienates, quite frankly, and creates discord in the community.”

The episode perfectly encapsulates the limits and contradictions facing the BC NDP as it begins its second term in office. They are now determined to be in office for a long time, but whether it will be a good time for BC depends on the balance of forces that activists on the ground can create.

Political Courage Needed

In Richmond, a municipality within the greater Vancouver area, the NDP has elected MLAs for the first time since the Barrett government of the 1970s.

Harold Steves, who was a key member in the Barrett government, is now in his eighties and in his final term of a nearly fifty-year run as an elected city councilor.

Steves may well be the longest-serving elected representative anywhere on the planet who identifies as an ecosocialist. He’s elated about finally having NDP representatives from Richmond in government once again, but hopes that some of the new MLAs will push for a change of direction on issues like Site C, fracking, and LNG.

Steves, articulating the best possible course forward for both the province and the party, says he wants to see the restoration of a political culture on the Left where dissent from within an NDP government is possible.

“We need progressives running and getting elected who are prepared to stand up and even get kicked out when it comes to an issue of principle,” declares Steves on the line from Steveston, the southwest corner of Richmond named after his great-grandfather: “The climate crisis is so urgent, we need people who understand this and have the courage to act.”