John Horgan never said he would kill the Site C hydroelectric project.
He was as good as word Monday in finessing the mountain of advice and rejecting the mounting political pressure on how his government will proceed at great expense, uncertainty and risk with such massive infrastructure.
His consistent word, though, could also be his persistent political liability.
Horgan will never gain any particular credit for proceeding – that is the preserve of the BC Liberals who green-lit Site C and made it, for him, maddeningly less feasible to cancel. The question for him is what support he will lose.
Monday’s announcement might reassure trade unions he is with them, but won’t assuage those suspicious of the BC NDP’s economic or resource bona fides; mostly they will shrug and suggest he didn’t have much choice but to do what he did.
Cancellation of the project would give rise to the well-worn stereotype of an anti-business NDP. It would have made Horgan’s campaign, and even his pact with Weaver, fraudulent. That isn’t the premier Horgan appears to want to be.
Even so, he will have to do much more to attract BC Liberals next election. What he must hope is that he will not lose NDPers by then, because even if it’s consistent with his earlier statements, what he did will be noxious with the true believers in the environmental and indigenous agenda as planks of a sustainable government.
Horgan’s call leaves his party vulnerable to further defections to the Greens, even if its leader did not have the moxie to negotiate Site C’s cessation when he had the chance. Some, too, even some Liberals, will see Site C as economically reckless, so Horgan wins little and jeopardizes much in moving forward.
That being said, the wind is behind his choice. Public opinion generally favours completion, only about one-quarter oppose it, and another quarter want it delayed to figure things out.
What Horgan signalled Monday was that his party is willing to bet big when it strives for the centre to build equity to do things on the left. In this case it is willing to bank on unknown factors to make Site C shrewd in not being shelved.
It is sheer speculation to tell what those factors might be – the ravenous electric vehicle, a suddenly fierce demand neighbouring market – but it is safe to say we don’t see them today, and if they emerge Horgan will not be premier when they surface. If other energy forms take on a Moore’s law effect and become more efficient and less costly, the eventual pressure will be a political embarrassment.
A question he must have weighed is whether the backlash on his decision might gain traction. He is certainly betting that it will not be a lengthy political hangover, but in the short term the grief will be palpable.
BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has already suggested a recall initiative is in order for the province’s energy minister, Michelle Mungall, who earlier expressed opposition to the project and now must shepherd it. Such a recall can’t be launched for another year or so, but she will likely feel some heat now.
That said, this isn’t a deal-breaker for Weaver in his alliance with Horgan. The covenant they created earlier this year promised only a BC Utilities Commission study of the project, nothing more, so Weaver won’t take down the government over its decision.
Weaver’s own political predicament is problematic, too. His supporters might be upset the project is proceeding, but they will need to remember that he initially supported Site C and eventually signed an agreement to align with the NDP that did not seek to kill it.
It is tough to sling mud when it is landing in your face.