Pandemic will force Horgan’s hand in timing of B.C. election

It sounds grim, but it would take a significant pandemic outbreak in our schools in the next few days to avert a provincial election.

It could come as early as October 24, but it would have to be called Thursday. Possibly on Hallowe’en, which would give the political sloganeers source material. Perhaps as late as Nov. 7, which would suggest colder and inclement weather for voters to socially distance in lineups at polling stations.

The critics of John Horgan would ask why. The premier would ask why not.

Sure, in his shoes there is a bit of fancy footwork to finesse around the initial complaint that the coronavirus ought to be his only priority. But those shoes are going to fit like cement boots by the time the official clock runs out next fall.

COVID-19 has been bad for just about everyone but governments – north of the border, anyway – but it won’t exempt them much longer as a world of hurt arrives in the form of bankruptcies, foreclosures and savaged balance sheets. This is still the time to provide relief, a plan and some hope. By next year at this time, the relief might be running its course, the plan might be off-course, and hope might be, of course, in shortened supply.

In Horgan’s immediate political district are wounded opponents. 

The BC Liberals have polls that suggest only eight to 10 of the 43 seats they won in 2017 are safe and that their ceiling might be 25 to 28 MLAs if the election were held imminently. Such a weak showing would open the door to a splintering of the two-decade coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives and aged Social Crediters, which could in turn offer the NDP an even longer leash.

Liberals are in financial straits and their leader, Andrew Wilkinson, has found futility in fomenting antagonism to his foe in the run-up to and in particular during the pandemic. Even the most generous polls suggest his personal rating is poles apart from the premier’s. Like any leader not on the rise, there are many who are looking past his term to others. Trouble is, if the party bears the brunt of the landslide, who would wish to lead it? More likely, there are those who would wish to depart it. Cue the Conservatives.

The Green Party has a new leader as of Monday, Sonia Fursteneau, but the party is in no shape to be a serious force in short order. It hasn’t helped that its former leader, Andrew Weaver, has taken it to task repeatedly in the months since he left the post and sat as an independent.

The Horgan administration has another asset to smooth its path: Dr. Bonnie Henry, a soft-spoken, credible public servant appointed in the Christy Clark era as the chief provincial health officer. Yes, she is not partisan, but no, she has not been ineffective in indirectly building the NDP government’s public support in these last six months. Her inadvertent value is peaking, though.

The pandemic has had all sorts of disruptive effects on British Columbia, and the experience of an election campaign will be no different. No door-knocking and few gatherings of any consequence, plenty of Zoom presentations, feel-confident ads from the NDP, feel-worried ads from the Liberals. 

Which will make the leaders even more powerful in the determination of the outcome. The wise folks have written off leaders before: Clark, Campbell, certainly Horgan. Which is why the premier has to believe he risks more by waiting for the economy to turn around next year than for expecting Wilkinson’s fortunes to do so next month.

As for the criticism of opportunism in calling the election, there is little historic evidence to suggest that concern ever lingers long. (Just ask Blaine Higgs, reelected with a majority Monday in New Brunswick.) The election will be decided by a campaign, but in these circumstances, that campaign favours the incumbent.

Kirk LaPointe is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.