COLUMN: Nanaimo byelection loss wouldn't be fatal to B.C. NDP

The likely resignation of an NDP MLA later this fall has touched off a round of speculation that such a thing will almost certainly lead to an early election call.

Allow me to disagree and to throw some cold water on the prospects of an election happening anytime soon.

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The MLA in question is NDP veteran Leonard Krog, who is now running to become the mayor of Nanaimo. He is currently the NDP MLA for Nanaimo and will give up that seat should he win the mayoralty contest on Oct. 20.

While Krog has been a popular MLA for 18 years, he doesn’t have an automatic lock on the mayor’s post. He’ll be up against well-known local businessman Don Hubbard, a former chair of the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

However, if Krog does indeed win and therefore gives up a seat, the prospect of a general election comes into view, but it will still be on a distant horizon.

Premier John Horgan would have six months to call a byelection in the riding. He would likely call a byelection fairly quickly in order to get that riding represented by a new NDP MLA come the February legislative session and the budget vote (which will be a test of confidence in the House).

History tells us that sitting B.C. government usually lose byelections (the Opposition party has won 10 of the last 12 byelections going back to 1981; the two exceptions were victories by Christy Clark, when she was the premier).

There is usually low turnout because the stakes are usually quite small and it is difficult for a government to motivate its supporters.

However, Nanaimo is not your typical riding. It is staunchly NDP, having delivered that party victory in 11 of the last 12 general elections (the sole exception being 2001, when the NDP was almost shut out across the entire province), and in last year’s election Krog won by a healthy 3,400 votes.

Plus, the Nanaimo byelection would happen unusually early in a government’s mandate. All governments can get fairly unpopular over time, but in this case the NDP will have been in power for less than 18 months, which is not enough time to pile up a substantial amount of political baggage.

In addition, the prospect of a possible win by the B.C. Liberals would surely fire up the NDP’s Nanaimo supporters (because of the potential uncertainty of the party’s hold on power should it lose) to ensure voter turnout would be unusually high and allow the seat to stay in the government’s win column.

But let’s say the B.C. Liberals pull off an upset (the parallel would be the 2012 byelection in the B.C. Liberal stronghold of Chilliwack-Hope, which was won by the NDP), which would give that party 43 seats, matching the NDP-Green alliance seat count.

Speaker Darryl Plecas could be called upon to cast any deciding vote, and by “convention” he is supposed to keep the legislature functioning, which means backing the government.

With a tied house, it would be hard for the NDP to implement much of an agenda. Relatively little legislation would get through the chamber, but it could survive the two confidence votes that occur each year.

In addition, it would be far from clear how many votes would actually go to a tie anyways. Would the B.C. Liberals automatically vote against every single possible bill at every opportunity?

Defeating legislation doesn’t bring down a government (that can only occur on confidence votes), and if the B.C. Liberals were to simply gum up the works with procedural hijinks, they could incur the wrath of an unamused public should an early election actually occur.

Until she sees the house grind to an absolute halt, Lieutenant-Governor Janet Austin would have no reason to dissolve the legislature and call an election (and she certainly would never call on B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson to take a stab at governing; she talks only to her First Minister, who is Horgan).

No, losing a byelection in Nanaimo would be embarrassing for the ruling New Democrats, but it would be far from fatal to their government, at least for a while.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global B.C.





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