Geoff Plant was British Columbia’s Liberal attorney-general from 2001 to 2005. He practises law with Gall Legge Grant & Munroe in Vancouver.
It’s rare for a government to be brought down by a vote in the legislature only a few weeks after a general election. Rarer still is a government-in-waiting with only a one-seat majority.
It is moments like this when the Lieutenant-Governor ceases to be a figurehead and becomes instead a decision-maker. Her Honour has only two options. Call on NDP Leader John Horgan to try to form a government, or dissolve the House and call an election. Her duty, I suggest, is to make a choice that brings honour to our system and institutions of government; to uphold stability if that is achievable, but to recognize that the best arbiter of who should hold political power is always the voter.
Mr. Horgan says he should be asked to form a government because he has an agreement with Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver that will allow him to govern with a majority in the House. Except it won’t.
Even if the agreement holds, the arithmetic simply doesn’t work. Once an NDP Speaker is elected – and this is bound to happen – there will be 43 MLAs on each side of the House. Day after day there will be tie votes. And while the Speaker has a casting vote, and must exercise that vote, it cannot be cast for partisan purposes without irrevocably compromising the integrity of that office.
The Speaker can break a tie by voting in a way that keeps a matter before the House. A Speaker can therefore vote in favour of second reading on a bill, because that’s a motion to refer the bill to a committee for further consideration. A Speaker can also break a tie on a non-confidence vote by voting to preserve the status quo; that is, the government in power. These are not partisan votes. But when there’s a tie on a final vote on ordinary legislation, the rule is that the Speaker should not cast a vote in favour of the bill because that necessarily changes the status quo, and in addition it breaches the fundamental principle of non-partisanship.
We wouldn’t want it any other way. The Speaker has to represent the House as a whole and embody even-handedness. A Speaker who resolutely respects the duties of his or her office will maintain public confidence in the legislature as a place where all MLAs are heard and dealt with fairly. A Speaker who regularly votes to support the government’s legislative program will, sooner rather than later, become just another member of the government caucus.
The NDP has a plan for how its arrangement can work, but it only works for the progress of legislation through the House and requires the House committees to be configured in a way that will at least sometimes create a majority for an NDP government. But the NDP plan does not help when legislation reaches a final vote, where a tie is bound to occur every time every MLA is in attendance.
The result is that government bills will regularly be defeated. That’s not just a recipe for uncertainty; it’s a nightmare version of a never-ending Groundhog Day.
This is not about arcane rules of House procedure. It’s about the ability to govern, which means the ability to get things done; this, in turn, requires controlling the legislature, not putting it into a constant state of suspense. The NDP, which finished second in the election last month, has made a deal with the Greens that allowed it to bring down the government, but not to govern.
In the circumstances, the better course is surely to let the people decide. It’s no longer a question of asking MLAs to work across party lines to find common ground. When, as happened earlier this week, the Greens won’t even allow debate on a measure to grant them party status, it’s plain there’s no appetite for compromise.
Last week, the BC Liberals made a massive shift to adopt a wide range of NDP and Green policy preferences. This initiative was widely criticized, but it did at least offer the possibility of stable government based on policy commitments that were obviously and deliberately designed to attract support on both sides of the aisle in the legislature. That initiative was dead on arrival in a legislature where a majority of MLAs were determined to bring down the government. That has now happened.
Deadlock is not an acceptable option. When there is no party capable of controlling the legislature, there has to be an election. Our system of government is based on this principle. It is the fullest expression of democracy to give B.C. voters a chance to break the impasse they created on May 9. So bring on an election. The sooner the better.