What British Columbia could learn from the Ontario of three decades ago

By Steve Paikin - Published on May 26, 2017
B.C. NDP leader Andrew Weaver
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver now finds himself holding the balance of power in that province. (Chad Hipolito/CP)



Oh my, didn’t British Columbia politics just get a whole lot more interesting.

Now that the ballot-counting is complete, the verdict is finally in: the three-member Green Party caucus will hold the balance of power in a minority legislature in that province, where the incumbent Liberals hold a 43-41 seat edge over the New Democrats. (A majority is 44 seats, leaving the Grits tantalizingly short.)

As the party that won the most seats, the Liberals will have the right to recall the legislature and try to form a government. But the Greens, ideologically, have more in common with the second-place NDP, and thus have a crucial decision to make: do they prop up the Grits, or orchestrate their defeat at the earliest opportunity and — formally or informally — join forces with the NDP?

The whole thing is very evocative of a situation that unfolded in Ontario 32 years ago. The 1985 Ontario election, very much like the 2017 British Columbia one, essentially ended in a tie. The Progressive Conservatives under Frank Miller won the most seats (52, to 48 for the Liberals under David Peterson). But the Grits won — just barely — the popular vote: that was 38 to 37 per cent. That left the NDP leader, Bob Rae, in the catbird’s seat, holding the balance of power.

Just as the B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver has a crucial decision to make now, it was Rae who found himself in similar circumstances three decades ago, knowing his decision could advance or retard his party’s interests for years.

One option that was immediately taken off the table back then was forming a coalition government, in which the Liberals would share cabinet seats (and therefore power) with the NDP. As the leader with the most political momentum, Peterson wouldn’t have it, and there was no appetite in Rae’s caucus for it either.

So what Rae did next was set up negotiations with each of the major parties that wanted his support. It was clear from the outset that backing the Tories would be an intellectual stretch for Rae’s NDP, since Miller became premier pledging to move the province and his party further to the right. The Liberals, conversely, shared many policy objectives with the NDP (implementing pay equity, extending full public funding to the separate school system, making a big investment in social housing, banning extra-billing by doctors, and so on) and thus politically were a better fit.

In the end, Rae signed an official accord with Peterson, agreeing to a list of policy items both parties would support. They also agreed to create some political stability: Peterson promised there would be no snap elections if his poll numbers improved, while Rae similarly committed not to defeat the nascent government. The deal was to last two years, after which time both sides could re-evaluate. 

The ensuing two years turned out to be some of the most adventurous in Ontario political history. With the demise of the 42-year-long PC dynasty, there was a feeling of a fresh broom dusting away the cobwebs at Queen’s Park.

But the cautionary tale — at least when it comes to politics, if not good governance — for Weaver and the B.C. Greens is this: the accord period was very popular with the public, but in the main, the public gave the Liberals kudos for its results.

When the two-year agreement expired, Peterson instantly called an election and won one of the biggest majority governments in Ontario history: 95 out of 130 seats. Both the PCs and NDP were thrashed, although the NDP could claim a Pyrrhic victory by becoming the official opposition for just the second time in its history.

Apparently, voters were content to give the Liberals the lion’s share of the credit for the achievements of the accord years, perhaps unaware that the NDP’s holding the Liberals’ feet to the fire on their shared policy commitments was part of the special sauce that made those two years work so well.

Weaver is facing the same dilemma in B.C. If he props up Premier Christie Clark’s Liberals, he’ll have British Columbians scratching their heads wondering why he’s supporting a party with which he has so many profound disagreements and whose best-before date, Weaver has suggested, is long passed. But if he gives the NDP its first chance to govern in nearly two decades, he may reap none of the credit the next time British Columbians go to the polls.

I’ve had many conversations with Bob Rae over the years about those days. His view is that, even though the NDP lost seats in the 1987 election, the party did advance its cause when it became the official opposition, getting closer to being seen as a legitimate government-in-waiting by the electorate. In fact, that very thing happened three years later, when Rae — shocking just about everyone — won a majority government with just 37.6 per cent of the votes.

There are, of course, other views of history. Here's one alternative: the perfect storm of public disillusionment with both the Liberals and the PCs in Ontario gave the NDP a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances in which it could win.

Regardless of who’s right, it may actually behoove Weaver to give Rae a call. Because the Green leader’s next decision could make his party very powerful, very extinct, or something else completely unpredictable.