British Columbia·Analysis

Christy Clark gets 1st chance to govern — but how long can it last?

The B.C. election is over and Premier Christy Clark is back at work running the province. But things are far from normal.

B.C. Liberals have the most seats in the legislature with 43, the NDP has 41, the Greens 3

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd following the B.C. election in Vancouver early on May 10. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The B.C. election is over, and Premier Christy Clark is now back at work running the province, but things are far from normal. 

After the closest popular vote in the province's history, Clark must now figure out a way to govern with 43 seats, one short of a majority government.

At some point, she'll have to choose from a series of unpalatable options that include getting a firm deal with the reluctant Greens, taking her chance with a throne speech and a legislative session that could go up in flames, or even resigning.

The most obvious first step for the B.C. Liberal leader is to strike a deal with the B.C. Green Party. As the incumbent government, the Liberals get the first opportunity to show they can  keep the confidence of the house.  

If Clark gets the upstart party's support, she will have 46 votes in the legislature and enough to pass a throne speech and a budget.  

But even if she doesn't get the blank-cheque support of the Greens, she has other options.

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark, left, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, centre, and NDP Leader John Horgan meet April 26 before the final leaders debate of the 2017 provincial election campaign. (B.C. Broadcast Consortium)

Former senator Hugh Segal has had a front row seat to many minority governments, including working as an aide to then Conservative leader Robert Stanfield while prime minister Pierre Trudeau governed in a minority situation. He later advised Ontario Conservative premier Bill Davis during his minority stint. 

Segal says that for now Clark holds her destiny in her own hands.

"Until, and when, she should decide to resign for whatever reason, she would have the right to meet the legislature to bring in a full government program, to try to get a throne speech approved through a motion of confidence," Segal said. 

"Until such time as the present government tenders its resignation, there is very little precedent for the Crown calling on two other parties to form a government, when the incumbent government has won the largest amount of seats."

It's likely Clark will go ahead and see if her legislative agenda can gather some support from the other parties.

The best example for Clark to look at is Ontario in 1985.

Conservative Leader Frank Miller won the most seats, but with just four more than the Liberals, he didn't have enough to form a majority.

Christy Clark greets Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon prior to the delivery of the speech from the throne inside the legislature in Victoria on Feb. 10, 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

The NDP held the balance of power with 25 seats. The Liberals and the NDP struck a deal, but Miller still went to the legislature to test the confidence. 

"The government, in that context, appointed its cabinet, brought in a throne speech, brought in a program and took an honest defeat in the legislature," said Segal.

Miller then resigned and Liberal leader David Peterson and NDP leader Bob Rae worked together to govern, with Peterson as premier.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark must be able to keep the confidence of the legislature but also her caucus. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

Even if there were an agreement in place between the Greens and the NDP, Clark could prepare a throne speech with policies friendly to Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and hard for that party to vote down.

But testing an alliance between the two other parties could come with a cost.

"She may want to actually meet the house and suffer defeat on a confidence vote," said University of Toronto constitutional expert Peter Russell.

"That's OK. She has that option to meet, and say here I am, come and get me, and it would be kind of exciting.

"But if she asked me for advice, I would tell her look to see what the NDP and the Greens have agreed to, and, if it looks solid, don't waste everyone's time. B.C. needs a government and advise the lieutenant-governor to swear in an NDP government."

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The other option Clark has is to advise the lieutenant-governor that no parties are in a position to form a sustainable government and that another election is needed.

But that would mean, even though Clark doesn't feel she has the confidence of the legislature, she would still need to have the confidence of her own party to stay on as leader. 

'Hers on loan'

"Lots of people are gunning for Premier Clark. And some of these may be inside her party, and there is a sense there is a stronger anti-incumbent sentiment than is typical in these situations," said University of British Columbia political scientist Richard Johnston.

"I have this sense the party is hers on loan, much more than say, Gordon Campbell, and if she loses power in the end, we don't know whether she will, she may have a weak position within the party." 

But what's unclear is how long it will take for all of this to unfold.

Weaver has told reporters he hopes to have a deal in place by next Wednesday. And that's when Clark will likely have to start making the tough decisions.