British Columbia·Analysis

Christy Clark would still face tough road, even if seat flips in her favour

The B.C. Liberals are about to enter a new reality. With the possibility, in a best case scenario, of holding a majority with 44 of 87 seats, there will be fears that the minority government could fall on any crucial vote.

Party will still need a speaker; MLAs can't miss votes

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark shares a laugh with Jim Benninger during a campaign stop in Courtenay, B.C., Monday, May 8, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Members of the B.C. Legislative Assembly better get their vacation time in now, because days off may soon be hard to come by.

With the B.C. Liberals anxiously awaiting a recount, and the absentee votes to be counted in Courtenay-Comox, they are still holding out hope they could secure a majority government of 44 seats. They know the most likely path to that scenario would be to flip the Vancouver Island riding the NDP won by nine votes.

B.C. Liberal Leader Christy Clark waves to the crowd, following the B.C. election in Vancouver early on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Ahead of any recount or tabulating the absentee ballots, the Liberals were elected in 43 of B.C.'s 87 electoral districts, one short of the 44 seats needed to form a majority, while the NDP won 41 and the Greens, three.

But with a majority that slim, even simple tasks like appointing a speaker would become a challenge, giving up one of the precious votes that majority governments need to ensure bills are passed smoothly. 

"We will deal with that when we see what the result of the election is," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark the day after the historic vote. "All I can tell you now is, if it's a majority or a minority, we will work hard with other parties collaboratively that want to work with us."

Speaker breaks ties

The speaker is required for the legislature to sit, and in the case of a tie, he or she would act as the deciding vote. But former MLA and NDP finance minister Elizabeth Cull says it will be hard to recruit anyone to sit in the speaker's chair.

"Are the Greens likely to offer up one of their members to be a speaker? I would not think so. They want to have their voting power in the legislature. Would the NDP want to put up one of their members? I doubt it as well," said Cull. "The Liberals are going to have to put one up themselves in a situation where it will be a dead heat."

Getting the votes to show up

Then there is the challenge of getting MLAs to show up for votes.

Clark herself has a spotty attendance record in the legislature. She's often said the business of being premier keeps her busy elsewhere.

The B.C. Liberals say she attends the legislature twice a week, while in session. But the NDP says she only showed up 17 out of the 51 days the legislature was in session last year and only seven out of 19 days this year.

In this new reality, she would be required to spend much more time around Victoria, in order to ensure the 44 votes needed are secured. The amount of travel by members of cabinet or opposition leaders would also be limited. 

The last time something similar played out in British Columbia was in 1996, when Glen Clark's government had 39 seats, compared to a combined 36 seats from the opposition.

Once the NDP appointed a speaker, they couldn't afford to have many legislators missing from the building, in case a crucial vote was cast that could have brought down the government. The former communications director for then-premier Glen Clark, Geoff Meggs, remembers the case of Ed Conroy.

"He had liver disease and was waiting for a transplant and was very, very ill with hepatitis. He was just unable to be on the scene," said Meggs.

"It can be acts of God, surgeries, car accidents, all of those become factors for sure. You are about to bring the budget in and suddenly you discover someone is in surgery."

Michelle Stilwell became a minister in Christy Clark's government in 2015. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Depending on when the legislature resumes sitting, the B.C. Liberals could be in a similar situation. The re-elected MLA for Parksville-Qualicum, Michelle Stilwell, was set to have a medical procedure on her back on Friday.

It's uncertain how long that injury could keep her away from the legislative chambers.

"Don't worry, it's all good. I'm gonna be fine," said Stilwell to her local newspaper, the Parksville Qualicum Beach News, on election night. "I'm just going to go get a little tuneup."

History repeating itself?

William Lyon Mackenzie King won the 1921 election by just one vote. (Canadian Press)

Perhaps the best learning example for B.C. legislators is from 1921 in Ottawa.

William Lyon Mackenzie King won the federal election by one vote, holding onto 118 seats for his Liberals, while the Conservatives and the then-new Progressive Party had 117 seats combined. 

"That government went back and forth between a minority and a majority government, and it went to a minority just due to some floor crossings and some byelections," said Kim Speers from the University of Victoria's School of Public Administration.

"Even if Clark is able to get a majority, it will be interesting to see if there are any deaths or resignations that could change the outcome to a minority again."

It's an uncertain and unwelcome place for any leader to find him or herself.  And right now, none of B.C.'s three leaders will even discuss the idea of MLAs crossing the floor in Victoria. 

But with so many balls up in the air, even after the final results come in on May 24, nothing is off the table, and no strategy to gain even just one more seat can be ruled out. 


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