British Columbia·Analysis

Judgment Day: B.C. Liberal tactics set up difficult decision for lieutenant-governor

If the B.C. Liberals lose the confidence of the house today, Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon will decide to either dissolve parliament and thrust the province into an election or ask NDP Leader John Horgan to govern.

Judith Guichon has a choice to make — anoint a new premier or send voters back to the polls

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark greets Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon prior to the delivery of the 2015 speech from the throne inside the legislature in Victoria, B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It will likely be the most crucial political decision Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon ever has to make.

If the B.C. Liberals lose the confidence of the house today, she will decide to either dissolve parliament and thrust the province into an election or ask NDP leader John Horgan to govern. 

And it's a decision Premier Christy Clark has made as difficult as possible. 

Five weeks ago, when the B.C. Greens and NDP reached an agreement, Clark indicated that it was inevitable she would lose power because her party had fewer MLAs than the alliance.

But in the past week, Clark has done everything possible to set up the premise that her opponents would provide unstable governance.

First, it was introducing a speech from the throne full of ideas the Greens and NDP have supported for years.

Then, it was introducing legislation that she knew her opponents support in principle — but was predictably voted down. 

Next, it was raising concern and creating written documentation that a Speaker in a legislature deadlocked at 43 votes each would be breaking generations of parliamentary precedent in B.C. 

Finally, it was going against most constitutional experts and announcing she would not provide any advice to the lieutenant-governor if she lost the confidence of the house — but would bring certain facts up, if asked. 

"It's not my intention to advise her whether she should call an election. That's her decision," said Clark.

"But here's what I do know: in these conversations between a premier and an LG at moments like this, she will probably will ask me some questions. I've gotta be honest: you've seen what I've seen this week. It isn't working.

"The constitutional experts like to speculate on what has happened, but it is the premier's option to let her make her own decision about this, and that is what I intend to do."

There's been some speculation that voters — weary after a bitter, divisive election — would punish any politician thought to have forced the province into another round of voting so soon after the last campaign.

Clark's choice without precedent

"I am a little bewildered to be honest. I just don't understand precisely what she is saying," said Carleton University constitutional expert Philippe Lagasse. 

Lagasse and many others say premiers have only two options when losing a non-confidence vote: to ask for a dissolution, which would trigger an election, or to advise there are parties in the legislature that could provide stable governance.

Offering no advice and solely answering questions is not something Lagasse has ever heard of. 

Until now.

"I don't understand what the premier thinks her third option is. To simply say I leave it up to you. I leave it up to you to what? To go into an election without advice? No, that's unconstitutional," Lagasse added. 

How today plays out

The non-confidence vote could happen anytime the Liberals stop sending members to speak on the speech from the throne, but will likely happen around 5:30 p.m. PT.

If Clark is defeated, there will be about 30 minutes between the vote and when she heads 2.4 kilometres east to Government House and meets with Guichon. 

How and when Guichon will communicate her decision to the public is unknown, because her representatives have offered little response to media requests. 

NDP Leader John Horgan presents his non confidence motion in the B.C. Legislature on June 28, 2017. (Hansard)

While this unfolds, NDP Leader John Horgan is left twisting in the wind. He believes that he could provide stable government with the support of the Greens. But aside from the letter he has already sent the lieutenant-governor, he has had no other communication, nor is he allowed to.

"I can't predict what other people will do. I have done my responsibility," said Horgan. "We will win the vote, and then it's in the hands of the lieutenant-governor. I'm hopeful she'll do the right thing … there is a majority on one side of the house. We should be given an opportunity to govern." 

Whatever happens will be the first of its kind in British Columbia.

It's either the shortest duration between elections ever — while creating brand new constitutional conventions — or the first inter-election transfer of power in B.C. since political parties were established.

And it happens today.