British Columbia·Analysis

John Horgan's 'mainstream' approach a big part of his legacy as he announces retirement

How the B.C. Premier's tenure is remembered will be subject to debate in the coming months — both by members of the public, and the people hoping to replace him. 

He's the most politically successful B.C. NDP leader, but with debates on several files still ongoing

B.C. Premier John Horgan announces he will not be running in the next provincial election during a press conference in Vancouver, B.C. on Tuesday, citing his health as a primary reason behind the decision. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It was June 29, 2017 when John Horgan addressed the media to say he would become premier of British Columbia, after a historic election in which the result wasn't decided for weeks.

It was a rare way to become premier. And a day before that announcement's fifth anniversary, Horgan announced his retirement in a similarly unique way.

"It's rare for a political leader to have the opportunity to say 'I think it's time for someone else' without it being a less comfortable moment," said Horgan in a press conference Tuesday, announcing his decision to ask the NDP to hold a leadership race in the fall, after which he will step down.

"So the timing was right."

Horgan took questions from the media in his typical style — answering some with clear talking points, others in a human but rambling way with anecdotes involving sea otters and lacrosse fields on Vancouver Island — while declining to directly talk about his legacy. 

"This has never been about me," he said. 

"I have tried to make my leadership a statement about the strength of my colleagues and our ability to work collaboratively to get good outcomes for the people that we represent."

But the leadership of B.C. the last five years has been about John Horgan. 

And how his tenure is remembered will be subject to debate in the coming months — both by members of the public, and the people hoping to replace him. 

B.C. Premier John Horgan's speaking notes pictured during a press conference announcing his decision not to run again. Horgan said he will resign after his party holds a leadership convention in the fall. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Mainstream values'

The topline summation of Horgan's leadership is fairly secure: he's the first B.C. NDP leader to be elected premier in two elections, who led B.C. during a global pandemic and unprecedented wildfire and flooding disasters.

Policy-wise, he'll be remembered for eliminating MSP premiums and tolls on bridges, changing the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) — B.C.'s public auto insurance provider — to a no-fault insurance model, increasing disability and welfare rates, while adding taxes on most businesses and people with multiple homes.   

It was an NDP government, to be sure, but a moderate one — something Horgan underlined on Tuesday. 

"We brought our values, which I believe are mainstream values," said Horgan, emphasizing the word "mainstream."

"I've said B.C. is filled with New Democrats, they just don't know it yet. And the more people see our compassionate and competent group of people addressing issues as they emerge, they'll continue to support that." 

University of British Columbia political scientist Gerald Baier said Horgan succeeded in branding the NDP as an option to enough voters who traditionally might not have voted for them. 

After 70 years of the B.C. politics being dominated by a centre-right coalition party (first the Social Credit Party, then the B.C. Liberals), the NDP currently stands at its strongest position in its history.   

"The NDP has made real big gains in all sorts of parts of the province that they weren't historically strong in," he said. 

"I think his legacy is just really turning around the fortunes of the NDP … that has a lasting effect. This can potentially be a dynasty for the party." 

What comes next?

Which leads to the inevitable question of what happens next, and how would-be candidates see the Horgan legacy.

With internal speculation over Horgan's departure ongoing for most of the last year, several cabinet ministers have been floated as potential candidates, including Ravi Kahlon, David Eby, Nathan Cullen, Adrian Dix, Selina Robinson and Melanie Mark. 

In areas where Horgan's legacy is secure, there will likely be little disagreement. 

But in areas where Horgan's legacy is still to be written by history — be it housing affordability, climate change policy or reconciliation — there will be questions, particularly from the party's more left-wing supporters, on whether more could have been done. 

"This has been a pragmatic, centrist version of the NDP. The next leader may want to be a little more aggressive, a little more bold in some of their policy innovations," said Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest. 

"That may not land the same way with the electorate. So there's a real decision there."

Those are potential questions in the months ahead. Today, the NDP is celebrating the most politically successful premier they've ever known. 

And a "mercurial Irishman" from Vancouver Island can celebrate doing his level best. 

"I'm looking forward to just being me again," said Horgan, "talking to people not as premier of British Columbia, but just John, a guy who stopped by to make friends." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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