The B.C. Liberals should offer up one of their own for the job of Speaker
The Liberals face a choice — obstruct or reorganize. They cannot do both
As the afterglow of forming a new government in British Columbia begins to wear off, the provincial NDP still has a problem on its hands: who will be in the Speaker's chair the next time the legislature meets?
It's a dilemma, but not an insoluble one. All three parties have an interest right now in finding a solution short of an election; B.C. voters have made it clear in polls that they have no appetite for another election immediately. If an early election comes, the party deemed responsible may well suffer a penalty at the ballot box, much as we saw in the recent U.K. general election. The Liberals should do their part to avoid an immediate election by offering up one of their own for the job of Speaker.
Arguably, the Liberals have a greater need to appear co-operative now given the way the party lost power. Premier Christy Clark went against both precedent and her own previously stated intentions when she asked Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon to dissolve the legislature. Had Clark's request been granted, the province would be gearing up for an unwelcome summer election right now.
The other two parties might try to exploit the resulting vulnerability. Suppose no NDP or Green MLA stands for Speaker, perhaps citing deference to the convention of Speaker impartiality in doing so. Should no Liberal volunteer to stand for the job either, the party risks appearing serially uncooperative and election-seeking, more interested in the pursuit of power for its own sake than in the good governance of the province.
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Beyond such tactical considerations, the Liberals have more fundamental problems. Most notably, they are in an ideological no-man's land right now. Having campaigned on its centre-right platform, the party not so much pivoted as cartwheeled to an entirely different agenda in their recent throne speech.
If there's one thing that can derail a party for a couple election cycles, it's throwing into question its fundamental identity. Not knowing what the party truly stands for, many voters will be unwilling to trust any promises it makes. Even some core supporters may decide to sit out an election or two if they come to feel sufficiently alienated.
Accordingly, the party could use some time to get its house back in order. The clearest way to turn the page would be to find a new leader. Questions about Clark have been swirling since her party's defeat in the legislature. No definitive answers have yet emerged, though some party supporters have expressed frustrations with the way in which the post-electoral situation played out.
That leads us back to the Speaker question. So long as the party remains on a war footing, it will be effectively impossible to carry out a leadership or thorough policy review, let alone a new leadership campaign.
If some faction of the Liberal party concludes that such reviews are in order, it could buy time to carry them out by putting forward a nominee for Speaker. There are other ways to accomplish the same effect — negotiating Liberal support for certain bills and motions on an ad hoc basis for instance — but none with the same simplicity, freedom and predictability for the Liberals in opposition.
Certainly, there is ample precedent for an opposition member serving as Speaker when the situation calls for it. Long-time Liberal MP Peter Milliken served as Speaker for two successive federal Conservative governments, from 2006 until his retirement in 2011. He received widespread acclaim for his role in steering the Commons through a number of difficult situations.
Costs of obstruction
Some Liberals will resist the idea of giving an inch to the new Green-supported NDP government, preferring instead to oppose everything right up to the point of election. Such obstruction comes with costs, however.
First, the Liberals will lose the chance to appear conciliatory in the eyes of the electorate, potentially undermining the party's pledge in the throne speech and elsewhere to cooperate in light of the close election. Such opposition would require them to somewhat awkwardly vote against other ideas they just proposed in their throne speech as well, deepening their ideological quandary as a result.
Perhaps most importantly, so long as the situation remains uncertain in Victoria, the Liberals must remain disciplined and loyal to their leader. They will lose the chance to engage in either a frank discussion of policy or a leadership review.
Simply put, the Liberals face a choice: obstruct or reorganize. They cannot do both simultaneously.
If a Liberal did stand for Speaker, the party would gain a measure of leverage over the government with the ever-present threat of withdrawal. Solve the NDP's problem in the present, and gain the ability to create a new headache for them down the road— one that could well trigger an election at a more convenient time for the Liberals, or force the NDP down the contentious and potentially costly road of Speaker partisanization.
Call it a win-win-win. Everyone stands to benefit in the short term from the stability provided by a Liberal Speaker — including the Liberals themselves.