British Columbia faces prospect of minority government, giving Greens grip on energy projects

But recount could still hand Premier Christy Clark a razor-thin majority in western Canadian province, after closest election in decades

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 May, 2017, 7:42am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 May, 2017, 7:42am

British Columbia was facing the prospect of a minority government after a fiercely contested provincial election, raising the possibility the nascent Green Party will hold sway over multi-billion-dollar energy projects.

Premier Christy Clark’s BC Liberals, the centre-right party in power since 2001, will get first option to form what could be the first minority government in the Canadian province in 65 years. The BC Liberals - a different party to the ruling federal Liberals - won in 43 of the province’s 87 districts, while the left-leaning New Democratic Party took 41. If that stands, neither has a majority, according to preliminary results from Elections BC. The Green Party grabbed a record three districts in what its leader described as North America’s first elected green caucus.

But one of the NDP’s ridings, Courtenay-Comox, was won on Tuesday by a razor-thin nine-vote margin; if a compulsory recount and the inclusion of absentee ballots flips the result to the second-placed BC Liberals there, and other results are unchanged, Clark will have secured a standalone majority by the narrowest of margins.

“It is my intention to continue to lead British Columbia’s government,” Clark, 51, told supporters in downtown Vancouver. As the incumbent, Clark has the first shot at heading a minority government - a task made easier because she won the most seats and the popular vote - but acknowledged she would need to work with other parties to get things done. “Tonight is the beginning of something very different.”

In the birthplace of Greenpeace, Clark faced down environmental opposition to back Kinder Morgan Inc’s Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion and Petroliam Nasional Bhd’s proposed US$27 billion liquefied natural gas-export project in order to get Canadian energy exports to Asian markets.  The outlook for those is set to dim.

If Clark requires the support of the Greens to govern the Pacific Coast province, she’ll be dealing with a party staunchly opposed to both those projects. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, 55, a Cambridge-trained climate scientist turned politician, has said Kinder Morgan’s pipeline has “no place on our coast” and has dismissed the Liberals’ efforts to develop an LNG industry as “nonsense” and a “colossal failure.”

The coal industry also faces increasing risk. Clark vowed if re-elected to ban thermal coal exports from BC in retaliation for US duties on Canadian softwood lumber. Her move targets US miners, such as Cloud Peak Energy Inc which ships out of Vancouver, because environmental opposition along the US West Coast has blocked export terminals there. Weaver welcomed that pledge, calling it long overdue.

With narrow margins in some districts, including Courtenay-Comox, a tally of absentee votes and ballot recounts starting May 22 could still determine the final winner.

A BC Liberal victory was broadly seen as more friendly for business. Under the watch of Clark, a former radio host who’s governed for six years, BC has led Canada in job creation and posted a budget surplus for five consecutive years.

But the province’s biggest city, Vancouver, has also become a byword for global real estate unaffordability, and that issue helped propel the NDP to a strong result there.

The results mark new territory for the Green Party, which has never had more than a single member elected to a Canadian legislature. In BC, the party got a campaign bus for the first time in this election.

Weaver, in a speech to a cheering crowd south of Vancouver, pledged to work so “that the benefits of a strong economy should flow to all of us, not just a privileged few.” That echoes criticism by NDP leader John Horgan, a former pulp mill worker, who during the campaign slammed Clark for governing for her “rich friends and donors.”

Horgan, whose party was heavily outspent in advertising by the BC Liberals, was still holding out hope he would become premier. He told media on Wednesday that he had spoken to Weaver on election night about the BC Liberals’ failings.

But during the campaign, Weaver refused to say which party he would support in a potential minority government. But one thing he said he wouldn’t compromise on - a ban on corporate and union contributions to political parties.

In a country where most provinces limit donations to a few thousand dollars per donor, BC has been dubbed the “Wild West” of Canadian fundraising, and both the BC Liberals and NDP stirred controversy this election after receiving tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.

The Green Party and NDP share similar ideas in some areas - such as opposition to Kinder Morgan’s pipeline, raising carbon taxes, and taxing housing speculators. But Weaver has also hinted that on economic issues his party sides with the Liberals.

“On the economic plan, I think we’re closer to the Liberals than the NDP,” he told Global TV.

Additional reporting by Ian Young in Vancouver