Two years of the NDP: Liberal MLAs on life in opposition

July 18, 2019
By Shannon Waters

Two years ago today, Premier John Horgan and the NDP cabinet were sworn in as B.C.’s government, more than two months after the 2017 election in which the B.C. Liberal Party won a plurality of votes and seats. Despite rampant speculation that the NDP alliance with the Green Party would fail within months, there is little indication the province will be heading back to the polls any time soon.

To mark the second anniversary of the swearing in, BC Today interviewed three Liberal MLAs — two former cabinet ministers and one who is serving his first term in provincial office — to discuss the challenges of serving in opposition.

“Talk about a whirlwind.”

After nearly a decade as a city councillor, Liberal Agriculture critic Ian Paton was elected to represent Delta South in May 2017 and was thrilled to be heading to the legislature as a member of the governing party — or so he thought.

“Winning the election was pretty cool,” Paton said. “We were setting up our offices in the east wing. Then, of course, everything sort of went sideways with the Greens teaming up with the NDP and … suddenly we were in opposition.”

On June 29, the Liberal government fell in a confidence vote, forced by NDP and Green Party MLAs who together held 44 seats to the Liberals’ 42. Despite the efforts of former premier Christy Clark to convince then-lieutenant governor Judith Guichon to send the province back to the polls, NDP Leader John Horgan was given the opportunity to form government and serve as the province’s premier.

For Liberal MLAs like Paton, that meant a serious downgrade in legislature office space.

“Went from a fairly large office to a fairly tiny office,” he told BC Today, somewhat ruefully. “But … for me, being new, it just is a real honour to be there. Still every morning I shake my head every time I walk into that building, going … how did I ever end up here?”

Despite being a lifelong farmer, Paton was surprised to be asked to serve as the party’s Agriculture critic — a role he says has been both challenging and enlightening.

“I know about dairy farming and about growing potatoes and corn but … the portfolio of Agriculture includes tree fruits in the Okanagan, the wine industry all over B.C.,” he said. “It includes canola and wheat up in Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, beef cattle up in the Chilcotin. It includes [aquaculture]. There’s been a lot to learn, but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Paton’s caucus colleague, Forests critic John Rustad, is not as happy about making the transition to opposition.

“Being in opposition sucks,” he told BC Today. “I’m a problem-solver. In opposition, it’s frustrating because you can’t solve problems.”

Rustad, who represents the Nechako Lakes riding in central B.C., was first elected in 2009 and served as minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation before shifting to the forests ministry. Prior to becoming a politician, Rustad founded a forestry consulting business and served as a school board trustee, roles that suited his “solutions-oriented” personality.

“Yes, [opposition means] time to be able to go out and to work with people and to build what you want to look at going forward, but you aren’t solving the problems of the day,” he said, following an extensive discussion about the issues facing B.C.’s forest industry.

Liberal House Leader Mary Polak spent more than a decade as a member of the governing party, but told BC Today that, like Paton, she is enjoying her time in opposition. Polak is the Opposition House Leader, a high profile role she said was “quite petrified” to take on.

“I’m kind of a nerd when it comes to Westminster Parliament — I think it’s the best government system in the entire world — and that means to me that opposition is a valued and noble task,” she said. 

The biggest difference between serving in opposition compared to being on the government side?  “It’s much more DIY — you don’t have as much staff,” Polak said. “You certainly have to be used to putting your own hands in and doing work.”

While governing is about putting forward policies — as Polak well knows, having held five ministerial portfolios — the job of the opposition is “to either oppose something that [the government is] doing or propose something different.” 

“I know it bothers some people,” she said. “[Enjoying opposition] certainly doesn’t stop me from wanting to fight every battle we can to be in government again — that’s also my job — but I’m a strong proponent of ‘bloom where you’re planted.’”

The path back to power
B.C.’s next election is scheduled to take place in October 2021, and hopes that the Green-NDP alliance will fall apart before then have faded over the past couple of years.

“John Horgan’s just full of glee that he’s the premier, and I can’t see him giving up that opportunity,” Paton said of rumours that circulated this spring about the possibility of a snap election. “He’s not going to give up that job.”

Despite predictions that the NDP would run B.C.’s booming economy into the ground, the province’s financial status remains relatively robust. B.C.’s unemployment is the lowest in the country, and many residents approve of the government’s significant investments in child care and housing. Premier Horgan remains the most popular of the province’s political leaders, and even the much-maligned speculation tax has so far failed to evolve into the wedge issue the Liberals hoped it would become.

The party’s MLAs are investing their time ensuring their rural base — the party holds nearly all of the province’s rural ridings — feels heard at a time when the government is mostly composed of people from urban centres in the province’s south.

Paton will be spending the next few weeks visiting farming-dependent communities in the central part of the province; Rustad has spent much of the time since the House rose in May participating in roundtable events in areas hard hit by mill closures and curtailments. He said many industry stakeholders and local governments feel the provincial government has done little to help them out during a difficult time.

To Paton, the NDP government seems out of touch with rural people and when it comes to agriculture, the Liberals have an especially deep bench compared to the party across the aisle.

“When I look at my side of the House, I can count at least 9 or 10 Liberal MLAs that are pretty closely connected to agriculture — people from farming areas,” said Paton. “And I look across at the NDP side and there’s just a blank stare when it comes to agriculture. There’s nobody over there that’s really done any sort of farming for a living.” He acknowledged Agriculture Minister Lana Popham’s small grape orchard but said her experience doesn’t stack up against the Liberals’.

Rallying rural British Columbians will be key to a Liberal victory in 2021, and party Leader Andrew Wilkinson is already chomping at the bit.

“I'm applying for a big job — Premier of British Columbia,” reads a recent party fundraising blast signed by Wilkinson. “And the race is on to define how British Columbians see me, and how they see our party.”

The party has released a series of videos, playing up Wilkinson’s time as a doctor in a small northern town and discussing the “values his mother instilled in him.”

Wilkinson’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the party’s plans to make it back into the legislature’s west wing.