It is easy to overstate junctures in a government’s history as important, but there is no doubt that John Horgan’s B.C. NDP administration finds itself neck deep in mid-term competence tests.
Start with the labour disputes — imagine, labour disputes under an NDP government! — involving teachers and transit workers, substantial trials to bring the party’s supporters into the realpolitik of the low-inflation, meagre-wage-growth economic mantra for governments of the day.
Liquefied natural gas and Site C have been policy head-shakers and finger-waggers for the clan in this term, but so is a stealthy instrument of cost control called a Sustainable Services Negotiating Mandate. This government created it, and it has deflated the ballooning aspirations of the public sector — in the most recent case, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation(BCTF). The measure has a conservative feel of wage control, in that if any unit exceeds in bargaining what others already got, everybody then gets it — so no one does.
The provincial mediator points to a “disconnect” between the BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers’ Association. The teachers have no interest in accepting two, two and two over three. Their union asserts compensation has compounded problems in recruitment and retention. Few could have predicted this impasse. A siamese twin of the NDP has become an estranged partner.
In the matter of the so-far-tepid strike against TransLink, the regional transportation authority, bargaining last week was trying to bridge a colossal positional gulf. Incremental inconvenience is underway, and as the sunshine and temperate skies vanish, any service disruption will increasingly infuriate.
Not many were predicting this impasse, either, because TransLinkworkers are rejecting better terms than other workers. And while Horgan hints he won’t let the strike fester, the tactic of the Uniforunit is to unsettle but not unravel the transit system – so as not to provoke provincial intervention. In both cases, the government holds most of the cards here. It has no worry about the B.C. Liberalsif it imposes mediation and if settlements are kept in check, while workers have nowhere to go politically if the NDP proceeds that way.
The near future is much more interesting as a test.
The provincial $179 million surplus has the feel of the last grains of sand in the hourglass, what with the convulsion of the forestry sector, the subduing of the hot real estate market and the dumpsterism of the Insurance Corp. of British Columbiarendering revenue ruinous of the province’s estimable economic position.
The quarterlies are due later in November. No one expects money to have fallen off the back of a truck.
Which brings us to the test. A telling moment will be if the NDP tacks to defy the recent provincial orthodoxy and follows recent federal orthodoxy into operational deficits.
In this case, it holds fewer cards. It can’t count on revenue streams or fabricate any meaningful taxes. As with its buzzkill on labour, the government has to decide if it will slow the pace of social and housing programs to balance the books and maintain some room for stimulus if headwinds hit what have been years of clear sailing.
Its navigation will reveal much about its maturity as a government, specifically whether it takes seriously the task of fiscal stewardship. The signs so far are of temperance, even if drunken sailors are running the federal treasury. Any abandonment of this principle will open the old NDP playbook.
The other wild-card test involves the looming inquiry into money laundering.
Here, too, the government holds the cards. The evidence ought to offer some spectacle, mainly at the expense of the provincial Liberals and their former governments.
Tempting as it may be to kick the Liberals as they roll on the ground, a more important challenge for the government is to convert the inquiry’s revelations into solutions and minimize the manufacture of daily partisan punishment.
Mid-terms are often more difficult than the final exams, but they have to be aced to make the grade. We will see soon how studious Horgan and his team are.
Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouverand vice-president, editorial, at Glacier Media.
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