Minority and coalition governments aren't new in BC, and they don't work

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
May 13, 2017 - 9:20am

KAMLOOPS — It feels as though B.C. is entering brand new political territory, but this won’t be the first time the province has been governed by a minority government. And if we end up with a coalition, that won’t be new, either. 

In fact, B.C. was led by a Liberal-Conservative coalition for more than a decade. That coalition was followed immediately by a short-lived minority government. The province even once had an alternative voting system that turned out to be a dismal failure. 

I researched and wrote about it in my 1991 book “Friend O’ Mine,” the life story of former B.C. Highways Minister Phil Gaglardi. 

It all happened this way. 

The Liberals and Conservatives stayed in power by not running candidates against each other. In 1949, this seemingly unbeatable coalition won another resounding victory with 39 seats — 23 Liberals and 16 Conservatives, compared to only seven for the CCF, one for Labour and an independent. 

Yes, there used to be two leftwing and two rightwing parties. Following that election, the Liberals and Conservatives began fighting over leadership and fundamental policies. W.A.C. Bennett, a Conservative MLA who failed to win his party’s leadership, quit and joined the fledgling B.C. Social Credit Party in 1951. 

Shortly thereafter, the coalition fell apart when the Conservative cabinet members quit and all the party’s MLAs crossed the floor to replace the CCF as official opposition. The Liberal government soon fell, and an election was called for June 12, 1952. 

As I wrote in my book, “It would be fought under amendments to the Provincial Elections Act providing for a system of alternative voting. Instead of marking a single X on their ballots, voters would rank the candidates according to preference. If no single candidate in a riding received a clear majority on the first count, the second preferences of those who had voted for the lowest candidate would be counted up, the lowest candidate dropped, and so on until a clear winner was declared.” 

It was supposed to achieve proportional representation and eliminate the election of candidates and governments by a minority of voters. In actuality, it was designed to avoid the splitting of the free-enterprise vote. In theory, a voter whose first choice was, say, Liberal, would be likely to make a Conservative candidate second choice. The socialist CCF would be the loser. (Labour was a bit of a fringe party and never a threat.) 

But the Liberals and Conservatives who set up the voting system hadn’t contemplated yet another rightwing party coming along. The election was chaos. By the next day, only four candidates were declared elected and, to everyone’s surprise, they were all Social Credit, a party that didn’t even have a leader. 

If not for the alternative voting system, the CCF would formed won a minority government. It led in the popular vote, but Social Credit was winning with its second-choice votes as CCF supporters ignored pleas to plump their ballots by not marking second or third choices. With only 27.2 per cent of the popular vote, Social Credit won 19 seats, the CCF 18, the Liberals six and the Conservatives four. 

The Socred caucus of the newly elected minority government picked W.A.C. Bennett as leader. While the Socreds had won one more seat than the CCF, the CCF won the popular vote. Who would Lieutenant-Governor Clarence Wallace accept as the legitimate government? 

He picked Bennett and the Socreds. 

The 1953 legislative session, which opened Feb. 3, accomplished little. Social Credit survived two non-confidence motions with Liberal support but on March 24 the government fell on an amendment to the Public Schools Act, and another election was set for June 9. 

The minority government had lasted less than a year. 

Once again, the single transferable ballot was used, and it took four weeks to decide the outcome. The Socreds received 45.54 per cent of the vote and 28 seats, CCF 29.48 per cent and 14 seats. The Liberals got 23.36 per cent and four seats, the Tories got only 1.11 per cent and one seat, and the Labour Party one seat. 

Soon after the election, Public Works Minister Phil Gaglardi, MLA for Kamloops, made the most famous statement of his life: “If I’m telling a lie, it’s because I believe I’m telling the truth.” And the transferable ballot was quickly abandoned. 

My research and writing on this era in B.C. politics — reinforced by history elsewhere — led me to three conclusions that have influenced my opinions ever since. 

Coalition governments will only work when the partners fight elections as one, and if they share the same fundamental political philosophies, but eventually they fall apart. 

Minority governments are essentially incapable of governing effectively, and fail quickly. 

Complex whackadoodle voting systems that are supposed to rescue democracy are, in fact, cumbersome and simply don’t work.

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