COMMENTARY: In B.C., John Horgan could be next to roll the election dice

It was 30 years ago this month that Ontario residents witnessed an amazing political reversal of fortune.

David Peterson, then the Liberal premier, was enjoying a wave of popularity in the summer of 1990 when he decided to roll the dice on an early election call.

Just three years into a majority government mandate, Peterson did not have to face voters for another year. But a 24-point lead in the opinion polls proved too tempting, and he launched the unexpected campaign.

I was on his campaign bus during that first week and Peterson could not have been more loose and confident. His stump speeches were breezy and humourous. This was a guy on cruise control, rolling to another easy majority mandate.

But by the final week of the campaign, Peterson’s easy-breezy style had disappeared. His speeches became more desperate as he warned Ontario voters against electing — gasp! — an NDP government.

On the final day on his campaign bus, I remember being struck by the desperate look on Peterson’s face. He knew what was coming. His snap-election gamble was coming up snake eyes.

On Sept. 6, 1990, Bob Rae’s New Democrats ended up winning a majority government in one of Canada’s most storied political upsets.

I was reminded of all this while watching B.C. Premier John Horgan prepare to make a similar gamble this week.

Like Peterson, Horgan does not have to face the voters for another year. But Horgan has a similarly healthy lead in the polls, and he is giving every indication of triggering a snap election call, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike Peterson, Horgan does not currently wield majority power in British Columbia. But his minority government has been stable for three years, thanks to a governing agreement with the third-place B.C. Green Party.

The NDP-Green deal says Horgan will not seek to trigger an election before the next scheduled vote in the fall of 2021.

But, just like Peterson before him, Horgan appears dazzled by the opinion polls, where his NDP enjoys a large lead over the second-place Liberals.

So here’s the question. Will Horgan’s New Democrats risk a David Peterson-style backlash by voters and call a snap election he promised not to call?

Sources tell me Horgan has already consulted constitutional experts who have assured him the province’s lieutenant-governor, Janet Austin, would be unlikely to reject his request for an election.

Horgan will no doubt also have his eyes on this week’s precedent in New Brunswick, where the ruling Conservatives won re-election in another snap election call, turning a minority into a majority.

Could British Columbia’s unpredictable electorate similarly reward Horgan? Or could a B.C. election call backfire on the NDP?

COVID-19 cases are currently surging in British Columbia, where voters might react angrily to Horgan plunging the province into an unnecessary pandemic election.

But the New Democrats seem too far ahead — up 26 points on the Liberals in one recent poll — that Horgan might believe he has a big enough lead to cushion any backlash.

The New Brunswick result — and Horgan’s looming gambit in B.C. — will be watched closely by political strategists.

Incumbent governments across Canada are riding a wave of popularity as nervous constituents look to free-spending politicians to save them from the pandemic.

A snap election call worked for the Conservatives in New Brunswick. It might work for Horgan, too, if he summons the nerve to trigger one.

Keep a close eye on B.C. in the coming days. Horgan’s moves will be instructive, and could influence other politicians thinking about the risks and rewards of pandemic election timing, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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