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Rob Shaw: Without their most popular asset, New Democrats are disconnected, not hopeless

British Columbians love Premier John Horgan, but they’re pretty ticked off at his government for its lack of action on major issues.

British Columbians love Premier John Horgan, but they’re pretty ticked off at his government for its lack of action on major issues.

That’s the takeaway from a new Angus Reid poll this week, which lays out clearly the core question facing New Democrats these days: What do you do when the guy whose popularity is keeping your government afloat suddenly decides to leave?

Horgan is retiring within the next eight weeks (perhaps in as few as three weeks, depending on how the BC NDP leadership race develops) and with him goes the deep connection between the NDP and the British Columbia electorate.

He’s maintained a median approval rate of 54 per cent over the last five and a half years – a remarkable achievement in consistent popularity not seen in this province for perhaps four decades.

But the Angus Reid poll lays out the other side quite clearly as well.

More than three-quarters of people polled said the BC NDP government is doing a poor, or very poor, job on the three top issues: Healthcare (73 per cent), cost of living and inflation (77 per cent) and housing affordability (85 per cent). On homelessness and the overdose crisis, dissatisfaction is as high as 84 per cent.

Those are eye-wateringly bad numbers for the government.

They suggest the measures that Horgan and his ministers have been announcing this year to combat hospital ER closures, family doctor shortages, housing cool-off periods, gas prices and cost of living challenges are tanking amongst voters who continue to see things worsening in the real world.

That disconnect was on full display during this past opening week of the B.C. legislature’s fall session.

Health Minister Adrian Dix and Attorney General Murray Rankin tried to tout the incremental progress they are making on their respective files, only to be swamped by stories from the opposition of people dying on stretchers in hospital ER waiting rooms, and people being chased down the street by random strangers before being assaulted.

The contrast was stark.

When Dix described a new five-year health HR strategy in detail, the BC Liberals described an eight-month-old baby who died waiting for an ambulance.

When Rankin pointed to a small lift in the Crown prosecutor budget, the BC Liberals pointed to a young man in Vancouver stabbed to death by a stranger in a random attack.

And on it went.

Horgan largely skipped the week in the legislature. That allowed us all to get a glimpse of this government’s future without its most popular asset. It was sobering.

Without Horgan’s folksy mannerisms, deflecting charm and nerdy dad appeal, the BC NDP will have a much harder time connecting its message with ordinary people.

Its ministers excel at spewing out statistics in debates, but it’s not a number salad the public is eager to consume.

However, there’s still hope for New Democrats.

If David Eby wins the party’s leadership race, as he is expected to do, he’ll have a chance to right the ship and boost the NDP’s approval ratings.

Eby lacks Horgan’s public charisma, and he knows it. He’s instead swinging big on policy, hoping to put out enough bold promises on enough big issues to grab the public’s attention and fight back the dissatisfaction.

He did just that on housing affordability last week, proposing an anti-flipping tax, provincewide approval for secondary suites and new zoning to turn single family urban lots into triplexes for extra density. It was the kind of shot in the arm the BC NDP needed.

Horgan was reflective on what his departure means for his party, during one of his last media availabilities this week.

“I love the work,” he said. “But I also know that everything has a season, and mine is near done.

“I’m anxious to get on to other pursuits, but also comfortable the province is in good hands.”

Maybe. But British Columbians won’t be quite as happy without John Horgan around.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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