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Bubbling beneath

Rob Shaw: How do you square polls that show Premier John Horgan has the country’s highest approval ratings – but also a whopping 88% saying his government is doing a bad job on housing affordability?
Press Conference – Premiere John Horgan
Premier John Horgan addresses the media, October 7, 2021. (BC Government Flickr)

Premier John Horgan’s personal popularity remains at extraordinary levels – so much so that he’s managing to carry his party above a simmering volcano of voter anger on housing affordability.

Those are the results of a new survey by the Angus Reid institute released Thursday, which show the remarkable political dynamic at play in British Columbia between voters extremely unhappy with the New Democratic government’s handling of one of the major issues of our time, but simultaneously quite pleased with Horgan himself and by extension his party.

“As has been the case for the past two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the BC NDP holds a comfortable vote intention lead,” read the report, which surveyed 5,015 people from March 10-15.

“Horgan continues to be one of the most popular provincial leaders in the country, approved by 55 per cent of residents.”

Horgan’s popularity has remained this strong, basically since he took office in 2017.

That contributed to a 44 per cent approval rating for the BC NDP, compared to 29 per cent for the BC Liberals, 14 per cent BC Greens and 9 per cent BC Conservatives. The mid-to-high-40s range was enough for the BC NDP to win a large majority government in the snap October 2020 election.

The public goodwill to Horgan also extended to the pandemic, with 66 per cent of people surveyed saying they felt the BC government did a good job with its COVID-19 response – the highest level in Canada.

All great news for governing New Democrats: A beloved premier, a party cruising in the polls, and strong support for its emergency response measures.

But bubbling below, at the bottom of the Angus Reid survey, is where the trouble starts.

A whopping 88 per cent of people surveyed said the BC government is doing a poor or very poor job on housing affordability.

That’s the worst response of any province, and illustrates a simmering unhappiness with provincial action on the file that most certainly extends across party lines into the same urban Metro Vancouver voters the BC NDP have been so keen to court and hold since 2017.

It’s hard to square those two things – immense anger over the enormous issue of housing affordability, and yet overall happiness at the BC NDP government.

Until you put the Horgan factor into play.

His brand as the oddly-but-loveably geeky, Star Trek-obsessed, Premier Dad figure – who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth but voters generally seem to think means well – is undoubtedly the magic ingredient in the secret sauce of the current government.

Which is why so many people behind-the-scenes both in and outside of Victoria are wondering about Horgan’s future. He’s carrying his party on his shoulders, and has been doing so since 2017.

Should he decide to retire, after surviving throat cancer and losing 30 pounds, nobody would begrudge him in the slightest. The risk to BC New Democrats though is that if he leaves, some of the goodwill for the party, in the face of rising anger on affordability, might leave with him.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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