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No fun

Premier John Horgan is tired – and it’s showing.
Watershed restoration creates a healthier future for B.C.
Premier John Horgan (BC Government Flickr)

Premier John Horgan is tired.

You can see it in his face, hear it in his voice and, on Monday, feel it in his poor decision-making when he dropped a not-so-subtle f-bomb during a remark in question period.

Perhaps the premier is still feeling the effects of COVID-19, which he contracted earlier this month.

Or, it could be lingering fatigue from his radiation treatment for throat cancer that concluded in January.

But whatever it is, the John Horgan we saw in the house to start this week was remarkably less steady than usual.

Horgan started question period by brushing aside questions from the Opposition BC Liberals about affordability issues. He dipped into the BC NDP’s best-of-hits collection by reciting his government’s record on Metro Vancouver bridge tolls, ICBC rebates and MSP premiums. The lines are five years stale now, but they were fine for the moment, and he delivered them without breaking a sweat.

Then, Horgan seemed to sit in his seat and stew as the BC Greens and BC Liberals switched subjects to the doctor shortage and hammered Health Minister Adrian Dix for the government's lack of progress in solving the family physician crisis.

They pointed out one million British Columbians don’t have a family doctor. They noted a new report by online waitlist mapping service MediMap found BC had the longest walk-in clinic wait times in the country. And they gleefully recounted that all of the government’s much-vaunted new Urgent and Primary Care Clinics (the BC NDP’s response to the doctor crisis) in Greater Victoria and Surrey are full every morning, leaving multiple-hour waits for dwindling walk-in clinics in those communities.

Dix, as is his way, let loose a barrage of sometimes unintelligible statistics that served as a smokescreen for the underlying issue – that the government appears to be making no progress whatsoever in solving the physician shortage in the real world.

The premier could have left it there. The smoke had clouded the battlefield. Question period was over. The daily war was won.

But then Surrey-White Rock MLA Trevor Halford stood up to bait the premier with one final question, accusing him of failing to act. And Horgan, foolishly, rose to take that bait.

“I just want to correct some misstatements by those on the other side,” Horgan began, appearing to take umbrage at the attacks levied on his health minister.

“First and foremost, there is one person that's working 24 hours a day to improve health care for people in British Columbia, and it's the Minister of Health.”

The BC NDP backbenchers thundered their dutiful applause. It was his cue to sit down. Yet he stayed standing. And as he stood, the BC Liberal heckling grew louder, and Horgan’s temper turned visibly darker.

“They don't want an answer, honourable Speaker, because they are part of the problem,” he said, as the BC Liberal heckles turned to shouts.

“Do you want to hear it man?” Horgan asked, the ground beginning to shift underneath him.

“Do you want to hear it, or do you just want to hear your voice? Why don't you go in the bathroom and talk to yourself in there because you don't want to hear answers in this place. Seriously.”

He got off one more line about the Canada health transfer before the wheels fell off the bus entirely.

“Do you really care, or do you want to hear yourself?” the premier asked, now shouting.

“Do you want a headline, or do you want action?”

Then the threw up his hand in the air and exclaimed: “Aw, fuck it.”

The bell closed question period as Opposition leader Shirley Bond shouted, “shame on you.”

Finance Minister Selina Robinson put her hand on Horgan’s arm to calm him down, to no avail. Horgan grabbed his binders and stormed out the chamber. By this point both sides were screaming at each other and Speaker Raj Chouhan had to call a recess.

It was, by any metric, a disastrous performance by Horgan. Not just that he resorted to vulgar language on the record in the house – almost unheard of for any premier regardless of partisan stripe – but more importantly that he lost control and was so easily baited into a mistake during such a low-stakes and avoidable scenario.

All that was left was for the premier’s crisis communications team to mop up the mess. To their credit, they acted quickly and with a dash of humour by going to the premier’s social media account, and admitting that if his mother was still alive she’d have washed his mouth out with Irish Springs soap for using filthy language.

Then, within two hours, Horgan ducked back into the chamber for his mea culpa.

“Earlier today, at the end of question period, my passion for health care got the better of me, and I made some intemperate comments that may well have offended members of this house or others,” he said.

“I apologize for that, and I withdraw those remarks unreservedly.”

The quick apology, and the humorous deflection, will likely be enough to cauterize any lasting political wound from the incident. For some, seeing the premier drop an f-bomb in the chamber may even be a relatable moment, mirroring how they often react privately to seeing the shenanigans by politicians in Victoria or Ottawa.

Eventually, BC New Democrats will get around to spinning the entire affair into a positive light, suggesting this was exactly the kind of folksy “Premier Dad” moment that holds Horgan so high in public opinion polls.

But make no mistake – everyone, on both sides the house, was surprised at the premier’s poor performance on Monday. I suspect, even himself. Horgan looks tired and spent. His quick apology will save him this time. But it will only accelerate quiet chatter in the legislature about whether his retirement is near.

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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