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The man in charge

The third of The Orca’s exclusive interviews with BC’s three major party leaders – and the first time with Premier John Horgan.
Premier John Horgan. (BC Government Flickr)

In British Columbia, 2020 had two turning points – and as Premier, John Horgan was at the centre of both.

The first was the arrival of COVID-19, which quickly shut down much of the province, and forced Horgan and his government to adapt on the fly. The second was when he decided to call an early election, one year before schedule.

One of the biggest questions of the election was when, exactly, the decision to call it was made. Horgan has been consistent: the Saturday prior, some 48 hours in advance. Still, there were a lot of hints beforehand: references to “opportunities” for elections, TV ads filmed well beforehand, and a pandemic relief package that looked an awful lot like an election platform.

His response was substantial, and warrants presenting most of it here at length.

“You'll remember, people were writing three and a half years ago that we wouldn't last a week, a month, a year. And after the second year, people started thinking, ‘well, maybe they will,’” Horgan told me in his year-end interview with The Orca.

“But the circumstances materially changed with Dr. Weaver's decisions [to step down as Green leader], the actions of our partners not just on legislation that they disagree with, but the leader of the Green Party amending a budget bill, a confidence vote, without any consultation with the Finance Minister, was completely counter to the arrangement we had.”

“So I reflected on how that was going to go into the fall. As well, we certainly were advised a second wave of COVID would arise. I reflected long and hard. And quite honestly, that was the most difficult decision I've ever made. But I felt when I made it that I was doing the right thing.”

“It was certainly fraught with risk for me and my government. But I thought it was almost risk-free for the public, because…if I was unsuccessful and the majority government was achieved by one of the other parties, that government would have had a clear path to focus on people, not to focus on politics.”

Unlike the election, 2020’s first turning point is still very much ongoing: the pandemic. While British Columbia earned international praise through the spring and summer, the last month has been grim, setting records in infections and deaths. Did people take the province’s early success for granted, and allow complacency to set in?

“I do believe that our early success led to more interactions than were comfortable for the broader community without any doubts. But I'm confident that we've seen a flattening of the case count, [and] sadly an increase in fatalities.

“So although we have seen significant outbreaks in our major urban centers, some challenges in Northern and Interior Health, I believe that quite rightly people are taking pause and saying, ‘Maybe we better get back to our habits and behaviors in April and May.’ And that's a good thing.”

COVID-19 has forced a lot of change in a hurry – big things, like accepting the necessity of a $13.6 billion deficit, but also smaller, everyday life shifts. I asked Horgan about a pre-pandemic press conference where he had been noticeably ill, and what it will take to change that expectation.

“I recall doing my (Premier’s Office) budget estimates in 2019, with just the worst cold that I can remember having – and it was a case of ‘way to tough it out.’ That is no longer acceptable.”

Aside from no longer feeling or giving pressure to come into work when sick, behaviour changes make a significant difference.

“I try and find silver linings in this most terrible of years. I've not had a cold since February.”

One of the issues I wrote about with interest in 2018 and 2019 was the NDP government’s preference for removing a secret ballot vote to certify a union, and moving to a card check system. I asked how this would help.

“There’s volumes that have been written about this,” said Horgan, “You can find out the opinions of labour leaders and the opinions of those who are opposed to it in industry. Jurisdictions across Canada have card check. The federal government has in some instances.”

“It's not a priority for me at this time. My focus in the coming session of the legislature and in the new year will be on economic recovery.”

One subject that seems to percolate in the back of Horgan’s mind is the day-to-day working of the legislature. Obviously, electoral reform isn’t in the cards, but Horgan thinks a high percentage of rookie MLAs might bring other change, including “new perspectives and hopefully a new approach to how we debate the issues of our time. Our system is rather archaic for a swipe economy and a swipe community. If you can't download it in a second and a half, it's not interesting.”

Finally, I asked the Premier the same question I asked of Sonia Furstenau and Shirley Bond: is there someone in another party or caucus he’d single out for doing good work, have an unusually warm relationship with, or just wouldn’t put coal in their stocking?

“[Penticton BC Liberal MLA] Dan Ashton is just one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. I've never had an unkind word to say about him, and I can't imagine anyone else has either,” said Horgan, also adding he had a lot of time for former MLA Mary Polak, who was “always devoted to doing the right thing.”

For John Horgan, 2021 looks to be a little more secure, and a little less hectic. But then again, last year's predictions for 2020 didn't quite turn out.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca