VICTORIA — While Premier John Horgan waits for the final vote count to determine the line-up for the NDP caucus and cabinet, he nevertheless intends to get back to governing, starting today.
“There’s work to be done,” the victorious premier told reporters Sunday, during a morning-after-the-election media conference in Vancouver.
“I am retuning to Victoria and I am going to get back to it tomorrow.”
He says the “highest priority” is managing the pandemic, cases having surged to record levels while Horgan and the New Democrats were distracted by five weeks of electioneering.
He also expects a briefing on the situation in the schools, another source of anxiety in several communities.
“We have a lot ahead of us,” said Horgan. “We need to continue to work on our climate action plan to continue to lead the continent in protecting our natural environment for future generations.
“We need to continue to work with Indigenous peoples to make sure the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples makes some sense in every corner of British Columbia.”
He did not immediately mention jobs and the economy. Both are high on the list of public concerns, judging from the same opinion polls that predicted a solid win for the NDP.
But he got back to those needs in a roundabout way later in the media conference.
“I hope British Columbians understand that we are not unique here. The rest of the world is grappling with the same challenges we are,” said Horgan.
“I believe the best way forward is to make sure that government is focused on the needs of individuals, businesses and communities. And we’re going to be able to do that coming into the fall and into next spring as we prepare a budget which will be one of the most extraordinary budgets ever tabled in British Columbia.”
Extraordinary in terms of debt and deficits for sure.
Horgan credited the NDP breakthrough in Metro Vancouver and outward to the Fraser Valley to his promises on health care, education, child care, transportation and programs for seniors.
“Those were the issues that were important to those British Columbians and that’s why they voted for our team,” he claimed. “That’s how you build big tent politics — by responding to the needs of people.”
Horgan had a free hand in making those promises. Thanks to the overriding urgency of the pandemic, he had no need to explain how they would be funded, apart from debt, debt and more debt. The B.C. Liberals, abandoning any semblance of fiscal conservatism, did much the same.
Horgan did acknowledge that the NDP fell short in one of its goals, a hoped-for breakthrough in several seats in the north and Interior.
“I would have liked to have seen better results in rural B.C.,” he said. He meant in particular Fraser-Nicola, Skeena, and Columbia River-Revelstoke where Liberal incumbents managed to withstand the NDP tide.
He promised to “work hard to build better understandings of the challenges in rural B.C.,” by getting out and about to the affected communities.
“Having a majority government will allow me to get out of Victoria,” said Horgan. “I’ve been tied in the legislature for big chunks of the year. I’ll be able to travel now more freely to other parts of the province … and be the spokesperson for the issues that we are bringing forward that will benefit rural British Columbia.”
High on that list is the need to address the continuing crisis in the forest sector, beset by mill closures, layoffs, wildfires and the fallout from the pine beetle epidemic.
“I will have more hands-on work there,” the premier vowed. “We will be recreating our cabinet in the weeks ahead to focus on making sure that we can revitalize the forest industry. I am going to take those challenges head on.”
Horgan will wait until the final results are certified before appointing a new cabinet and recalling the legislature.
Ideally he’d like to have the legislature approve the promised economic recovery grants of $1,000 for qualifying families and $500 for individuals, so they can be sent out before Christmas.
“But I don’t want to make a promise that I might not be able to keep,” he told reporters, voicing a scruple that did not hold him back when it came to calling an early election.
Horgan has at least seven cabinet vacancies owing to retirements and what he characterized as “an embarrassment of riches” in terms of replacements among returning backbenchers and newcomers.
But he readily acknowledged that there’ll be no replacing Carole James, the deputy premier and minister of finance.
“That will be a hole in the government — and in my personal life — that will be very very hard to fill.”
James, who announced her retirement earlier this year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, was not only a friend and the most important minister in the Horgan government.
She was an adviser who appealed to the better angels of his nature, helping to keep Horgan’s dark, score-settling side in check.
The premier spoke Sunday of restoring the mood of co-operation that prevailed in the legislature before he plunged the province into an election campaign on the theme of “us versus them.”
Not easy to do after a campaign as bitter as the recent one. Without James at the premier’s side counselling restraint, I expect it will be even harder.