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6 Things That Explain WTF Is Happening In BC Politics Right Now

Who's in charge?

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Voters in British Columbia headed to the polls on May 9 but the election didn't result in an obvious winner.

A party needs at least 44 of 87 seats in the BC legislature to form a majority government, but the Liberals only won 43 seats. The NDP got 41, and the Green party ended up with 3.

After negotiations with the other parties, Green leader Andrew Weaver announced this week that his party will support John Horgan and the NDP in a minority government.

Premier Christy Clark, who leads the Liberals, said she will recall the legislature sometime in June and attempt to continue governing.

1. So who's actually running the province right now?

KirinX / Wikimedia / Via commons.wikimedia.org

"Christy Clark continues to be premier for the moment," said Stewart Prest, a political science instructor at the University of British Columbia who studies democratic institutions.

Technically, Clark is still premier until she resigns or is dismissed by the province's Lieutenant-Governor, Judith Guichon.

"Normally, when the outcome of the election is clear, that process unfolds straightforwardly on the following day," said Prest, but Clark has continued as premier because of the uncertain election results.

According to the many unwritten conventions that our political system operates under, however, Clark isn't really supposed to make any major decisions until she can prove she has the "confidence" of the legislature, which means getting the support of the majority of MLAs.

2. What happens when Christy Clark recalls the legislature?

Darryl Dyck / THE CANADIAN PRESS

One of the first things a government does following an election is to present a Speech from the Throne, which lays out the proposed agenda for the upcoming legislative session. Usually this isn't a big deal because the government has the votes to pass the Throne Speech. But the math is so tight this time, that something surprising could still happen.

"If the vote passes — say, if the Liberals convince one or more NDP or Green MLAs to break ranks and vote with the government — the Liberals can continue governing," said Prest.

But right now that doesn't seem very likely, meaning Clark will probably have to resign as premier. That's when the Lieutenant-Governor has a choice to make: either call for another election or let the other parties see if they can put together a government.

Since the NDP has an agreement with the Greens, the most plausible scenario is that BC will soon have a minority NDP government with John Horgan as premier.

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3. The Greens have pledged to support a minority NDP government. How is that different from a coalition?

Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS

In an official coalition, two or more parties actually form government together. That's what happened in the United Kingdom after the 2010 election, when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats shared power and cabinet positions between them.

But that's not what happened in BC. Instead, the Green Party has agreed to support an NDP government in return for some policies they want, like ending corporate and union donations to political parties and holding a referendum on electoral reform.

"Generally speaking, the junior partner in a coalition often has a rough go of it," said Prest.

"While they may get a seat at the cabinet table and a measure of control over the government agenda, it can be hard for the party to maintain a separate identity in the eyes of voters. It often doesn’t get credit for government successes, but shares in the blame for unpopular decisions."

4. Assuming the NDP forms government, will the Greens have to vote with the NDP all the time?

Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The NDP and the Greens signed a 10-page agreement that lays out where they plan to work together. But the only time the Greens absolutely have to vote with the NDP in order to let them keep governing is on confidence motions.

"These are motions that, if defeated, would bring down the government and trigger a new election. In practice, that amounts to supporting the budget and the Speech from the Throne," said Prest.

It's possible that Green MLAs will vote with the Liberals to defeat government bills from time to time, but there is a lot the Greens and the NDP agree on. The parties say they hope to work together for a full four years, until another provincial election.

5. What about choosing a Speaker?

Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The BC legislature, just like the House of Commons in Ottawa, requires a Speaker to guide legislative proceedings and moderate debates. Think of the Speaker as a kind of master of ceremonies.

What complicates matters, though, is that the Speaker has to be an elected member. Since the Liberals and the NDP-Greens are only separated by one seat, which party the Speaker comes from could determine who forms government. In fact, the Speaker has to be chosen before anything else can happen, including the Throne Speech.

Another convention is that a Speaker, despite being a politician, will try as much as possible to stay neutral and get out of the way. That means all parties — Liberals, NDP, and Greens — have an incentive not to politicize the position and to figure out an arrangement that doesn't routinely involve the Speaker casting tie-breaking votes.

"The NDP is currently trying to identify a Liberal MLA willing to stand for the job, which will ensure they and the Greens have a clear majority that does not rely on a speaker’s tie-breaking vote," said Prest. "If they can’t find one, it’s not entirely clear what will happen next."

6. The last time we had this much uncertainty about who was in charge, it triggered a constitutional crisis. Is this going to be as chaotic?

Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

The good news is that everything happening so far is pretty standard in the Westminster system of government. And although there's still likely to be some maneuvering, the party leaders and the Lieutenant-Governor all know the playbook.

"Ms. Clark has the right to face the legislature before resigning, and the fact that she has indicated she will accept the will of the legislature makes it less likely that we’ll see anything as controversial as Stephen Harper’s request for prorogation of Parliament in 2008," said Prest.

Besides, British Columbians seem pretty comfortable with the idea of the NDP and Green Party working together.

"Some may grumble about the idea of backroom deals deciding who forms government, but the Liberals and Greens are being quite open about their process and aims," he said.

"No matter what happens, the next few years should be quite eventful in BC politics."

Ishmael Daro is a social news editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.

Contact Ishmael N. Daro at ishmael.daro@buzzfeed.com.

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