High popularity numbers, preparations by B.C. election officials and sabre-rattling by the premier are among the signs increasingly seen as pointing to a snap election in the fall, but one prominent expert warns not to read too much into the speculation.
Premier John Horgan insisted his priority is dealing with issues around the pandemic, but he also put the opposition on notice that he’s ready to head to the polls any time.
“At this point my focus is on making sure we're providing services for people, we want to see a good safe start to our school year and we want to make sure everybody understands we're all in this (pandemic) together and we need to be mindful it is not back to normal," Horgan told reporters at a press conference Thursday. “We have been a minority government for the past three years, which is a long, long time for a minority government and we have been prepared for an election every day of that three-year period."
According to an Angus Reid Institute poll released this week, Horgan’s approval rating is the highest of any premier in Canada, making a snap election an attractive option – but a local political scientist warns it’s a double-edged sword.
"I think for governments, particularly the John Horgan government, it would be very tempting to have an election now. He's got a very popular health minister in Adrian Dix and of course Dr. Bonnie Henry has become a folk hero in British Columbia and the government is putting out a lot of spending on pandemic relief, which a lot of people are finding necessary," said Hamish Telford, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley. “That said, I don't think the public is in the mood for an election right now, especially now. A lot of parents are worrying how school is going to unroll in 10 days. Will it be safe for children to go to school?"
He adds that political parties looking at poll numbers alone have suffered the consequences if they don’t take the temperature of the populace and anticipate how receptive they would be to an election. Telford thinks the reception would be poor during a pandemic, when the idea of going to a polling station would be off-putting for many people.
"Governments in the past that've looked opportunistic in calling elections have often been punished and I think a government that tried calling an election now looking opportunistic would feel repercussions for sure," said Telford, pointing out provincial governments try to avoid voter fatigue that can come with overlapping federal and provincial elections.
But there are many clues tantalizing political observers: Thursday’s press conference on transit was essentially a re-announcement from July, but an opportunity for Horgan to tout his cooperation with municipal governments and the federal government. It also offered the local Liberal MP a chance to remind voters of how much federal funding has flowed to local coffers in recent years, just weeks before the Trudeau government faces a confidence vote that could trigger a federal election.
Elections Canada has provided regular updates on how we could go to the polls safely for a federal election and CTV News has learned that Elections BC is not only taking job applications for staffers, it’s also signing leases this month for district electoral offices in case an early election is called for this fall. The next scheduled election date for BC is Oct. 26, 2021.
“If it becomes clear that an early election won’t be called this fall, we will end these leases. In a scheduled election, offices are rented about a month before the election is called,” explained Elections BC spokesperson Andrew Watson, insisting he didn’t have any inside knowledge of a potential election and that most of the organization’s current preparations are common practice.
“Securing space before a potential election call is an election management practice that has been done in other jurisdictions with minority governments,” he said.
He added that with physical distancing requirements and other public health guidelines, Elections BC needs to take extra time to find the right locations. Such locations must provide much more space than usual, since in-person voting will be available in addition to mail-in ballots, no matter when the next provincial election happens.
“A key consideration currently is that the pandemic makes it more challenging to secure space on short notice, as site visits must be scheduled well in advance and public health protocols must be followed,” said Watson, adding that the rumour mill helped drive some of the election agency’s preparations. “Recently, there has been public speculation that it could be held earlier, either this fall or next spring. We do not know if an early election will be called or not. As a result, we’re taking steps now to make sure we’re ready to administer an early election if necessary.”
B.C.’s top doctor revealed Thursday she’s been in discussions around safe voting as recently as this week.
“We've been working with the chief electoral officer here in British Columbia, should the need arise, to make sure all the things we need to do are in place,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry. “We had a conversation just this week with my colleagues across the country and with the chief electoral officer to make sure we're ready and that's what we're working on with Elections BC and Elections Canada."
The premier hinted he’s watching to see how other provinces are handling ongoing and upcoming elections and insisted Elections BC will be ready “if the need arises,” but wouldn’t shut the door on an election sooner than fall of 2021.
"I think the shelf-life of a John Horgan government was supposed to be 6 weeks and then 6 months and then, now, apparently, will go on forever,” said Horgan. “I think the public understands the situation we're in, they understand the focus needs to be on making sure we're getting the economy back up and running, we're providing the services people need and a key component of that is the restart of our K through 12 (school) system and our post-secondary as well."