Trump Accidentally Hacked British Columbia’s Election
Donald Trump likely can’t name the premier of British Columbia (BC). He almost certainly hasn’t heard of John Horgan. And when Trump threatened protectionist measures against Canada’s softwood lumber industry, he probably didn’t know that Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal Party and John Horgan’s New Democratic Party were in the midst of a hard-fought election campaign. Nevertheless, after Trump announced tariffs on Canadian softwood, the US President loomed large in the BC election — and may have unwittingly swayed the results to the Liberals (BC’s right-wing party).
How Trump Tipped The Scales
British Columbia, Canada’s third largest province by population, is home to over 40% of the country’s forestry jobs. The industry directly employs over 60,000 people in the province. The United States is BC’s largest softwood market, accounting for $4.6 billion in sales last year. So when Trump announced duties of up to 24% on Canadian softwood, the trade dispute became a dominant campaign issue.
Sensing opportunity, Christy Clark was quick to cast herself as the only person who could save BC forestry jobs from Donald Trump and “greedy lumber barons.” Taking the fight to Trump became a dominant theme of her stump speeches. The billionaire US President was the perfect foil for Clark. She could stand-up for ordinary, hard-working British Colombians against a rich American bully, while distracting from her party’s 16 years in power.
In retaliation to the US tariff, Clark asked Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau to ban US thermal coal shipments from BC ports (in Canada, ports fall under federal jurisdiction). If the federal government refused, Clark threatened to unilaterally impose a carbon levy on the product that would make “thermal coal shipped through British Columbia utterly uncompetitive in the global market.”
Clark also used Trump as a weapon against her rival John Horgan. She suggested that Horgan’s temper — already the subject of Liberal attacks after Horgan was noticeably frustrated with Clark in the first leaders’ debate— would be a liability when dealing with Trump.
Clark even conspiracy-mongered that the New Democratic Party’s relationship to the United Steelworkers made them “completely compromised” in the softwood lumber dispute. International president of the Steelworkers, Leo Gerard, met with the US President in April. This meeting was the basis of a Liberal attack ad that claimed “[Gerard’s] union pays John Horgan’s chief of staff and campaign director to keep the NDP on a short leash so his American union can go after BC jobs.”
[John Horgan’s] biggest financial backers are the union bosses of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh who put American jobs ahead of BC jobs. And now we know that the guys in Pittsburgh who stand with Donald Trump are paying directly the salaries of the BC NDP’s top campaign officials.
— Christy Clark
Like many labor unions in Canada, the Steelworkers have long-standing ties to the New Democrats. The union donated $672,000 (CAD) to the BC wing of the party last year and paid the salaries of three senior Horgan campaign staff during the election. But contrary to Clark’s claims that the Steelworks are conspiring with Trump to kill BC jobs, they have a vested interest to fight for BC jobs. The union represents about 18,000 forestry workers in BC. Also, the US Steelworkers campaigned against Trump in the 2016 US presidential election.
Clark’s argument that the NDP couldn’t be trusted because the Steelworkers backed them was undermined further when it was reported that the Liberals had accepted donations from Weyerhaeuser, the largest softwood producer in the US. Weyerhaeuser is a member of an American lumber industry lobby group that, in 2016, asked the US government to take action against the Canadian softwood industry. Horgan pointed out that Clark’s Liberals were being funded by the same “greedy lumber barons” Clark was attacking on the campaign trail.
It is impossible to tell how much impact Trump’s unintended intervention in the BC election had on the outcome. What we do know is that after Trump’s protections moves against Canada, Trump became one of Christy Clark’s favorite campaign topics, and her party gained steadily in the polls. At the beginning of the month-long election period, the Liberals trailed the NDP by approximately ten points. On the eve of election day, the polls showed the two parties in a statistical tie.
Election night delivered one of the closest results in BC history. After the preliminary count, the Liberals won the popular vote and the most seats but neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats had majority control of BC’s legislature. As it stands now, the Liberals have 43 seats, the NDP have 41, and the Green Party has three, but the final results won’t be known until May 24, after absentee ballots are counted and recounts are conducted in two close electoral districts.
The entire election could hinge on one Vancouver Island district where the NDP beat the Liberals by only nine votes. If the final count swings this district to the Liberals, the party will have the 44 seats needed for a majority in the legislature. If the district remains with the New Democrats, they could form a coalition government with the Green Party (the two parties agree on electoral and political finance reform, both want to reinvest in public services, and share common ground on many environmental issues).
Canada’s political Wild West
Considering a journalist once had to explain Brexit to President Trump, it’s safe to assume that Trump knows nothing about politics in Canada’s westernmost province. If he took a BC politics 101 class, however, he’d probably be happy with how his presence in the election seems to have shifted the results.
The BC Liberals are the province’s right-wing party. Despite its name, the party is not formally affiliated with Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party of Canada, and actually has more ties to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. This may seem strange but it makes sense in the context of BC politics.
For over 70 years, BC politics has been divided between a left or center-left party and a stop-the-left alliance. This pattern began in 1941. That year, the upstart Co-operative Commonwealth Federation — running on the promise that “no CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism” — won the popular vote, shattering the two-party system the Liberal and Conservative parties had dominated up to that point. In response, the Liberals and Conservatives put their long-time rivalry aside and formed a coalition government.
The Liberal-Conservative coalition ruled BC for nearly a decade, but, in the 1952 election, a changing to the electoral system meant to disadvantage the CCF backfired. Although the election’s preferential ballot system blocked the CCF from power as intended, it inflated the support of a new party called the Social Credit League.
After some post-election maneuvering, the Socreds, as Social Credit partisans were known, formed a minority government led by W. A. C. Bennett. The Social Credit League was founded on the now extinct fiscal reformist ideology of social credit. But Bennett, a former Conservative, transformed the party into a right-wing populist party. It soon became the preferred vehicle of those who opposed the CCF, and ruled BC for all but three years between 1952 and 1991.
Over time, the CCF’s agenda became more moderate, and it was re-organized as the New Democratic Party in 1961. The party formed government for the first time in 1972. The NDP’s victory drove many Liberals and Conservatives to the Social Credit party.
Under W. A. C. Bennett’s son, Bill, the Social Credit party moved away from populism and embraced fiscal conservatism. The Socreds regained power in the 1975 election but by 1991 voters had grown tired of their political dynasty, and the party was reduced to seven seats in the legislature.
Thanks in part to right-wing vote splitting, the NDP won two elections during the 1990s. The Liberal Party reemerged as contenders after 30 years of political obscurity (the party got only 0.5% of the vote in 1979), finishing second in both elections. After the right-wing former mayor of Vancouver, Gorden Campbell, took control of the party, many former Socreds and their old corporate backers moved to the Liberals.
Rebranded as the BC Liberals — a belated acknowledgment of the BC party’s 1987 split with the Liberal Party of Canada — Campbell’s Liberal Party won the 2001 election in the biggest electoral landslide in BC history. The Liberals have ruled BC ever since. Broken promises, corruption investigations, and personal scandals led to Campbell’s downfall, but his successor as party leader, Christy Clark, is a gifted campaigner and, in 2011, led the Liberals to a surprise fourth straight majority government.
Perhaps the easiest way for American readers to understand BC’s contemporary political divide is this: the Liberal Party is like a coalition of California Republicans and right-wing Democrats. The NDP is like the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party with the added experience and baggage of being in power for the 1990s.
In the 2017 election, the Liberals campaigned on lowering taxes, balancing the budget, and resource development. The NDP promised $10 a day childcare, a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, and a more environmentally sustainable economy.
The influence of money in politics was a major campaign issue. BC is notorious in Canada for its lax, almost non-existent political finance laws. There are no restrictions on how much money individuals and organizations — Canadian or otherwise — can give to British Columbian political parties. Banning corporate and union donations to political parties was a campaign promise of both New Democrats and the Greens.
The unfettered flow of big money in BC politics — and its corrupting influence — has made national and international headlines. After The New York Times called BC the “wild west” of Canadian political cash, Christy Clark agreed to stop taking an annual $50,000 stipend financed by party donors, but the Liberals have done nothing to tighten the province’s political finance laws. This inaction is not a surprise considering the BC Liberal Party has disproportionately benefited from the status quo. The party received over $12 million — including over a million from out of province donors — last year, making them the most moneyed political party in Canada.
Full disclosure: Spencer Lachmanec is an active member of the New Democratic Party.