Managing COVID’s First Wave on the Road to Provincial Re-Election. And the Second Wave?

Brian Topp

November 19, 2020

On September 14, the relatively moderate New Brunswick Progressive Conservatives under Premier Blain Higgs were re-elected with a respectable parliamentary majority. On October 24, the New Democrats under Premier John Horgan were re-elected with a thumping majority in British Columbia. Then, on October 26, the rightwing populist Saskatchewan Party under Premier Scott Moe were also re-elected, with another thumping majority.

One party in B.C. on the political left. One in Saskatchewan on the right. And one in the relative centre in New Brunswick. What did they all have in common? They all won re-election in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worst health and economic crisis in a century. Voters in each province were giving the governing parties and their premiers credit for managing through it. B.C. New Democrats are celebrating a wonderful result for them – at 47.7 percent of the popular vote, the best result in their party’s history. Saskatchewan New Democrats are not – 31.6 percent, their second-worst result after the 30.4 percent they got in the 2016 election. New Brunswick New Democrats received 1.6 percent of the vote under their redoubtable 26-year-old interim leader, Mackenzie Thomason.

(I got my start in NDP electoral politics in Montreal in the 1980s, then a wasteland for the party. I have attended glorious victory parties in my old neighborhood in East End Montreal to cheer 100 percent increases in NDP votes. From, say, 1 percent to 2 percent. So that New Brunswick result has a certain familiar ring to it.)

These three provincial elections in Canada have coincided with the decline and fall of Donald Trump in the US, an outcome widely celebrated by Canadians of all political persuasions. However, the intensity and importance of the US election was such that it overshadowed the important point that all three Canadian campaigns had in common—their governments all received credit for good management of a bad situation. The unhappy qualifier since then is that all three elections were held before the second wave arrived. Is a third wave in the offing?

The first wave of the COVID epidemic was kind to most incumbent Canadian governments. For the most part, governments of all stripes pulled together to address the epidemic; pooled information and resources; and agreed on a smart and reasonable division of labour. Provinces have focused on health care. The federal government has focused on income and economic support, and on finding a vaccine. In our quiet Canadian way, we can be proud of this. Proud of our country; proud of the moderation and reasonableness of most of our
elected officials of all parties; and proud of the common sense most of them have demonstrated during this crisis.

When the polling question is “What is your verdict on how your province has managed COVID during the first wave?”, incumbents mostly do well.

What remains to be seen is whether the second wave of this pandemic, or a third one, will be as kind to incumbents. If they’re lucky, provincial governments might have a year or two to get voters to think about something else. Assuming there aren’t early election calls, Ontario and Nova Scotia are due for elections in the spring of 2022; Quebec in the fall of 2022; others not until 2023 or 2024. As for the federal government, an election could happen anytime, especially in a minority House.

Conservative provincial governments across Canada are in a bit of a bind. Their backbenches are populated by small businesspeople from rural and smaller communities with relatively low COVID incidences, but with high small business bankruptcies, caused by lockdowns during the first wave. This tempts these governments, for political and regional economic reasons, to drift away from vigorous action to combat the epidemic, and towards waffling and hair-splitting on public health measures as we are seeing the second surge. We are, I fear, in for a long winter — and so are our incumbent governments.

British Columbia
The Horgan New Democrats now need to set up a successful four-year mandate. Once COVID is over (with its focus on health care, a brand strength for the NDP), politics will refocus on economic and fiscal issues (not always as good for the orange team). Like many other successful NDP premiers, Horgan needs to find a way to build on his party’s strengths over the next four years, while at least fighting his opponent to even on theirs.

The B.C. Liberals, mired in multiple scandals, face a basic choice. They could do the obvious and double down on the “free enterprise coalition” that has served them well. This would require a full and final embrace of B.C.’s conservatives, who are increasingly influenced by socially conservative religious minorities. This year’s Liberal campaign hit many potholes because of this. And this might not be a great pitch to B.C.’s growing coastal urban majority. In the alternate, the Liberals could try to align with the bruised Green Party – perhaps supplanting the NDP in urban British Columbia in the long-term, but also perhaps re-electing Premier Horgan next election. In short, the Liberals need to decide if they want to play to the past or to the future – to rural or urban B.C. The temptation to try to muddle through without deciding will be strong. The Greens have suffered the usual fate of junior coalition partners in Canada. They have been thanked for a productive, progressive coalition B.C. government by being kicked in the teeth at election time. That is a price they should be proud to pay. Every party must choose what they’re in politics to achieve — to do things or to be things. The Greens picked the former; got excellent results; and now they need to work up their
next opportunity. Green parties are not to be underestimated.

Entering its fourth term, the Saskatchewan Party government is (arguably) old, white rural Saskatchewan’s last hurrah. What is growing underneath it is an increasingly urbanized province that is heading toward an Indigenous majority, in one more generation. Premier Moe looks to be a reaction against that emerging reality, not its leader. The Saskatchewan NDP is not used to losing. The party of Tommy Douglas, Allan Blakeney and Roy Romanow knows it should be doing better. It cannot out-flank the populists on the right. And so the NDP is back to fundamentals. It needs to disqualify the Saskatchewan Party, a task that will require ferocious, merciless and determined opposition. And it needs to make a better, more hopeful offer in a province that has drunk deep of prairie rightwing populism and is happy to stay there — for a little while longer.

New Brunswick
Premier Higgs won as clean a first-wave COVID election as he could have hoped for. A winning plurality of voters thought he was doing a good job and sent him back with a majority. This also reflected the low provincial and regional COVID numbers, in the teens rather than the hundreds and thousands of central and western Canada. Welcome to the Atlantic Bubble.

But New Brunswick faces profound economic, fiscal and demographic challenges. His predecessors have tried every reasonable economic development strategy a provincial government could try in attempting to turn the province around. New Brunswick has accumulated debt similar to Saskatchewan’s, but without the resource base to support it. Here again, the temptation to try to muddle through without facing the tough choices will be strong.

The Liberals and Greens both emerged from the election in a position to carry on and to make credible bids for government next time – a particularly impressive achievement for the Greens. In New Brunswick that is not nothing (in 1987, Frank McKenna won 100 percent of the seats and dispatched the opposition to the visitors’ gallery). Given the province’s challenges, it may not be hard to discredit the Higgs government over the next four years. Advancing a better alternative that is both sufficiently bold and sufficiently practical and responsible, will be their challenge.

As for the province’s battered New Democrats, job one is to avoid capture by fringe groups. As Jack Layton’s 2011 sweep in Quebec and Rachel Notley’s 2015 upset in Alberta demonstrate, it is always possible to be surprising when you don’t give up.

Brian Topp is a partner at gt&company Executive Advisors. He is former chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, former deputy chief of staff to Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, and former national campaign director to federal NDP leader Jack Layton.