Straight to the Top Job

Published in the Vancouver Sun, July 19/2022

It’s one of the oddities of our parliamentary system, that someone can become premier without first facing the voters as leader in the trial by fire of an election campaign.

The pending retirement of Premier John Horgan means a new leader chosen solely by the members of the NDP will go straight to the top job. 

John Horgan chairing the Council of Federation meetings, July 2022

Changing premiers has happened between elections many times and for a variety of reasons.

Retirement on their terms

Since 1903, when the party system came to B.C., only a handful of premiers retired while they still had political capital in the bank.

Richard McBride retired in 1915 after 12 years in office when his health and energies were on the wane. He left office in good standing with the voters of the day, but his successor, William Bowser, was defeated when he met voters at the polls the following year.

John Hart retired in 1947 after six years on the job, passing on the premiership to colleague “Boss” Johnson. Hart was the only ex-premier to go on to become Speaker of the Legislature. Two years later, Johnson won his own mandate.

Bill Bennett picked his moment in 1986, after the half-way point of his third term. Twelve candidates vied to replace him and, coming out of political retirement, Bill Vander Zalm prevailed and shortly marched on to his own majority win.

Passings in office 

In 1918, Liberal Harlan Brewster, only two years into his first term, came down with pneumonia heading home by train from Ottawa. Sick by Winnipeg, in peril by Regina, dead in Calgary. John Oliver replaced him and served nine years, but became very ill toward the end of his tenure. His colleagues pleaded for him to stay on while the burdens of office were lifted from his shoulders, but he died in office in 1927. John Duncan McLean’s government was defeated the following year.

Premier Harlan Brewster fishing on the Peace River before his perilous train trip

The leaderless winner 

The leaderless Social Credit Party went from zero seats to winning the 1952 election, with a leader who was from Alberta. Ernest Hansell, an evangelist and cartoonist, wasn’t on the ballot, but as head of the Social Credit League of Canada, he had top billing. Voters didn’t know who was going to lead the Socreds in the Legislature — and the government — until after the election. The new Socred MLAs soon met at the Hotel Vancouver and elected W.A.C. Bennett from among them. And so, a 20-year run as premier began.

WAC: Wasn’t the leader the first time, but re-elected as premier in 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1966 and 1969

Unplanned retirement 

Liberal Duff Pattullo had been premier since 1933, leading the province through the Great Depression, but in 1941, he was dealt a minority. He wanted to press on, but his trusted ally, John Hart, announced his support for a coalition government and won the support of the Liberal rank and file. Pattullo resigned and Hart assumed office with Conservative support just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. His coalition government was re-elected in 1945.

A hat trick of resignations beset B.C. politics in the 1990s.

In 1991, Bill Vander Zalm resigned in disgrace after a damning conflict of interest report. Rita Johnston, B.C.’s first female premier, succeeded him only to be demolished by Mike Harcourt’s NDP later that year.

Harcourt seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, but an NDP scandal (“Bingogate”) that had nothing to do with him bedevilled the government. Low in the polls, Harcourt quit and Glen Clark took the helm in 1996, resurrecting NDP fortunes and, shortly thereafter, eking out a narrow win.

Clark’s administration quickly sailed into rough waters and took on water — lots of it. Clark resigned in 1999 giving way to Dan Miller, who is the only premier since 1903 to serve on an interim basis and never face the voters as leader. Miller stepped down when Ujjal Dosanjh was elected by NDP members to lead them into what was to become an electoral Armageddon in 2001. 

In 2010, not long after his third majority government win, and on the heels and highs of the Winter Olympics, Gordon Campbell announced his intention to resign after internal caucus dissent spilled out into the public. Christy Clark, who did not have a seat at the time, prevailed on the third ballot to be crowned premier, and went on to win her own majority mandate two years later.

Changing premiers between elections has happened for a variety of reasons, with successors having mixed results. Some are able to show change and renewal, while others were weighed down by their government’s baggage and jettisoned to the political scrap heap. In all cases, they became premier thanks to a relatively small number of people, whether it was the members of their caucus or members of their party.  This time, if David Eby is acclaimed, as some expect, not even NDP members would have a say, and he would not have to undergo the trial by fire faced by predecessors Bill Vander Zalm, Glen Clark, Ujjal Dosanjh, and Christy Clark.

Straight to the Top

John Horgan came to power on a confidence vote not long after the 2017 election and retires on his own terms knowing that he had more political capital to spend. In terms of popularity, he will be a hard act to follow. Once coronated, David Eby will have close to two years to govern, but he will be staring at the calendar as to when voters ultimately get to have their say.