The B.C. NDP’s honeymoon ended with Site C decision

For John Horgan and the NDP, the honeymoon is over. For many of the party’s long-suffering supporters, the euphoria felt last summer – after Horgan and Green leader Andrew Weaver cobbled together an agreement to kick out the BC Liberals and let the NDP hold power – has turned to demoralization and even feelings of betrayal.

In the summer and fall, the NDP announced a series of initiatives fulfilling campaign promises. To name just a few: community health centres were restored, social assistance rates were increased (albeit only a paltry $100/month), and free post-secondary education was offered to foster children aging out of care.

Premier John Horgan announces that the province will complete Site C | Photo courtesy of the Province of BC

In recent weeks, however, this good news has been overshadowed by more contentious decisions that seem to only reinforce the capitalist status quo shaped by 16 years of BC Liberal rule.

Ups and downs are sadly par for the course for left-of-centre voters. No matter how many times we’ve learned it before, the lesson that winning an election or gaining office is not the same as winning power is no less bitter. Corporate interests don’t just dominate due to their economic power or their ability to influence public opinion through the mass media; the state itself, in this case the provincial government’s bureaucracy, is designed to prioritize capital accumulation regardless of who holds elected office.

That painful reality was driven home on Dec. 11, when Premier Horgan announced that his government would be completing the $11 billion+ Site C mega-dam that will flood thousands of hectares of farmland in the Peace Valley in northeastern B.C. In giving his explanation at a press conference that day, Horgan looked miserable. His heart wasn’t in it, and he effectively made no positive case for the dam’s completion.

Instead, the crestfallen-looking premier asserted that his hands were tied. Christy Clark had started construction on the project despite legal challenges from Treaty 8 First Nations; Horgan argued his predecessor’s move had worked as intended, and it would now be too expensive and fiscally risky not to complete the dam. In short, Horgan and cabinet bought the “sunk costs fallacy” hook, line, and sinker.

In his remarks, Horgan directly addressed the most glaring contradiction of his decision to proceed with Site C: the fact that his government had just come to power vowing to adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). “I’m not the first person to stand before you and disappoint Indigenous people,” Horgan said.

In response, Chief Roland Wilson of the West Moberly First Nation fired back, “It was John Horgan’s NDP that demanded a Site C inquiry by the BC Utilities Commission, and the results they received from it were clear: no need for the power, better alternatives once we do, and no advantage to ratepayers to proceed. With those findings, the only responsible choice was to immediately stop destroying the Peach River valley.”

It’s hard to overstate the feeling of betrayal on the matter of Indigenous rights. To use an analogy social democrats can relate to, greenlighting Site C right after declaring allegiance to UNDRIP is akin to declaring support for workers’ right to strike and then promptly crossing a picket line.

Reaction from environmentalists and the NDP base was swift and furious. Many took to social media to declare they would no longer donate to or vote for the NDP. One reason for the anger was that the report by the B.C. Utilities Commission had concluded that the costs for completing or scrapping the dam were comparable, and that there were many downsides to finishing Site C. The BCUC seemed to have set the table for cancellation, especially given how so many in the new NDP government were on record blasting Site C as a white elephant that violated Indigenous rights and would slow development of alternative energy in B.C.

The Green Party lambasted the decision, but, as expected, did nothing to stop it despite the fact that they hold the balance of power.

In the days following the controversial decision, a number of NDP cabinet minister issued “personal” explanations of the decision. Not one offered a convincing explanation of what interests were really served by approving Site C.

Last week, however, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together. Horgan addressed the B.C. Natural Resources Forum in Prince George, talking up the potential for LNG development in the northeast. Long-hyped by Christy Clark, it was disconcerting to hear Horgan talking like a dedicated booster of an industry that promotes the destructive practice of fracking for gas and whose expansion would shred any chance of B.C.’s climate action plan meeting its targets.

This week Horgan is touring Asia, and LNG is on the agenda. And British Columbians are left to ponder whether Site C, whose hydro power could in theory help decarbonize the province in line with urgently needed climate action, isn’t really all about providing cheap power to the oil and gas industries of the northeast. There’s nothing progressive about an $11 billion and counting public contribution to a climate-destroying business that needs to be phased out, not subsidized.