In late June, a rare planetary conjunction occurred, as all the major planets of our solar system lined up along the horizon, from the closest to the sun (Mercury, Venus, Mars) to the outer giants Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. That alignment of planets won’t occur again until 2040.
An equally rare event took place right here in BC, as Premier Horgan admitted he made an error in initially approving a billion-dollar renovation to the Royal BC Museum, took the blame personally, and reversed the unpopular decision. He followed up that “mea culpa” with an even more extraordinary announcement: he will not seek re-election as an MLA and will resign as NDP leader and Premier before the next election.
Newly elected BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon must think the planets are aligning in his favour. Until the surprise announcement by Horgan that he will stand down as BC NDP leader, most analysts anticipated that Horgan’s approval ratings (among the highest in Canada) would ensure his party’s grip on power extended beyond 2024.
With the prospect of an NDP leadership contest and growing voter concerns over inflation, affordable housing and health care, the odds of the NDP retaining power have suddenly been cast in doubt.
What made Horgan’s recent announcement so remarkable was not only his early departure, something political leaders rarely do without being pushed out by voters or angry caucus members, but the complete about-face on the museum decision. Just think what might have happened if BC NDP premier Glen Clark had done a “mea culpa” on the whole fast ferry fiasco? He may well have been re-elected. Horgan’s move was the type of stunning reversal that has happened occasionally in Alberta and federally in the past 50 years, but never in BC.
The late Ralph Klein was famous for regularly reversing course on important policy decisions. Journalist Don Martin once described Klein as “a communicator with the survival skills of a chameleon.” Klein’s willingness to embrace his mistakes, and change course so quickly it befuddled the opposition, became a hallmark of his career.
Other reversals that stand out include Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who decided in 1996 not to repeal the GST put in place by Conservative Prime Minister Mulroney, despite promising to do so in the previous election.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau may have the distinction of the most dramatic reversal. Campaigning in 1974 (a period of rising inflation like our current time), Trudeau mocked the idea of implementing wage and price controls, proposed by his Conservative rival Stanfield. One year later, Trudeau passed the Inflation Act which did exactly that: establish a series of strict wage and price controls to tame inflation.
Horgan cannot be compared to Klein or the elder Trudeau, but he will surely go down in history as one of the most likeable and successful premiers in BC’s history. Perhaps the confidence Horgan exhibited in admitting he made a mistake on museum funding stemmed from his knowledge that he would soon announce his pending retirement. Or more likely, it flowed from his down to earth character, an approach that has made him a well-liked figure across much of the political spectrum.
Admitting a mistake and taking corrective action is difficult for anyone, but it is exceedingly hard for politicians, despite the fact the move can prompt an outpouring of public approval. Horgan’s popularity over his remaining time in office could increase, as the public absorbs his apology and contemplates his voluntary departure.
Who knows, maybe plain talking admissions of fallibility may one day become more commonplace. But like a seven-planet alignment, don’t count on it anytime soon.
Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.