What are the top issues facing B.C.’s new government?

By Ian Holliday, Research Associate

New governments rarely get the chance to decide what their first issue will be. When British Columbia Premier-designate John Horgan’s New Democratic Party minority government is sworn in on July 18, the first priority will be dealing with a wildfire season that has already been one of the worst in recent memory.

Beyond that, however, the incoming Premier has said his first priorities will be to deal with the opioid crisis, the softwood lumber dispute, and public education issues. This, in addition to his party’s pledge – as part of its agreement with the third-place Green Party – to introduce bills banning corporate and union donations to political parties, calling for a referendum on proportional representation, and giving the Greens official party status during the first legislative session of the new government.

Broadly speaking, these are the priorities of the incoming B.C. government. But are they the priorities of British Columbians?

Public consensus around a single issue or collection of issues is uncommon, but there are certainly specific issues that are top-of-mind for significant subsections of the population.

In its final public poll taken during the election, the Angus Reid Institute asked British Columbians to name the three most important issues facing the province. In that poll, health care was the most-mentioned issue, selected by 50 per cent of respondents. Housing prices and affordability was second, mentioned by 35 per cent.

In ARI’s post-election poll, these two issues came out on top again, though in opposite order. Some 43 per cent chose housing prices and affordability, and 42 per cent choose health care.

In both polls, “the economy” was a distant third, followed by a collection of issues chosen by slightly fewer than one-in-four respondents, as seen in the graph that follows.

Horgan’s first orders of business touch on two of the top three issues on the list (health care in the form of dealing with the opioid crisis, and the economy in the form of softwood lumber), though obviously not in the sort of holistic way that a government can over the course of years in power.

While the opioid crisis is a health-care-related issue – and one in dire need of attention with B.C. on pace for a record 1,400 overdose deaths in 2017 – it’s likely not the reason most respondents chose health care in these two recent polls. Rather, there are more-systemic troubles plaguing the province’s health care system, most acutely a shortage of operating-room time, which has led to some of the longest surgery wait times in the country.

Asked how they would allocate the provincial government’s budget surplus if they were in charge, the vast majority of British Columbians (86%) say they would put at least 10 per cent of the $295 million available toward health care. That’s significantly more than say they would spend this much on anything else.

The NDP’s election platform included promises to improve access to health care through increased spending, while eliminating Medical Services Plan premiums. This polling suggests that such investment – especially if it’s successful in improving access and reducing wait times – would be welcomed by many British Columbians.

That said, while polling consistently finds health care to be a top issue not just in B.C. but across the country, it’s not typically the type of wedge issue that decides elections. Rather, it’s a topic that tends to enjoy pan-partisan support. Any new NDP investment in health care would follow on the heels of promised increases from the outgoing BC Liberals.

If health care were driving votes in the most recent B.C. election, one might reasonably expect to see it rise to the top in the region where the largest number of seats changed hands from the BC Liberals to the NDP: The Lower Mainland.

This is not the case, however. In ARI’s post-election poll, roughly one-in-three Lower Mainland residents (33%) reported health care among their top three concerns. That’s significantly fewer than the number who did so in other regions of the province (46% on Vancouver Island and the North Coast, and 47% in the Interior).

The issue that loomed largest for Lower Mainlanders? Housing (54% chose it as a top issue). This too will surely receive significant attention from the NDP government in the weeks and months to come.

More than six-in-ten (61%) B.C. residents would spend at least 10 per cent of the provincial surplus on building social/low-income housing – not quite the overwhelming majority who said the same about investment in health care, but still a clear indication of support for provincial investment in new affordable housing.

Each of these files – housing and health care – is likely to be a long-term focus of the NDP government, as are classic New Democratic priorities such as childcare, social services, and public education, all of which rate as significantly higher priorities for those who voted NDP, as seen in the following graph:

Over time, unexpected issues are sure to crop up. One under-the-radar issue that the Horgan government will need to address sooner rather than later is the need to introduce provincial legislation on the production and sale of cannabis before the federal government legalizes the drug on July 1 of next year.

If the minority government lasts a full term, as the NDP and Greens insist they intend it to, then there will be plenty of time to shift focus to other priorities.

 

Editors’ note: The stories in this Analysis section are opinion pieces. They reflect the views of their authors, not those of the Angus Reid Institute as an organization.

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