Happy Horgan: B.C.’s premier imagines what could have been

When his NDP government took power last year, Premier John Horgan transformed from crabby Opposition leader to beaming optimist. Fending off criticism from Alberta, Ottawa and the BC Liberals, the talkative politician weighs in on Site C, Trans Mountain, predecessor Christy Clark and his controversial real estate tax

When his NDP government took power last year, Premier John Horgan transformed from crabby Opposition leader to beaming optimist. Fending off criticism from Alberta, Ottawa and the BC Liberals, the talkative politician weighs in on Site C, Trans Mountain, predecessor Christy Clark and his controversial real estate tax

What Might Have Been, Part 1: John Horgan, Journalist

“We were stealing apples from Bruce Hutchison’s backyard,” the premier recalls, standing in his spacious office in the west annex of the provincial legislature. Hutchison, the late newspaper legend whose name is on the Lifetime Achievement Award presented annually by the Jack Webster Foundation to a distinguished B.C. journalist, was a neighbour of young John Horgan in Saanich. “Everybody else scattered when he came out, but I was too high up the tree,” Horgan says. “He said, ‘Wait,’ and came back out with a bushel basket. He said, ‘Take as many as you can put in the basket, but if you break a single branch you’re never coming back.'”

Hutchison would end up helping to fund Horgan’s postsecondary education. He wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation for the Carleton University journalism program, but the school rejected Horgan anyway. “Even Vaughn Palmer says that letter would have been good enough for him,” Horgan notes.

What Might Have Been, Part 2: John Horgan, Chip Off The Old Anti-Labour Block

“My father was an Irish immigrant who could sell anything to anybody,” Horgan says. “He was not a trade unionist. Quite the contrary.”

But Pat Horgan died when John was just an infant. His mother, Alice, got a job with the municipality of Saanich to support the family. One day she got into a fight with a supervisor. “She ended up telling him to go to hell,” Horgan remembers. “As she was storming out of the office, the union rep said, ‘Don’t leave mad—tell me what happened, and we’ll see what we can do.’ The supervisor ended up being dismissed, and my mom was a strong union supporter ever after.”

On May 10, 2017, very few political observers were able to see the future. The previous day’s election had been a cliffhanger; the makeup of the next government was still wide open. Questions about what might have been—and about what would be—gripped the province. What might have been, but for a handful of votes in Courtenay-Comox? What will be if the BC NDP can’t find a Liberal MLA to sit as Speaker? What will be if Premier Christy Clark can cut a deal with BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver?

Few would have guessed that well over a year later, John Horgan would not only be the 36th premier of B.C. but would find himself in a relatively stable governing situation.

Nor would any have been likely to predict that Horgan would spend so much of his first year in the national spotlight. The dispute with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion thrust him onto the national stage like few B.C. premiers before him. Meanwhile, his decision to continue with the Site C hydroelectric project and leave the door open to liquefied natural gas (LNG) development surprised those who might have expected him to be a hostage to his Green Party allies. Comfortably settled into the premiership, he’s been defeating most expectations of what would be.

The surprises appear to extend to Horgan himself. During the televised leaders’ debate, moderator Jennifer Burke asked him, “Do you have an anger management issue?” Weaver, his future political partner, tried to goad him with schoolyard taunts: “Are you gonna get mad at me, too, now, John?” Vancouver Sun writer Rob Shaw described him in one column as “Angry John,” and “Hulk Horgan.” In their book A Matter of Confidence: The Inside Story of the Political Battle for BC, Shaw and Global News BC reporter Richard Zussman report that Horgan told caucus mates, “I can’t win. They are going to rip me into pieces because I’m the angry guy.”

And now? Most of the anger in Horgan’s world seems to be external. Alberta politicians call him nasty names, federal cabinet ministers attack him, and the BC Liberals join in. But Horgan keeps on smiling. He has become a new man. Call him Happy Horgan.

“Horgan’s transition from opposition politician to premier has been dramatic,” says Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer, “the most dramatic I’ve witnessed in 34 years of covering B.C. politics. In Opposition he was a frustrated and often angry man. As premier, so far, he has been genial, accessible, generous and outgoing.”

Father to two grown sons with Ellie, his wife of 34 years, Horgan clearly doesn’t feel comfortable with the “angry man” tag. (Years afterward, he still recalls his first meeting with this writer: “You said to me, ‘Hey, you don’t seem so angry.'”) With his large frame, grey hair and hint of beard, he fills out a suit perfectly well yet seems like he’d be more at home on a construction site. Looking relaxed on a May afternoon, he insists that Happy Horgan is not a new identity. “What I’ve been able to be for the past 10 months is exactly who I am,” he says, “someone who is optimistic and hopeful and wants to effect positive change.”

He acknowledges, though, that his previous job can affect one’s mood. “I once said that being leader of the Opposition is tougher than being premier, and I still maintain that it’s a tough job,” Horgan says. “Because the expectation for the leader of the Opposition, and [BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson] is experiencing this right now, you are obliged to condemn the government day after day. And over time that becomes very difficult for the soul, because as human beings we are innately optimistic. We want to be hopeful each day. The leader of the Opposition is paid fortnightly by the Queen to be grumpy and angry and belligerent. The worst day in government is better than the best day in Opposition.”

As for Wilkinson, his assessment of the premier certainly fits that job description. “John Horgan is extremely short-sighted when it comes to the complexity of our economy,” he says. “He thinks he can tax job creators but not impact job creation. He thinks he can poke the federal government in the eye over the Kinder Morgan pipeline but remain close allies on a wide range of programs that require federal cooperation— which means everything from environmental protection to marijuana to fighting gang crime to health funding. So John Horgan has big problems with economic policy that his team wants to ignore, and he continues to have major internal battles within his own NDP caucus—and that problem will only get worse.”

And what of Horgan’s strengths? “John Horgan is clearly dedicated to public service within the NDP mindset,” Wilkinson says. “He has spent most of his adult life working in politics, and although that often leads to tunnel vision, his unwavering commitment to his ideals is remarkable.”

What Might Have Been, Part 3: John Horgan and Christy Clark Improv Night at the Arts Club Theatre

“When I was in Opposition, I was on the rose-garden side [of the legislature building],” Horgan says, “and I would hang out the window and heckle people. My greatest engagement was with Christy. One day she was walking down the path. She was wearing a red outfit. I said, ‘If this was an away mission, you wouldn’t be coming home.'”

This jibe requires a bit of Star Trek knowledge—as fans of the show understand, anonymous ensigns who wear red uniforms are frequently killed off early in an episode. Clark got it. “She immediately turned around,” Horgan recalls, “and said, ‘My phaser’s on stun, because I like ya.’

“I thought, Good for you. I gave her full marks for a quick retort.”

Even that bit of barbed banter may be more than the current Opposition leader could manage. Wilkinson doesn’t consider himself to be one of the premier’s buddies. “In the legislature, we argue about policy, but most of us have long-time relationships with people on the other side,” he says. “But John Horgan is not one of the people who makes friends easily, and I have never gotten to know him.”

Wilkinson isn’t the only one heckling Horgan. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently told a Calgary reporter that Horgan is “one of the worst politicians we’ve seen in Canada in decades; he appeals to populism in a way that is not based on fact. What we’re seeing here is an enormous amount of misinformation. But what we’re also seeing is that the public is not buying it.”

The neighbours seem to have gotten nastier since Horgan’s apple-stealing days. While Nenshi launched rhetorical bombs, Alberta Premier Notley waged war over the Trans Mountain expansion with a wine boycott, an ad campaign and a threat to shut down the province’s fuel supplies. “I am ready and prepared to turn off the taps,” Notley said at a May 16 press conference.

The same day, Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau laced into Horgan over the pipeline expansion battle. “What Premier Horgan has done is unconstitutional,” Morneau said. “And we are going to deal with the risk presented by Premier Horgan.”

Horgan’s court challenge to the pipeline was widely derided as a mere delaying tactic. Then came this summer’s shock decision by the Federal Court of Appeal that the project must be halted for further study and consultation.

Through it all, Horgan largely projected an aura of calm, as if it was all just politics as usual. “The constitution, the distribution of powers in our Canadian context is something that has been evolving since the BNA [British North America] Act,” he says. “I am not at all surprised that we would have a disagreement on jurisdiction. These things have happened throughout our history with regularity.

“I was in Ottawa weeks ago with Rachel, whom I have known for a long time and have great respect for, and Justin Trudeau,” Horgan relates. “And the three of us were sitting in a room—could be characterized as among the three most progressive politicians in the country—and we were disagreeing, substantially, around a significant issue. But at the end of it all I was still smiling, still comfortable because I knew the values that we all brought into the room were consistent.”

If every political party has its divisions, the NDP schism is more pronounced than most—labour on one side, environmentalists on the other. Horgan’s two biggest positions have placed one foot squarely in both camps. While his pipeline opposition has pleased the Greens, his go-ahead on Site C dealt them a major shock. “Site C was a decision that I wouldn’t have made,” he says. “I would have looked at $10 billion in capital investment in new technology as a better way to go. But when we took office, [the project] was 25-percent complete, and new governments—regardless of political stripe—should not burn billions of dollars for no good outcome.

“That’s what happens when you’re in government,” Horgan continues. “Rachel Notley said to me that she did not get into politics to build a pipeline. But right now for her economy and her people in Alberta, she believes that’s the best course of action. So circumstances develop outcomes when it comes to policies like this.”

Columnist Palmer believes the Site C decision wasn’t really such a stretch for the premier. “Horgan hails from the hard-hatwearing side of the NDP, not the environmental activist side,” he says. “His support for continuing with Site C and LNG development is sincere.”

While in Opposition, the NDP was critical of the Liberal government’s LNG plans, but Horgan says it wasn’t development they objected to. “My concern was the premier’s hyperbolic approach to everything,” he says. “Everything was 100 times bigger— we’re not going to have any debt any more, the streets will be paved with gold, everyone’s going to have an LNG plant. ‘You’re gonna have an LNG plant, you’re gonna have an LNG plant,’ like on Oprah. My position today is the same as it was before the election: if investors believe that they can make money and if it can fit into the framework of ensuring First Nations participation—which is now a court requirement—if our climate action goals can be realized, there’s local jobs, and we get a benefit from the development of the project, then let’s go.”

Wilkinson believes tension in the NDP caucus is a real problem for Horgan, citing Nanaimo MLA Leonard Krog’s decision to run for mayor of that city, potentially imperilling the government’s tenuous hold on power. “It’s a very surprising move,” Wilkinson says, “and one that must have John Horgan wishing he could go back in time and treat Leonard Krog with more respect. “

John Horgan is leading a government based on the idea of ‘tax first, sort out the plan later,'” Wilkinson adds. “We’ve watched them raise taxes on everything from gasoline to family cabins to business payrolls to the value of people’s homes. Employment is flat and starting to decline, housing prices are still reaching record highs, and we have all been forced into becoming investors in the Trans Mountain pipeline, whether we wanted it or not. So I’d say this past year has been a serious disappointment to most British Columbians.”

The NDP has never been the first choice of the B.C. business community. But Horgan says fear of the socialist hordes has always been overblown. “Anybody who spends time with [former NDP premier] Mike Harcourt would be hard-pressed to call him a screaming communist,” he says. “I’ve done everything I can to meet with business representatives, always with the view that they understand that I want them to succeed. I want B.C.’s prosperity to continue.”

In fact, Harcourt has drifted so far from the teachings of Karl Marx that he’s publicly attacked Horgan’s education tax, a levy on real estate values above $3 million. But Horgan says the measure is in fact probusiness, because it attempts to address the business community’s stated concerns over the difficulty of sustaining a workforce.

“Business after business said to me, Our employees can’t live here because they can’t find a place for their kids to be cared for, they can’t afford to find a house to live in, and we’re not creating the spaces to train them to fill the jobs we need today,” he explains. “So I have been putting money into education, money into child care, putting money into housing. The education tax affects a very small number of people, and it’s a very small amount of money when you consider that the average house price in Vancouver went up about 6 percent last year. And we’re asking for a thousand dollars of that to put into housing programs, which will stabilize the marketplace.”

What Might Have Been, Part 4: John Horgan, Reynolds Secondary School Dropout

“I was failing out in Grade 9, hanging out behind the band room doing things that were illegal,” Horgan says. “And my basketball coach said, ‘What are you doing? There’s way more here than you think there is.’ And he pulled me back on track, and he and the whole group of teachers and the principal kind of invested in me. I ended up becoming the student body president in Grade 12, I got a couple of university degrees, and I’m the premier of B.C. If you’d asked my Grade 9 teacher, ‘What is John Horgan gonna do?’ none of that would have been on the radar.”

Still, many seemed to see something in young Horgan. How many apple thieves end up getting financial support from their victims? “Dad recognized John’s potential, and they indeed carried on many animated political discussions at the breakfast table at Rockhome,” says Bruce Hutchison’s son, Robert, a retired provincial judge. “I know my dad admired John as a friend and a promising young man who he helped mentor in his formative years. I’m sure he would have been delighted with his successful career leading to the premiership.”

That sense of community responsibility demonstrated by Hutchison and his teachers is what drew Horgan to the NDP. It’s also why he thinks that, despite some appearances, the NDP affiliation is still important. Even as an Alberta NDP premier throws grenades at him, a previous B.C. NDP premier gripes about his education tax and the environmental wing of the party attacks his policies and decisions, Horgan still proudly waves the party banner.

“I think the brand matters, the values matter,” he says, pointing to a frame on his office wall—a 1940s-era campaign poster of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner to the NDP. It reads: “Humanity First; People Before Profits.”

“I got involved in politics through the social gospel,” Horgan explains. “I think the brands matter to the public so the public can see where your core values are. But the day you are elected, you have to deal with the issues that are in front of you. Not in front of your neighbour or the neighbour beside that neighbour, but in front of you.”

What Might Have Been, Part 5: John Horgan, Talk Show Host

“I do like to talk,” the premier says. “I talk a lot.” Once, Horgan recalls, he was scheduled to appear on Vaughn Palmer’s TV program Voice of BC, and Palmer had no voice. “You could barely hear him,” Horgan says. “He said to me in a whisper, ‘Just go, John. Talk!’ And I did. I think that’s my destiny. I can string sentences together. Talking for half an hour is dead simple for me. CFAX hosts would love to get me as a guest because Horgan, he’ll just talk the whole time.”

Palmer agrees. “With his gift of the gab, Horgan would have been a great broadcaster, in the tradition of B.C.’s other politician-broadcasters: Rafe Mair, Christy Clark, Dave Barrett, Jim Nielsen, Barrie Clark.”

Horgan isn’t getting a resumé together quite yet. He’s pretty happy right where he is.