Political Scientist: Andrew Weaver holds the balance of power

Andrew Weaver won international acclaim for his research on climate change, which now poses a threat to his BC Green Party's alliance with the NDP

Credit: Pooya Nabei

Weaver won international acclaim for his research on climate change, which now poses a threat to his BC Green Party’s alliance with the NDP

It’s a hot August day, and BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver is dripping. We’ve been walking all afternoon in the Vancouver Pride Parade, and his rumpled rainbow shirt is sweat-stained and sticking to his back. Even his battered cowboy hat betrays the handiwork of the Denman Street squirt-gunners, who were firing welcome volleys of refreshing water.

In the grand political tradition, Weaver has been shaking every outstretched hand, stopping—and smiling—for selfies, and handing out informational cards on proportional representation—or flicking those cards, with amazing accuracy, to people leaning from balconies or second-storey windows. He’s got a broad, engaging smile and a boyish enthusiasm; you can tell that he finds the card-flicking, especially, to be great fun. But as the parade pauses along Beach Avenue, we come to a halt: the smile fades, the shoulders droop, the rainbow shirt clings a little closer. And I say, “So, Andrew: is this your favourite part of politics? Least favourite?”

Weaver looks back, the fatigue now showing on his face, and says, “I’m a policy guy. I’d rather be sitting at a desk, working on a solution.” Then, collecting himself, he adds, “But this is wonderful. I love talking to people, and the reaction is great. We wouldn’t have got this five years ago. People want to vote for the Green Party.”

Five years ago—2013—marks the point where Weaver, the now-57-year-old, Victoria-born husband and father of two, transitioned from being one of the most admired and articulate climate scientists in Canada, arguably in the whole world, to being a politician, a necessarily selfpromoting advocate, not just for the health of the planet, but for the fortunes of his own aspiring political party.

Science, as Weaver practised it when he was still the Nobel Peace Prize–sharing Canada Research Chair in Climate Modelling and Analysis at UVic, is the unfettered and uncompromising pursuit of knowledge and understanding. You ask your questions in the form of advanced experimentation and you publish your results, so your scientific peers may adopt new conclusions or tear your research to shreds, depending upon its robustness. It’s all out in the open and, the oil industry’s denial campaign notwithstanding, all black and white.

Politics, on the other hand, is all compromise. As Weaver discovered in negotiating a working agreement with BC New Democratic Party Leader (and, thanks to Weaver, Premier) John Horgan, everything is about the give and take. And as you compromise, you are compromised.

Gaining Confidence

That was certainly borne out late last year, when the NDP endorsed continuing construction on the controversial Site C dam project and Weaver and his two Green colleagues stood by. Erstwhile Green Party supporters were apoplectic—not least the person who might have been Weaver’s highest-profile admirer up till that point.

Environmental icon David Suzuki’s view of “Dr. Andrew Weaver” had always been clear and favourable. “I’m a big fan of Andrew’s,” Suzuki said in a 2011 Weaver profile in BCBusiness. “He’s one of the few Canadian scientists right now who’s willing to put his life on the line and speak out.” But after Weaver ducked on Site C, Suzuki told Andrew McLeod at The Tyee that he thought Weaver had sold out in the hopes of keeping the NDP in power long enough to win support for a new provincial system of proportional representation. “Now, politics comes before principle,” Suzuki said. “So I’m really disillusioned.”

Sitting in a coffee shop on that same August day, Weaver shrugs when the comment comes up. What, he asks, would have been the point of bringing down the government and triggering a new election when both the NDP and the BC Liberals support continuing with Site C? Voters likely would have retreated to one of the major parties, delivering a clear majority to a Site C supporter, and the Greens would have lost both the argument and their leverage ongoing.

Besides, Weaver says, Site C was not on the list of commitments that the Greens extracted from the NDP when they made the 2017 Confidence and Supply Agreement (CASA) that allowed the NDP to lead a functional coalition government, despite having fewer seats than the Liberals.

That agreement, and the relationship on which it was built, continues to stand— though soon enough it may wobble.

Weaver attributes the original CASA success to two factors: the Liberal Party’s failure to bring anything to the table; and John Horgan’s willingness to work past some troubled history and make firm commitments on the issues that mattered most to the Greens. To the first point, Weaver says that he had a longer, better relationship with the Liberals, based in part on his admiration for ex-premier Gordon Campbell’s leadership in introducing the first carbon tax in North America. But Campbell’s successor, Christy Clark, had been undermining B.C.’s admirable climate policies and seemed disinterested in negotiating a deal with the Greens. Even today, Weaver says, “The Liberals still don’t understand that they lost the election.”

As to the second point, when the May 2017 election produced a deadlock, with the Greens holding the balance of power, Weaver and Horgan were barely on speaking terms. After the NDP’s narrow loss to the Liberals in 2013, many New Democrats (perhaps including Horgan) blamed the Greens, imagining that Weaver and company had appropriated part of “the NDP vote.” Thereafter, Horgan, as the NDP House Leader, seemed do everything in his power to deny airtime to Weaver, the lone Green member of the legislative assembly (MLA). They were not friends.

But as it turned out, the two men are both rugby aficionados—the kind of no-holdsbarred combatants who like nothing more than spending the afternoon bloodying one another’s noses and then retiring to the bar together for a few cold ones. Horgan (see p.30) now describes that to-and-fro in genteel and diplomatic terms: “Andrew and I know we can be very direct with each other—we have to be. We get on very well, and I appreciate his perspective, even when we disagree.”

The CASA negotiations were a turning point, Horgan says. “Andrew and I worked through policy issues and found out how much we have in common. The relationship— even with the occasional ups and downs—has only deepened since then. I think we’re both aware our agreement is breaking new ground, and the responsibility is both intimidating and exciting.”

In short, Horgan and Weaver have built the kind of deep and abiding trust that prevails when you know that the other person may, at any moment, snatch up the ball and run away.

Credit: Darcy Shawchek

Andrew Weaver (right) checks out the Site C dam project from a landowner’s perspective. 

Electoral Climate

Still, the functional NDP-Green coalition has made headway on policy issues of mutual interest, including electoral, lobbying, environmental and regulatory reform; child care; the Fair Wages Commission; the basic income pilot; and the innovation commission (Innovate BC). But two big issues hang in the balance.

The first is the referendum on proportional representation, an initiative the Greens support with full enthusiasm. And why not? As Weaver points out, his party attracted almost 17 percent of the popular vote in 2017 but won only three of the legislature’s 87 seats. A proportional division would have given them 14 or 15.

The Liberal Party is dead set against the change, and again, why not? They and their Social Credit predecessors have ruled the province with 13 majority governments since 1952, despite having only once won an actual majority of the votes.

And the New Democrats are, at the very least, divided. While Horgan and his senior ministers speak in favour of proportional representation, prominent members of the party are leading the opposition. Still, the vote belongs to the people, and the referendum is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Green support for the NDP.

Climate policy is different. This was the issue that brought Weaver to politics and, unlike Site C, a robust climate change plan is a foundational part of the CASA. And in the summer, he was still saying the NDP plan looked “great”—”unless we continue to pursue LNG.”

Liquefied natural gas: the industry already undid former Liberal premier Christy Clark, who overpromised and then crashed when no LNG plants were approved during her tenure. Weaver argues that this issue could also prove the undoing of the NDP. It certainly could undo the Green-NDP coalition. As Royal Dutch Shell moves forward with its Kitimat facility, he says a project that blows up the NDP’s carbon emission promises “would be an egregious breach of the Confidence and Supply Agreement.”

Politician or not, Weaver still has a math PhD, which presents a problem for an NDP administration that promised to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent before 2030 and now proposes to add a monster LNG plant that, all by itself, could increase provincial emissions by almost one-third. As Premier John Horgan was lining up with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Shell to celebrate the project, Weaver was saying it would be “the NDP’s problem” to square that circle—or lose his support.

Returning to David Suzuki: the environmentalist was blistering about Weaver after the Site C decision but later sounded more philosophical, concluding, sadly, that “The problem with politicians is politics.” Andrew Weaver has managed that problem well, so far. But between the proportional representation referendum and the unfolding LNG dynamics, the weather could turn foul by Christmas. Weaver may yet be happy for the extra protection of an old hat.