Bittersweet retirement: Why BC's premier is stepping down at the apex of his career

Jun 29 2022, 4:24 pm

Premier John Horgan announced his retirement from politics on Tuesday, choosing to end his career on a high note, and leave at the top of his game.

But there was also, clearly, regret. You could hear it in his comments. You could feel it in his rushed, poorly-organized exit.

In the end, it wasn’t a political scandal or unpopular decision that sent Horgan packing after five years in office. It was his health.

The radiation treatment for his throat cancer in January left him gaunt and uncomfortable, unable to produce enough saliva in his mouth to carry on most public speaking engagements without copious amounts of water. That was followed in April by a bout of COVID-19 that, because the 62-year-old was already medically vulnerable, rendered him completely exhausted.

It was clear the cancer and COVID had zapped his strength in the last two months. He skipped Question Period and public events with increasing regularity. Entire weeks would pass with barely an appearance. He was quick to lose his temper (something he’d mastered since his time in opposition when he was dubbed Hulk Horgan). One day, he dropped an f-bomb on the floor of the house and stormed out the revolving door.

In short, Horgan had clearly hit the wall.

Perhaps the best indication was last week, when he couldn’t muster the discipline required to stick to boilerplate answers about his political future during an interview with CBC Victoria radio. Instead, an exhausted Horgan blurted out that he’d have “more to say” about if he’d stay as premier following the conclusion of a caucus and cabinet retreat.

That inadvertent candour set the clock ticking on when he had to announce his departure.

So, he tackled it head-on.

“My health is good, but my energy flags as the days go by,” Horgan admitted Tuesday.

“We came to the conclusion that I’m not able to make another six-year commitment to this job.”

There were numerous moments in his press conference in which he admitted he wished he was continuing but that he didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to do so.

“I had every intention of carrying on and prosecuting the next election,” he said.

“That was my plan. I loved the work. But the cancer diagnosis and the subsequent surgery and treatment was rigorous. Again, I am cancer free. And I have to now reflect on what do I do with the summers I have ahead of me. I will give everything I have until there’s a replacement.”

It was a bittersweet comment and a bittersweet press conference.

It’s hard not to feel bad for Horgan, a politician of extraordinary ability who formed a deep connection with the British Columbia public but then had to walk away at the apex of his career.

In part, because he so clearly deserved better.

He deserved better than to have to quit at the height of his popularity due to health issues beyond his control.

He deserved better than to have a five-year premiership sideswiped by a two-year global pandemic, a historic flood and multiple wildfire seasons of record proportions. 

And he deserved better than to have announced his resignation alone in a nondescript hotel conference room in Vancouver — far away from his home riding and his wife, whom he both adores — by blundering staff who leaked the news to the national media in Ottawa and stiff-armed British Columbians.

Still, Horgan, a “happy warrior” as he styles himself, tried to put the best spin on it.

In leaving now, he accomplishes something rare in BC politics: Giving up power before you lose it.

Horgan didn’t sink to enormous depths of unpopularity, like his predecessor Christy Clark. 

He wasn’t run out of office over a controversial policy, like Gordon Campbell. 

He wasn’t victim to Game of Thrones-style backroom power grabs, like four NDP premiers who rose and fell in ignominious fashion in the 1990s. 

Horgan left his BC New Democratic Party in a much stronger position than the one he inherited.

“I’ve been a student of history, as many of you know, and it’s rare for a political leader to have the opportunity to say, ‘I think it’s time for someone else,’ without it being a less comfortable moment,” said Horgan.

“So, the timing was right.”

Even if, for many who had come to admire him, the timing was also a true shame.

Rob is Daily Hive’s Political Columnist, tackling the biggest political stories in BC. You can catch him on CHEK News as their on-air Political Correspondent.

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