I’ve been reading a number of blogs over the past couple of months which have been outspoken about the volcanic rise of Alberta’s ultra-rightwing Wildrose Party since their first MLA was elected in a provincial by-election. Comparisons have been made between the upstart Alberta Party and our Green Party, whose incremental increase in popularity over the years can better be described as "glacial". What can we Greens learn from the Wildrose Party?
An editorial in today’s Globe and Mail by Gary Mason really got me thinking about success. Although Wildrose has only at this time experienced very limited electoral success with 1 MLA elected, that’s still more electoral victories than all of the Green Parties at the Federal and Provincial levels in Canada have to their credit. Wildrose, however, has been out-polling the governing Provincial Conservatives for some time now, and they are deemed to be a serious threat to upset the monolithic balance of power in that province.
So what are they doing that the Greens aren’t doing?
For me, a lot of it has to do with messaging. Wildrose has been delivering a very popular and populist message: smaller government, better management of the economy, and a better life through increased profits and hard work. They point to Ed Stelmach’s PC as the Party who dropped the golden goose-egg of the Alberta economy the moment that the global recession hit home. With all of the wealth accumulating in Alberta, surely to goodness the PC’s could have been a little more prepared to weather the storm.
With this message, which has more to do with what the Wildrose isn’t than what it is (it’s not the status quo PC’s), the Wildrose has been increasing in popularity, especially among conservative voters, which are apparently fairly numerous out Alberta way. In many respects, Wildrose appears to be a mini-Reform Party.
Gary Mason’s editorial in the Globe, though, worked my blood into a bit of a frenzy, as he reports something about Wildrose’s Leader, Danielle Smith, which I didn’t know. It seems that Danielle has latched onto another popular message when it comes to Climate Change. Mason reports Smith as having expressed in a speech to the Canadian Club of Calgary that the "science [of climate change] isn’t settled", and went on to quote from Lawrence Solomon’s book "The Deniers".
Whoa. That’s. Wild. This woman wants to be Premier of Alberta. And her conclusion regarding the science of climate change is that it hasn’t been settled yet? Oh my. This is a very dangerous woman, leading a dangerous Party.
But getting back to my original question, can we Greens learn anything from Wildrose’s rise? Yes, I think we can, but I don’t know that it’s all that useful. You see, Wildrose as a political party, takes the easy way out. They are great at criticizing the current government for not doing things the "right way" (figuratively and, in this case, literally).
They offer little in the way of concrete solutions of their own, and instead offer up vague, but feel-good assessments of how things might be different if they were elected. While vague, these feel-good assessments make people, well, feel good about a future in which Wildrose forms the government. Less taxes, more business opportunities, fewer handouts to the roustabouts who won’t work, smaller government with fewer civil servants pocketing hard-earned tax dollars; less red-tape for businesses. Nothing here has to be specific.
And that’s because it’s clear that Wildrose is after the hearts of Albertans...and not their minds. Or maybe it’s better to say that Wildrose is appealing to the wallets of Albertans, rather than to their rationality. For a political party, it can be very easy to win the hearts of voters before you actually have to implement anything. So right now, Wildrose, as the new kid on the block, has a free run to say whatever they want, and no one can challenge them on their past record.
We Greens, also without a record, would presumably be able to do the same. But we’ve always come at politics from a much different perspective. We’ve always aimed clearly at the voter’s minds when we go a-campaigning. Even when we try appealing to the hearts of voters with internet videos of children at risk from climate catastrophe, we are actually still trying to capture the minds of voters, asking them to think about the next generation when they cast a ballot.
Well, Greens, guess which approach works best in politics? Go for the hearts or go for the minds? It really should come as zero surprise to anyone that if you really want political success, you go after the hearts of voters and not the minds.
Now, many may think that the climate change catastrophe offers more than enough emotionality for us to campaign for people’s hearts, and not just their minds. I know that a lot of us personally are very worked up about climate change. But for most Canadians, climate change remains something to worry about in the far future, and not something which directly impacts their day to day life. As a result, yes, they may agree that someone has to do something, but then they change the channel and move on to Tiger Woods’ marital woes. Margaret Wente explains this well in an editorial also found in today’s Globe and Mail.
The message we Greens try to deliver is decidedly not a populist message. Yet it’s a message which we clearly aren’t going to try to stop delivering. We try to change it around and focus on positives, because even with our political naivety, we know that no one is going to vote for the Doom and Gloom Party. We try to be hopeful and full of optimism, but at the end of the day the sorts of changes which are Party advocates for aren’t yet on the minds of a majority of voters. We remain "out there" somewhere: largely out of touch. As long as plants respire, wanting to tax carbon emissions as pollution is going to be a bit of a hard-sell.
Sure, some who take a close look at our Party might realize that there are a lot of positive things going on. They may even realize that we’ve got policies galore to address just about every conceivable issue out there, likely more policies than all of the other Parties put together. If anyone wants to know what we really stand for, well, they can find out and review our policies in all of their undigested glory.
Wildrose, on the other hand, has something going for it which we don’t. Zeitgeist. Without much in the way of effort, Wildrose has tapped into the feel and emotions of our time. And it will come as some surprise to us Greens that what people are feeling and sensing right now in 2009 isn’t primarily that urgent action is needed on climate change and democratic reform. Instead, the urgency of the moment demands a robust, growing economy, with jobs and a bright future for everyone willing to work for it.
In this "moment", we Greens are seen as an obstacle to that "personal" future. In that future, if the lefties and big government got out of the way, we’d all be better off. This recent recession was, after all, brought on by a housing bubble which popped: banks lending money to people who foolishly couldn’t afford to repay it. Or because of big-government spending adding to our debtload. Or because of the greedy unions. Or because of China.
What compelling contribution do we Greens have to offer voters when it comes to this "all about me" future? What can we do to intervene to make voters believe that our message is actually one of hope for the voter himself? Where mixed-member proportional voting and greenhouse gas emission pricing fail to resonate, what can we offer?
I believe that we’ve got a card hidden up our sleeve which we rarely play. Whether that’s because we don’t get the chance to play it or because we feel the need to explain why we’re playing it when we try to (which takes far, far too long), we hesitate to use it, and instead fall back to appealing to the minds of voters. We’ve got a big, emotion-laden card to play. And Greens, I think the time has come to play this trump.
If Wildrose’s popularity, in part, has to do with their stand against taxes, let’s trump the right-wingers where it hurts their small "c" support most, and start reigning in those small "c" conservative voters ourselves. If the ultra-right wants to cut people’s taxes so that there’ll be more money in the wallet to spend on the future, Greens it’s time to talk up how our own call for Income Tax Cuts goes way beyond anything currently being contemplated by the right-wingers.
Are you upset with seeing almost half of your heard-earned money disappear to the tax man off of every paycheque you earn? Vote Green and we’ll reduce your income tax burden by up to 1/3 of what you’re now paying! If you want to leave the green in your wallet, vote Green. And you can feel good about doing so too!
Greens, if want to experience electoral success, it’s time to put away the rhetoric about the environment and the democratic deficit. People already know where we stand on those issues anyway. And yes, I know that income tax cuts are actually an environmental issue, but try getting that message across to the Canadian public, especially through the mainstream media, and it’s just not going to translate. The Environment and the Economy remain, in 2009, two separate and unequal pillars, with the economic pillar standing first and foremost, looming over all else.
If we want to elect MP’s, MPP’s and MLA’s, we’re going to need to win the hearts of voters through their wallets. And that’s why we need to focus on cuts to personal income taxes. That’s the message we need to deliver to the public.
That, to me, is the lesson learned from the rise of the Wildrose Party. Maybe that’s a hard lesson for we Greens, who have generally relied on rationale, scientific arguments to convince others that action is required. But what are we here for, if not to elect some MP’s and transform our society? If we’re going to do so, we need to deliver an appealing message to the here-and-now voter. Cutting personal income taxes is that message.
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