Thursday, July 19, 2012

Greens Doing Politics Differently: A Smart Play by Elizabeth May in Etobicoke Centre

Yesterday, it was reported by Globe & Mail political columnist Gloria Galloway that Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May would urge her party not to run a candidate in the riding of Etobicoke Centre, should the Supreme Court of Canada determine that a by-election is necessary due to voting irregularities which transpired at certain polling stations on the May 2nd, 2011 general election. May also suggested that, in the spirit of co-operation, the NDP also should refrain from running a candidate, which would essentially create the conditions for a “run off” style vote between Conservative Ted Opitz, who was declared the winner of the riding in 2011, and Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who lost by just 26 votes.

(See: “May: Greens and NDP should stay off of Etobicoke by-election ballot” , the Globe and Mail, July 18, 2012)

May’s comments appear to have taken many Greens by surprise, including myself. Given that the Supreme Court of Canada has yet to rule on the Etobicoke Centre appeal, it appears to be completely premature to start speculating about how a by-election could shape up, including whether the Green Party should participate or not. On first glance, it seems that maybe May has got too far out in front of an issue which may never become an issue, should the Supreme Court overturn the Ontario Superior Court’s ruling to hold a by-election.

A "Spectacularly Silly Idea"

Certainly Globe & Mail guest political columnist and Liberal partisan Adam Goldenberg took May to task – not for being out in front of the by-election issue, but for proposing a radical, dangerous and “spectacularly silly” idea in Etobicoke Centre: a face-off between the Liberals and Conservatives with other potential players opting to sit out (See: “And now, a dangerous idea from Elizabeth May”, the Globe & Mail, July 19 2012). One might think that Goldenberg and his Liberals would be pleased to see the other parties sit any hypothetical by-election out, as strong Green and/or NDP candidates are probably more likely to hurt the Liberal cause in Etobicoke Centre than they are the Conservatives.

Instead, Goldenberg seemingly wants to take the high ground, argues that elections are about allowing voters to cast ballots for candidates of their choice. In elections, even candidates which have little realistic hope of winning, should not be discouraged from running, as they provide a certain segment of voters with an opportunity to show support. Goldenberg believes that there are no wasted ballots in our first-past-the-post electoral system, as each ballot is an expression of voter desire (although even Goldenberg admits that it would be easier to make the “no wasted vote” argument if we had a system of proportional representation in place).

I’ve always been a firm believer in providing voters with an opportunity to cast ballots for a candidate whom voters believe to be their best representative, and whose values may be most in keeping with their own. As a result, I’ve always believed that allowing voters more choice, rather than limiting choices, has been the way to go. I continue to believe this.

As a result, it would seem that Elizabeth May’s call for the Green Party and the NDP to sit out the Etobickoke Centre by-election (if there is to be one) would accomplish the exact opposite of allowing voters an opportunity to cast ballots for a candidate of their choice. That’s certainly Goldenberg’s assertion as well. However, what Goldenberg does not mention, and what may not be apparent to voters is the fact that no political party is required to run candidates in each and every riding in Canada, and in each and every election or by-election. While not running a candidate carries a certain risk for a political party (example: it could upset local supporters), there may be some very good reasons why a political party opts out of a particular race.

Doing What’s Right

One of those reasons might be that it’s more important to do what’s right than to do what it is politically expedient. And that appears to be the thrust of May’s call for the Greens and NDP to sit this one out, should there be a by-election in Etobicoke Centre.

It’s clear that May believes that a direct contest between Opitz and Wrzesnewskyj, between the existing and former MP’s, between the two parties (along with Elections Canada) at the centre of the recent legal proceedings, is the right thing to do. It’s reported that Wrzesnewskyj has spent several hundred thousand dollars of his own money to launch the legal challenge. In the specific circumstance of Etobicoke Centre, May appears to believe that the uniqueness of the unfolding narrative is enough to suggest that it’s right for the Liberals and Cons to go head to head, and to recommend that the Party which she leads opt not to run a candidate (and to call for the NDP to sit it out as well).

In my opinion, the argument isn’t the strongest one which can be made, although I do see May’s point. Certainly former Green and NDP candidates would still have the option to run as Independents if they didn’t agree with a future hypothetical decision of their parties to not field candidates in a future hypothetical by-election. In fact, with proper registration in place, and subject to meeting all legal criteria, just about anyone can run in the by-election. The future hypothetical decision of political parties need not actually deny providing voters with the choice which Goldenberg champions; such decisions would only limit the participation of political parties, and not the potential participation of candidates.

I, for one, don’t believe that co-operation amongst political parties is a dangerous idea at all. In fact, I see it happening every day, all over Canada. While parties may have fundamental differences with regards to numerous policy and process issues, the fact is that most elected MP’s in Canada share similar values which cross party lines. They often work together to better our nation. While co-operation might not be occurring as often as I’d like it, there’s no denying that it often does occur.

Goldenberg, however, criticizes May, calling her a “non-Conservative first, and a Green second”. It’s very clear to me that Goldenberg just doesn’t understand the Green Party of Canada, or Elizabeth May for that matter. May’s desire to work with the other parties, including Mr. Goldenberg, does not make her less of a partisan. It’s only indicative that she belongs to a party which values doing what is right for Canada above politics. Frankly, most of her Party shares these values, including rabid Green partisans like myself. For most of us, that’s why we’re here.

Right now, doing what’s right for Canada means doing everything possible to defeat Stephen Harper’s Conservatives – even if that means we must elect a Liberal in Etobicoke Centre. And this is where May’s argument for the Greens and NDP to sit out the by-election starts to make a little more sense. Although the Liberals, NDP and Green parties are not in ideological agreement on many issues, there is enough overlap to suggest to political supporters that any candidate put forward by these three parties would be preferable to electing a Conservative. So why not have the Greens and NDP back off in Etobicoke Centre, which would (in theory) increase the chance of victory for a Liberal?

Why Etobicoke Centre?

Well, isn’t it hypocritical for May to suggest electoral co-operation in Etobicoke Centre, but remain silent on non-hypothetical by-elections in Calgary Centre and Durham? May said nothing about co-operating with other parties there. Why is that?

Well, it’s not hypocritical in the slightest, because the circumstances in which by-elections have come about in Calgary Centre and Durham (as a result of the resignation of sitting MPs) are completely different than Etobicoke Centre (a court-challenge brought about by the losing candidate based on voting irregularities). The uniqueness of the Etobicoke Centre situation is enough to differentiate it from just about every other by-election in the history of Canada, as a by-election has never been ordered by our Supreme Court.

None of this means that May wouldn’t be open to the idea of electoral co-operation in Calgary Centre or Durham. It’s just that she’s not called for it, and she probably won’t. At least not until the other parties, particularly the NDP, shows it hand.

The NDP: In Whose Interests?

And this is yet another piece of May’s argument. Many NDP members and supporters have long called for some form of electoral co-operation amongst the centre-left political parties. Recently, NDP MP Nathan Cullen ran for the leadership of his party in part on the platform of having negotiating with the Liberals and Greens to have joint nomination contests at the riding level in Conservative-held ridings, so as to better be able to defeat Conservatives.

Look, this all comes down to the idea that the interests of Canada must outweigh the interests of any one political party. Many NDP supporters know this. And maybe the Liberals are starting to catch on too. Organizations like LeadNow are growing in numbers every day, because we all understand that unless the Conservatives are defeated, the Canada that we know and love will be transformed beyond our recognition should the Cons win another general election.

Yet the NDP’s new Leader, Thomas Mulcair, has unequivocally said that there will not be any co-operation between the NDP and the other political parties. Mulcair is more than willing to roll the dice and shoot for an outright NDP victory than to work with others to bring the Conservatives down. Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae described Mulcair as a “mini-Harper” when Mulcair was elected NDP Leader. There certainly appears to be a lot of truth to that, as the NDP has really emerged as the left-wing equivalent to the Conservatives, at least from a tactics point of view. I can’t understand why NDP supporters feel that their party is right to engage in negative attack ads, name-calling, and engaging in the politics of division, all in the name of achieving power.

Yet, it’s been my opinion that the NDP has really turned itself into a fierce electoral machine, obsessed only with achieving power, whatever the cost. The election of Mulcair as the new Party Leader only reinforced my opinion. I don’t think most NDP supporters realize this yet, but as the years go by, it’s likely going to become evident that the NDP’s interest in obtaining power will always outweigh their interest in Canada. In short, the NDP will continue to put partisan political gain ahead of doing what’s right.

And I’m sorry, but a political party obsessed with power (getting it and keeping it) is not going to help create the Canada that we should be building for our children.

So, will the NDP play ball in Etobicoke Centre? Probably not. Their candidate had a decent showing in the last election (7,000+ to Conservative Opitz 21,000+), and under Tom Mulcair, the NDP has found a new sort of hubris to accompany their quest for power. That they will not win Etobicoke Centre does not matter. That they be seen to be an active part of the political game is more important. That they may play foil to the Liberals by siphoning votes away from Wrzesnewskyj would also be seen as a benefit to the NDP, as the NDP stands to gain just as much (or more) through the destruction of the Liberal Party than the Conservatives do.

Really, for the NDP, as a political party, running a candidate in a riding which they won’t win is appears to be a no-brainer, once you understand that the NDP values its own success over Canada’s.

That’s a bold statement, but I’m still waiting for the NDP to prove me wrong. And as Elizabeth May points out, the unique circumstances of an Etobicoke Centre by-election are an excellent place for the NDP to start doing so. I just don’t think that they will.

Taking the High Road

Which brings me to my last reason regarding why Elizabeth May is calling for the Greens and NDP to sit out the by-election. Look, I’m a Green Party partisan, that’s pretty clear. But I also like to talk as straight as I can about what I see going on around me. Clearly, there’s a partisan motive at play for May and the Greens here too.

The fact is, the Green Party likely would not be competitive in Etobicoke Centre anyway, so really, there’s little to lose by sitting a by-election out. While by-elections do offer exposure for candidates, both locally and more broadly through the media, the fact of the matter is that the Etobicoke Centre by-election is going to play itself out as a clash of the titans between Opitz and Wrzesnewskyj, and any Green candidate will be lucky to receive a mention in the news media (do we really need more news articles whose last lines are “Also running for the Green Party is [insert mis-spelled name here]?)

Further, by-elections cost money. Sometimes, they cost even more money than a general election would in the same riding, because a party figures that more than just local eyes are watching by-elections (and that’s a good assumption to make). Normally, a by-election in a media-rich Toronto riding like Etobicoke Centre would be a gift for a smaller party like the Green Party, because any media exposure is going to be seen by a wider audience. For example, the Toronto Star is more likely to report on a by-election in Etobicoke Centre than they would be to provide coverage of this one riding in a general election.

And that’s why our very able candidate, Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu, had such a public profile in the March by-election in Toronto Danforth, Jack Layton’s old riding. Although that by-election was often portrayed as a straight contest between the NDP and Liberals, it was important for the Greens to show up and wave the flag. Doing so, however, cost money. A smaller party like the Green Party can only spend so much of our scarce resources in unwinnable ridings, just to wave the flag (and to get a little media coverage).

Etobicoke Centre would be another such riding. What would the Green Party lose if we sat this one out? Very little. We may upset some local supporters, and potentially a few active Greens who might have been toying with the idea of seeking the Party’s nomination to run, but even they might be able to see the greater good in opting out.

What’s to gain? Plenty. The Green Party is seen nationally as the Party that puts the interests of Canada ahead of partisan gain. By not running a candidate, the Party saves money and looks good doing it. And gains national media attention beyond what we could ever hope to achieve in a by-election. Now, when the press reports on the by-elections, there’s a greater chance that the Green Party’s decision to sit out Etobicoke Centre will continue to be mentioned. And no doubt some pundits will recall that Elizabeth May challenged Tom Mulcair and the NDP to sit it out as well, and they chose not to follow good advice, in the name of partisan gain.

I very much like the idea of educating NDP supporters about their party’s pursuit of power at all costs, even when it’s not in the interests of Canadians. Maybe I’ll be surprised by Tom Mulcair and the NDP, and watch as the NDP decides to sit out the by-election in Etobicoke Centre, or actually begin talking with the other parties about some sort of electoral co-operation for the upcoming general election. But I’m not holding my breath that organizations such as LeadNow are going to find much traction with the Mulcair’s NDP, even though those organizations tend to attract many partisan NDP supporters.

The Green Party: Doing Politics Differently

A couple of last items are worthy of note here. First, if you’re not a Green, you may find it interesting that May is calling on her own Party not to run a candidate in Etobicoke Centre. You may think that May could easily “make it so” by laying down the law “thou shalt not run”. Well, it doesn’t work that way in the Green Party of Canada, unlike in the other parties. While it’s true that May ultimately must sign the nomination papers of any would-be candidate (and withholding a signature would ultimately deny a candidate the ability to run as a Green), it’s actually the Party’s Federal Council which recommends a candidate to May, through the Nominations Committee. May would put herself at loggerheads with our member-elected Federal Council if she refused to sign the nomination papers of a candidate they had recommended. And although May also sits on Fed Council as Party Leader, she only has one vote. Ultimately, the decision to run a candidate in a by-election needs to be made by Fed Council, hopefully in consultation with a local electoral district association, if one exists.

The second point is that the Green Party members recently voted on two proposals regarding electoral co-operation with the NDP and Liberals (motions authorizing our Fed Council to negotiate with those two parties should the opportunity arise). Greens are thinking ahead about realistic and plausible opportunities for real electoral co-operation in advance of the 2015 general election. Again, we grassroots members are driving this process. The fact that Greens were casting ballots about electoral co-operation couldn’t have been far from May’s mind when she made her comments to the Globe & Mail about Etobicoke Centre. I am optimistic that one or both of the resolutions will be adopted by the Party at our upcoming General Meeting in Sidney, B.C. later in August. Interestingly, Liberal MP Stephane Dion, and former NDP MP (now Independent) Bruce Hyer, will be giving speeches at the BGM (I was about to write “will be joining Greens at the BGM”, but thought maybe that language was either too ambiguous, or just wishful thinking on my part!).

Note to Adam Goldenberg (and to other pundits who can’t help but view the world through blue-, red- or orange-coloured glasses), it’s time you try to make an effort and understand what being a Green is like. Maybe if a few more of you asked Greens how we think, you wouldn’t find yourself tied up in a pretzel, expounding about things like May’s call for electoral co-operation in Etobicoke Centre. We Greens value our party, but we inhabit an existence which is about so much more than mere politics. Adapting to the future is paramount, beyond obtaining power. If we can accomplish our desired outcomes through influence, education and co-operation, that’s all the power we need.

Smart play, Elizabeth May.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)


Skinny Dipper said...

Here's why the NDP needs to run a candidate: by not running one, this gives the Liberals a higher profile than the NDP. The NDP needs to become the natural alternative to the Conservatives. If the NDP chooses not to run a candidate, that would mean giving the Liberals an unfettered ability to attack the Conservatives (and the NDP).

If a by-election is held in Etobicoke Centre, the NDP does not need to win the riding. It does need to make its presence known and felt. The NDP needs to let Canadians know that it is prepared to govern.

I cynically believe that Elizabeth May does not want the NDP to run a candidate in Etobicoke Centre because the Greens may lose votes to the NDP. She does not want the NDP to become the legitimate alternative to the Conservatives. She doesn't want Green votes lost to the NDP.

susansmith said...

Also, it is important for the NDP to have a "progressive pro-choice candidate" running for choice. Neither the present Con MP or the Liberal challenger are pro-choice, which means those voters who want to vote for a progressive candidate have a option.

Sudbury Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sudbury Steve said...

@Skinny Dipper and @JanfromtheBruce – thank you both for sharing your thoughts. Your comments are always appreciated here.

I can’t, however, agree with your perspectives. First, regarding prochoice/prolife politics. As much as this issue has been on the rise over the past little while, the fact is that all four major national political parties remain committed to the status quo. Quite simply, with everything else going on, the issue in and of itself has little resonance.

While perceptions might exist that a particular candidate or party might address the issue in different ways, one can’t help but look at it as part of a suite of issues. In other words, I don’t think that many people are going to the ballot box and casting their vote simply on that one issue, particularly when all of the parties ostensibly agree on it.

Now, the more substantive issues. Skinny Dipper writes that he cynically believes that Elizabeth May does not want the NDP to become the legitimate alternative to the Conservatives. As a partisan, I think it’s fair to say that’s the wrong statement to make. Of course May would prefer that the Green Party became the legitimate alternative to the Conservatives, given that she’s the Leader of the Green Party. Being a realist (and May is certainly that), I can’t help but think that she knows that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

What is clearly apparent, however, is that May would infinitely prefer the NDP to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. Anyone who has followed May’s recent career can’t help but detect a certain general loathing of Conservative policies and tactics (although not of individual Conservatives, who May has always been willing to work with, if only they could get out from under the thumb of the PMO).

It’s also true that May has in the past been vocally critical of the NDP’s tactics (particularly when Jack Layton and Stephen Harper buddied up and cynically defeated Paul Martin’s Liberal Government on the eve of the 2006 UNFCCC in Montreal, leaving host nation Canada without a governmental voice in climate negotiations). Layton’s dismissal of May’s participation in televised election debates in both 2008 and 2011 stand out in my mind as another low point for the NDP, although I’m less certain May has ever spoken publicly about that. For a party which claims to want to champion the little guy and bring all voices to the table (rhetoric we always hear from the NDP), the NDP has usually tried to shut dissenting voices down as quickly as possible. It may make for winning politics, but it’s not good for Canada or democracy.

But I digress. Back to the original point. Sorry, I don’t agree that May is worried about losing votes to the NDP in Etobicoke Centre. She may be worried about Borys Wrzesnewskyj losing votes to the NDP – enough so that Ted Opitz ends up the sitting MP in Ottawa, but I don’t think for a minute that May is in the least thinking of her own party here in terms of vote share. She, along with progressive Canadians of all political stripes, really just wants the Cons defeated.

It’s the NDP’s prerogative to run a candidate in Etobicoke Centre, and I understand that they’ll likely do so. There are certainly very good partisan reasons for doing so, I think. But I don’t believe that partisan politicking is what’s needed from the NDP at this time, at least not in Etobicoke Centre. The NDP really should consider taking May’s advice. And along with it, consider a broader-based level of co-operation with the other opposition parties which is A) what most Canadians want; B) would lead to the implementation of core NDP policy – such as electoral reform, which the NDP keeps talking about but when elected seem to do nothing about; C) lead to Canada’s first NDP government, led by Prime Minister Thomas Mulcair. I’m pretty sure that Elizabeth May would be satisfied with those outcomes.

Anonymous said...

You act like it's Mulcair's decision whether to not run a candidate, which shows how little you understand about how the NDP works. We have a policy to run candidates in all ridings. Can't just change that without a vote by the members. The NDP is actually an org runs by its members. As well as the riding association and it's members nominates the candidate, not decided by any upper powers of the party. Actually seems way more grassroots than the Greens in that regard. I would also like to agree with person who stated opposition to the pro life Liberal. Don't see how progressives are expected to unite for that type of candidate. The NDP takes being pro choice very seriously-can

Michael Marshall said...

The right wing choose to NOT run a candidate in the Melbourne Australia by election today, urging their voters to vote for the left winger and against the greens.

So despite 39% of the vote and leading the pack, the greens will lose this crucial chance at a seat at the state level.

Maybe the Libertarian party there listened to Elizabeth May.....

Sudbury Steve said...

@Michael - Very interesting. Thanks for that information; I didn't know that was happening, and I'm going to find out more about it. I follow Australian politics intermittently, and my focus has been firmly on my family over the past few months since the arrival of our second child. Time to look down under again, I think.

@Anonymous. Thank you for that information with regards to NDP policy. At the EDA level, it sounds like Greens and the NDP have the same process, to allow local members the opportunity to nominate candidates. The Liberals and the Conservatives also have that process in place, so there's really no difference there. Where there is a difference, however, appears to be with regards to the policy you've stated that the NDP *will* run candidates in every riding. That's interesting, and you're right, the Green Party doesn't have such a policy, at least not to my knowledge (and given our history of not always contesting seats, I suspect we don't have such a policy).

It's really too bad that NDP members have shackled their party to such an inflexible policy. Realistically, there may be times when running a candidate just isn't practical. But the NDP's focus has lately been, in my opinion, on obtaining power at all costs, so really the lack of flexibility doesn't surprise me. But it does point to the notion that the NDP remains a party of the past, wanting to continue to do politics in a traditional way, rather than looking at the broader picture.

Which is what Elizabeth May and (perhaps) the Green Party are doing in Etobicoke Centre.

Now, back to the grassroots notion for a moment. Do you really, honestly, sincerely believe that if Tom Mulcair told his party he didn't want a candidate to run in the by-election, that the Party wouldn't line up behind him right away, policy or no policy? Please.

In contrast, when Elizabeth May wanted to become the nominated candidate in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, she had to go through a nomination contest, and ended up defeating a local individual. The Party didn't intervene, giving her special treatment as the Leader.

Look, I respect what the NDP has become in terms of the political machine it has built, but to suggest that the NDP is a grassroots party is just, in my opinion, out there. The degree of centralization within your party is something that most NDP members don't know about (and the broader public knows even less about), but it's there. Perhaps it's not as bad as the Conservatives or Liberals, but it's still there. Look no further than to all of those member-approved policies which your leaders will not campaign on.

You want a real grassroots party, there's only one in Canada, and it's the Green Party.