Sunday, August 11, 2013

Is the Green Party Still Relevant? Part 3: Values, Costs and the Pursuit of Power

In the current Canadian political reality which I’ve described in the first two posts of this series, the question “Is the Green Party of Canada still relevant?” appears to remain unanswered. In Part 1, I looked at the current political climate and potential for future Green successes, as well as some of the areas of concern which the Party can expect to face in the lead-up to the 2015 general election. In Part 2, I dove down into the depths of the Green Party’s own internal machinations about electoral co-operation with other parties, and exposed what I believe to be a critical conversation amongst Party members about the Party’s power structure; a conversation which isn’t yet happening, but must, in the run-up to candidate nominations.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll offer my own answer to the question, “Is the Green Party of Canada still relevant?”. And I’ll do so right away.

Interestingly, it’s because of the current political reality that I believe the answer to be a clear, “Yes”. The political divisions fomented by the old-line political parties have continued to demonstrate that while between parties there may be overlap in policies (such as the Liberal’s call for the legalization of marijuana and the NDP’s desire to promote proportional representation), the values on which the New Democratic and Liberal parties are based and on which they continue to operate are not those which are shared by the Green Party of Canada. And the opposite is also true – our values are not their values. And they in which each party interprets its values is also germane to any discussion about the Green Party’s relevancy on the Canadian political scene.

Values and Political Parties

Both the Liberals and the NDP claim to offer Canadians policies which are based on a relatively undefined set of values – values which these parties believe they share with the majority of Canadians. We keep hearing about “Liberal Values” from Liberal candidates, for example, but nowhere that I’m aware of are these “Liberal Values” clearly articulated. This stands in stark contrast to Green Values – which are a set of six pillars on which membership-submitted policy of the Party is tested and ultimately approved. Our Leader, unlike the Leaders of the NDP or the Liberals, cannot simply discard policies which grassroots Greens have passed.

Recently, the national media has been making a big deal about Justin Trudeau’s new stance on marijuana –previously he had voted with the Conservative Party for harsher sentences for marijuana possession. Then, last year, he changed his mind and embraced decriminalization. This year, Trudeau has embraced the long-standing Green Party of Canada policy of legalization. What the media hasn’t adequately reported (with but a few exceptions) is the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada’s membership last year voted on a policy which called for the legalization of marijuana. Trudeau’s new stance is really not all that new – it’s just that now he’s aligned himself with his own Party!

Perhaps more famously, and more telling, at the 2009 Liberal Policy Convention, then-Leader Michael Ignatieff reacted quite strongly to the Liberal Membership’s re-endorsement of Stephane Dion’s Carbon Tax policy. On the same day that Liberal delegates voted in favour of keeping the carbon tax as part of their Party’s policies, Ignatieff publicly nixed the idea of pricing carbon. To me, this action spoke volumes about so-called “Liberal Values” – when a single individual in the form of the Leader of the Party has the ability and authority to over-ride the will of the membership, well, that’s far more akin to a dictatorship than it is to democracy. If a Party normalizes these sorts of abuses of power in its own internal processes, what might that Party do with a whole country like Canada? Some might suggest that these authoritarian powers are necessary at the Party level in order to promote Party discipline and to feed the message machine. The specific little policies of a party clearly are not as important as getting elected and dealing with bigger-picture items. Bigger picture items than the legality of pot – and certainly bigger than wading into a carbon pricing debate!

The Liberals, NDP and the Politics of Message-Machine Populism

Indeed, both the Liberals and the NDP have decided that it is far more politically expedient to abandon any strict set of values and instead embrace a small buffet of populist policies which are perceived to be a winning electoral recipe – in short, to say and do whatever it takes to get themselves elected, while appearing to remain “progressive”. Unpopular policies approved by their memberships, or espoused previously by candidates and MP’s will be shelved in favour of each Party’s respective message-machines. While the household name of a particular candidate might have significant import for a particular political party, the policies which individuals previously championed, unless completely in line with the message-machine approved talking points, will be discarded, abandoned, and in many cases, denied.

We saw this at work just recently in the Ontario by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, a riding now in the City of Toronto. Mayor Rob Ford and other Conservatives on Toronto City Council had been pushing to build subways to Scarborough, which was not in the original plan endorsed by Metrolinx, an agency of the Province which looks after transit development initiatives throughout the City of Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area. Metolinx had instead endorsed a plan to build Light Rail Rapid Transit (RT) to Scarborough, which would have served more commuters and would have cost about a billion dollars less than subways. But subways are popular with the public, so the Liberal government of Premier Kathleen Wynne changed its tune on the RT, and the New Democrats under Leader Andrea Horwarth did the same.

This put former Toronto Transit Commission Chair Adam Giambrone, the NDP’s candidate, and former RT-advocate Mitzie Hunter, the Liberal’s candidate, in awkward positions. Essentially, both had to ignore or absolve themselves from positions which they previously held before receiving their Party’s nominations – in order to fall in line with their Party’s message that it was ok to spend a billion dollars more on a subway which would serve fewer people. Only the Green Party of Ontario’s candidate Nick Leeson had the ability to suggest to voters that this situation was ludicrous. Leeson received 2.15% of the vote, and Hunter was elected MPP.

Note the use of the word “ability” above. The fact is that once a candidate is nominated to represent either the Liberals or the NDP, they’ve pretty much got to fall in line with their Party’s message-machine, even when the message coming from the machine is absurd, as was the case with the RT reversal. Absurd, perhaps, but apparently it was popular – enough to win Hunter the riding (38.5%), enough to have pro-subway PC candidate Ken Kirupa finish in 2nd place (30.8%), and enough for scandal-plagued Giambrone (whose right to be the nominated candidate for NDP remains a question today) to gather 28.4% of the popular vote.

Policy – Single Serving Buffet vs. Three-Course Meal

The above situation is illustrative. The Liberals and the NDP cannot be trusted to develop comprehensive policy proposals based on the perceived good of society. Instead, what we get are a series of disconnected, yet individually popular, policy proposals which often work against the public good. Whether it’s the New Democrats calling for lower gasoline prices or their refusal to look at non-traditional user-pay revenue models, or the Liberal’s desire to reduce electricity rates or to support pipeline proposals in absence of research, data and facts, both parties are rife with populist agendas. Indeed, it appears that the Liberal Party is doing all that it can to slave its success to that of Leader Justin Trudeau, just as it tried to do with former Leader Michael Ignatieff. At least the NDP seems to have shackled itself with a brooding, too-serious Leader who tries to articulate a deep thought or two every now and then (but has largely learned to avoid doing so thanks to a Liberal/Conservative mainstream media which is almost certainly going to misrepresent him – witness recent comments made about “Dutch Disease” and the need for rail regulation after the Lac Megantic tragedy).

This form of political populism does not serve the nation well. It’s not unusual for policies on offer within the same party to be at odds with other policies. Take, for instance, the NDP’s stated desire to limit greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to fight climate change. If the NDP were serious about doing just that, they would not offer policies which seek to cap the price of gasoline, making it more affordable for people (and especially rich people) to drive more and emit even more greenhouse gas pollution. These policies on offer are like a single-serving buffet, where the voter is encouraged to pile what they can on their plate. No matter that the beet juice might get into the ice cream and make it taste bad, or the soft drink spill into the tuna salad. Ice cream, beets, tuna salad and Orange Crush are all popular, so everybody should get some!

A more pragmatic approach to policy development would be to sit down and actually plan and execute a three-course meal. Sure, it’s going to take more time to prepare and serve, but when you control the individual components to a stricter degree, what you end up with is a gastronomical experience where the components act in harmony with one another, creating something far greater and more pleasant than they would have on their own. Generally speaking, this is what political parties tried to do in the past (and what the Green Party of Canada does today – you should read Vision Green if you haven’t already), but this approach has been abandoned because of the perception that voters are “picky eaters” who might end up leaving the whole meal uneaten, because there might be some mushrooms in the gravy.

The Green Party and the Pursuit of Political Power

Greens know that this kind of political populism isn’t what Canada needs right now in order to get ourselves on track to remain economically competitive throughout the 21st Century. Greens know that the policies and values of the Liberals and NDP don’t start with an understanding that global warming must be held at or below 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid disastrous feedback loops. Greens know that the concept of sustainability needs to be at the forefront of all decision-making, including decisions related to our economy, and not simply treated as a “nice to have”. Greens know that if we are serious about participatory democracy, we must practice what we preach without exception.

This might make us seem to be the Party that can’t compromise, and that can’t bring itself to work with others. But that’s actually not the reality. If anything, our values mark the Green Party as the only Party which is able to pursue a co-operative agenda, given that we have not slavishly bound ourselves to the pursuit of power above all else. Indeed, our grassroots membership’s 2012 directive to our Federal Council required that body to pursue electoral co-operation with the Liberals and the NDP. That we continue to be rebuffed by the other Parties is not a fault of our own making by strictly adhering to our values. No, it’s the other Parties which have refused to consider compromise of any sort, in the pursuit of their power-obtaining agendas.

We know that the pursuit of power can’t be the primary motivation of those who would wield power. Yet, for Canada’s three old-line political parties, it’s clear that their primary motivation is the pursuit of power. Perhaps it could be argued that of the three, it is only the Conservative Party which has articulated a relatively comprehensive rationale or a vision to voters regarding why voters should entrust them with absolute power and authority. Now, that vision is certainly one which has not inspired a majority of Canadian voters, and it is certainly one to which I am personally largely opposed to in its detail. I think it’s also fair to suggest, however, that in the pursuit of power, the Conservative Party has let down a decent segment of its core voters, but it has done so with the knowledge that this socially conservative segment is not likely to abandon the Conservative Party, for there would be nowhere else for it to go.

Certainly, the desire to wield power is present amongst Greens. If it weren’t, there wouldn’t be a Green Party, and the question about our relevancy on the Canadian political scene could be easily answered. The difference that I’m trying to paint, however, is one of values and comprehensive vision– and specifically the idea that it is important to remain faithful to a core set of values, both in its public policy proposals and in the Party’s actions. Just as successful scientific experiments need to be repeatable, so should the guiding principles of a political party. And although the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party maintain that they, too, are values-based parties, the reality of their operations are often at odds with what they profess to value. I, for one, certainly wish that more Liberal and NDP voters and supporters would realize this.

Compromise and Costs

Yes, politics may be the “art of the compromise”, but I think it’s fair to defer to a more economically-centred model for greater wisdom, and ask the simple question, “How much does that cost?” That’s a question whose answer is of fundamental importance to Greens, especially since it’s how the question itself will be answered which probably holds more importance than the answer itself. Greens understand that to truly answer that question, a triple-bottom line analysis is required – one which looks at costs and benefits to environmental, social and economic factors. A more rudimentary perusal of a price-tag might cut it for those enamoured with the ideology of the old-line parties, but that’s going to make little headway with Greens.

The same, too, is apparent in politics. If the “art of the compromise” is one which will have a greater triple-bottom line cost/benefit analysis for Canadians, only then can the compromise itself be worth pursuing. Grassroots Greens gave this direction to our Federal Council when we voted to allow it to pursue negotiations with other parties which might have led to electoral co-operation and the elimination of the first-past-the-post electoral system. What it does not imply is that compromise for the sake of electoral gain alone through the pursuit of populist measures should be considered desirable on its own. A greater level of analysis is required with specific policy proposals, one which assesses all social, environmental and economic costs. As examples, in the political realm, the NDP’s call for capping gasoline prices may be popular with voters, but it certainly does not stand up to a greater analysis of overall environmental, social and economic costs.

Green Decision-Making

It may be that Greens in Canada will have to wrestle with issues related to compromise at some point in the future, just as Green Parties in other parts of the world have had to do. In fact, we’ve already had to start doing so, with the election of Elizabeth May to parliament. Without member-approved policy to guide the way she votes (for, try as we might, even we Greens can’t anticipate every single possible vote in the House of Commons), May has had to rely on the values of the Party as viewed through her own lens of understanding of those values. For example, May was criticized by some for not supporting the Canada’s participation in the aerial bombardment of Libya. May voted against the government motion, which otherwise would have received the unanimous support of all parliamentarians. Although hers was but one vote, the perception it created was that not all Canadians were behind Canada’s choosing sides through military participation in the Libyan Civil War. May’s vote was guided by the values of the Party along with her own values. Interestingly, these values coincided with those of a number of Canadians who belong to and/or support other political parties, which suggests to me that a unanimous vote in parliament to bomb Libya really would not have reflected Canadian public opinion.

My point here is that Greens in parliament will be guided by our vision and values. Greens will not vote in parliament based on the direction which the Party Whip assigns each vote, which is the way that votes are carried out in other Parties. Indeed, in 2012, grassroots Green Members voted on a policy which now requires the Green Party of Canada to never have “whipped” votes in parliament. While this might make some dyed-in-the-wool Green partisans a little uncomfortable, by giving direction to the Party on the matter of whipped votes, it’s clear that Greens are thinking ahead to a time when a full caucus will be meeting and discussing pertinent issues of the day, in advance of figuring out how to cast what in reality amounts to single votes by the elected representatives of voters in the riding which sent the individual to Ottawa who just happened to be a Green.

Values vs. Political Expediency – What Sets Greens Apart

Other parties are quick to forget that Canadians cast their ballots for an individual, and not for a political party. Maybe this is because the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats do what they can to thwart individual thinking in favour of the message-machine. Liberals and Conservatives might say that this kind of party discipline is needed in order to present a united front on matters which are of governmental importance, but that same united front isn’t necessary for things like Private Members bills. The NDP, however, even tends to whip votes on Private Members bills. And the fact of the matter is, who is to say that individual values and matters of personal conscience should be over-ridden by political expediency? In some cases, political expediency even over-rides a Party’s previously stated-political position, if that position has been deemed to be “unpopular”. Ultimately, the individual casting a vote in parliament has little to no say in how that vote will be cast, if that Member of Parliament happens to be a Conservative, a Liberal or a New Democrat. Party discipline is clearly paramount in for those parties – and more important than any other consideration.

The Green Party just doesn’t operate like that. I sometimes hear Elizabeth May try to explain how the Green Party functions to journalists and pundits, and what she describes is an experience so different from any they’ve encountered, they invariably either get it wrong in summation, or they just seem to not believe her. After all, in the experience of the mainstream media, a political party in Canada pursues power primarily for the sake of power – all other considerations are secondary. And that’s not the Green Party’s reason for being.

Yes, the Green Party remains relevant today – probably more so in today’s increasingly hyper-partisan political circumstance than ever before. That the Green Party may not mount an expensive campaign around a candidate with a recognizable name in your riding doesn’t mean that the candidate and her supporters shouldn’t be taken seriously by voters. Yes, we may not garner much in the way of mainstream media attention, and yes, our numbers may not be able to generate a significant amount of social media activity, but that’s not important. The words that we say, the policies that we talk about, the Party that we promote – all of it will be based on our shared vision for a bright and healthy future for Canadians. Our words and actions will not be based on electoral gimmicks or concessions, or mid-election flip-flops on important policy matters based on a perceived change in public mood. Greens will continue to advance the notion that it’s more important to do what’s right for Canada than it is to pander to voters. If you don’t agree with our policies, we’ll thank you at least for having taken a look, and instead of trying to suppress you from casting a ballot, we’ll encourage you to vote for someone else – because at the end of the day, Greens know that voting for someone is more important than voting for a Green – and more important than not voting at all.

Yes, the Green Party is relevant. The suggestions of others to the contrary are, in my opinion, not reflective of our Canada’s current political reality.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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