Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jagmeet Singh's Leadership Success Points the Way Forward for Electoral Co-Operation Between Greens, NDP

Bramalea-Malton-Gore MPP Jagmeet Singh has been elected leader of the federal New Democratic Party, with a convincing first ballot win (53% of votes cast – more than 33 percentage points over second-place finisher, Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus). Singh's election to the position of leader of Canada's third party has captured the attention of the national – and international media, with many comparing Singh favorably to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
(from the National Post)

Of course, comparisons to Trudeau have long turned off many New Democrats – especially those I follow with my social media feeds. I was surprised to log into Facebook yesterday to discover many of my New Democrat friends publicly expressing only half-hearted congratulations for Singh. Of course, most of my NDP friends have long been members of the party – and it's quite likely that the members that put Singh over the top on the first ballot were not mostly those who have been in the Party for years and years. With 47,000 new members signed up (according to the Singh campaign), getting just a small percentage of existing NDP member votes was likely all that Singh needed.

Expectations for Singh 

Is Singh going to be a fair-weather New Democrat, like Bob Rae? Or perhaps someone who is going to push the NDP even further to the right in an attempt to corner that infamous Canadian middleground that the pundits claim is needed for any party to govern? Or will Singh prove to be a true hollow man, running on looks and charm rather than policy or integrity? These are questions that I've seen again and again from New Democrats in my social media feed.

Certainly time is going to tell – but I would suggest that based on the evidence that we've seen from the leadership race, as well as Singh's two terms as an Ontario MPP – New Democrats have little to fear about either Singh's commitment to the Party, or his depth as a politician. Further, the policies and positions that Singh will ultimately embrace will be the ones that New Democrats themselves decide should be priorities for the Party. Singh is already out in front of the NDP membership in a number of key areas, including (of interest for me and those who may be following this blog) climate change. Throw in some of the best ideas from the Angus, Ashton and Caron campaigns (and the NDP will do just that at their next policy convention), and Singh will turn out to be a formidable leader at the head of a New Democratic Party that is finally engaged with Canadians on a complete suite of issues – rather than the populist buffet of (often contradictory) platform planks offered up by the NDP since Jack Layton became leader (yes, I wrote Jack Layton).

Sure, the NDP is likely to focus-group both Singh and party policies and package both up for voters in advance of the 2019 federal election. The NDP is a political party, after all – they are in it to win it. And should Justin Trudeau and his Liberals falter, the NDP under Singh might just be able to step in and grab a minority. Maybe. If a lot goes right.

Battleground BC

One of the things that could potentially go wrong for the NDP has to do with my party – the Green Party of Canada. The NDP is going to be aiming at taking out a number of Liberal-held ridings in B.C.'s lower mainland. Right now, B.C. voters are keeping a critical eye on Andrew Weaver's Green Party of British Columbia, which achieved a very modest breakthrough during the spring provincial election, sending 3 MLA's to Victoria – including party leader Weaver. With a supply and confidence agreement in place with John Horgan's NDP government, the Greens have committed to keeping the New Democrats in power for 4 years – while holding them accountable to voters on issues where the Greens and the NDP are not quite in discord. At the heart of this agreement is a desire on the part of both parties to reform B.C.'s antiquated first past the post electoral system. A referendum will be held in 2018, and it is quite likely that the next time British Columbians go to the polls, they will be participating in a more democratic system of electing representative governments.

Of course, proportional representation has long been a key policy of the federal NDP. Provincially, New Democrats have often paid electoral reform lip service, but when push came to shove with NDP governments in power in Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, B.C., and Alberta – nothing happened – until now in B.C., anyway. It's no wonder, really, that so many PR and electoral reform champions have given up on the NDP to actually do anything about changing Canada's electoral system – and perhaps why so many turned to Justin Trudeau's Liberals in 2015 as a way of remedying that mistake.


Anyway, if anyone thinks that Singh won't take electoral reform seriously, I would suggest that with the recent experience in B.C. (likely to be in the rear-view mirror come 2019), Singh will act on his pledge to move forward with reform. It is, after all, one of the 4 key pillars that he has highlighted again and again – and one that doesn't require New Democrats to enact any new policies.

The Green Party

The Green Party of Canada will also be aiming to take down Liberals in the lower mainland of B.C. - and New Democrats on Vancouver Island. With what is likely to be but a few exceptions elsewhere in Canada, those really are the only regions that the Greens will be able to project an electoral force in by 2019. Everywhere else (with a few exceptions – although I have no idea what those exceptions might be today) is going to be a write-off for the Greens, much as it was in 2015. And in 2011. And even in 2008, the year that the Green Party received its biggest vote share ever.

Of course, in 2008, the Party was led by its dynamic new leader, Elizabeth May – who after not being invited to the federal leadership debate nevertheless stormed that debate, and made herself appear completely at home at the highest echelons of power in this nation. It still wasn't enough to elect her or any other Greens to parliament in 2008 – but by 2011, with a Party committed to doing all that it could to win just one riding – we were able to celebrate May's victory in Saanich-Gulf Islands as a success – even though she found herself sitting in the upper corner of the House, facing off against a new majority government under Stephen Harper.

With the NDP and Greens planning to mix it up over those coveted B.C seats in 2019, the success (or lack thereof) of the Green Party has to be a part of the NDP's electoral caluculus. Elsewhere, Greens won't matter. In B.C, Greens sure will matter – especially should Horgan's government fall between now and 2019 and a new B.C election return Weaver, Fursteneau and Olsen along with a number of other Green MLA's – something which is completely within the realm of possibility.

Green Preferences - Singh v. Trudeau

Of course, once all of the ballots are counted in 2019, whatever Green MP's are elected to parliament will be able to work with whomever, right? Well, unless it's a majority situation – in which case, it won't really matter whether one or two elected Greens vote with the governing party or the opposition – the outcomes aren't likely going to change. And the bold policy initiatives that we Greens would like to see enacted will remain pipe dreams for another four years. And as we know, time is running out for the nation's of the world to take real action on climate change. Trudeau's government has been a disaster for the planet – in the opinions of many Greens, including myself. Putting a price on carbon is a good idea, but the lack of a national program is going to be incredibly problematic going forward – and Trudeau's commitment to doing even the bare minimum on carbon pricing is constantly being called into question. Throw in pipeline and LNG approvals, running rough-shod over indigenous rights and not eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and it's easy to see – from where I sit anyway – how dangerous and out of touch with reality Trudeau and the Liberals are.

Of course, it's not just me and other Greens who have noticed that reality. Jagmeet Singh has been talking about these very issues for the last several months, and indeed he's made these issues key policy planks for a Singh-led New Democratic Party (see: "NDP leadership hopeful Singh brings his love-and-courage campaign to Nanaimo," Nanaimo News Bulletin, September 9, 2017).

Seriously – do you think Singh was joking – or just saying what he though New Democrats wanted to hear – when he talked about the need to get serious on climate change and indigenous rights? And if you think he was being serious about those two pillars, why not throw in electoral reform as well?

I for one believe Singh. I believe him because the future is pointing the way. It is inevitable that the NDP would up their game on these important issues, because public opinion is forcing their hand.

Doing Politics Differently

Singh has talked a lot about doing politics differently. During the campaign, like it or not, he did just that – and yes, I understand that his cockiness turned off a lot of my New Democrat friends – and to them I say, 'First Ballot Victory'. Really, it's no surprise to me, because as a former resident of Bramalea-Malton-Gore, I've been following Singh's career since before he was elected MPP – during a time in which I knew for certain that a New Democrat could NEVER represent that riding. And I wasn't the only one who knew this fact for certain.

Sure, Singh – like all human beings – has had a number of missteps. But really there is no questioning his sincerity. Is he a policy light-weight? Maybe a little – but really, does that matter? He's certainly capable of explaining policy positions to voters. And with the NDP upping its policy game, really it's not all going to fall on Singh's shoulders to come up with key policy position after key policy position. As leader, he only has to sell those positions to voters. And sell he will.

Singh will not be taking the New Democrats further to the right, politically speaking. Instead, he's going to take them to a place that is going to be very uncomfortable for Greens – he's going to take the NDP forward. I wrote earlier that I believe the NDP is on its way to becoming a 'green' party – when I hear Singh speak, that's where I see things going.

Evolving the New Democratic Party

Almost certainly, Singh is going to have to some challenges. When I recently spun the idea that Greens need to take a resurgent federal NDP seriously, what I heard from many of my Green friends was their continual disillusionment with the NDP as a party that engages in full-on partisanship and values winning over everything else. In fact, that's long been my own major criticism of the NDP – and I've used much stronger terms in the past to express my opinion of the New Democratic Party – like the 'Party of Hypocrisy'.

Another criticism of the NDP also has to do with their culture of perpetual partisanship. The NDP tolerates no dissent from its elected officials – which frankly is the very antithesis of democracy. Greens are familiar with the story of former Thunder Bay-Superior North MP Bruce Hyer, who left the Party after not towing the party line in a whipped vote. Former Sudbury MP and now Ontario Minister of Energy Glenn Thibeault also chaffed under the NDP's intolerance for differing points of view, notably over the long gun registry. And in 2015, numerous potential NDP candidates were told they couldn't run for the party because they had written or said something in support of the BDS movement – which even today remains a third rail for New Democrats.

Partisan discipline is clearly an issue for me – and for many Greens. It's one that we often use point to in efforts to differentiate ourselves from the NDP. It's very important to us that elected officials remain, to a degree, free agents – beholden first to the voters that put our elected officials in office, and only then to the Party. I continue to suggest that this kind of grassroots democracy is dearly important to me.

But let's face it – most voters don't care. Most voters don't understand (or are interested in understanding) these inside baseball nuances. They just want to see action on issues that are important to them. When they are engaged, they are more likely to ask themselves why individuals who want to see the same or similar actions can't get their acts together to support one another, out of some strange and misdirected adherence to partisanship.

Singh actually has a chance to start changing the NDP's culture – right now. Whether he expends any of his (now considerable) sum of political capital on doing so remains to be seen. Certainly, it's not going to be a priority for him – and you can't blame him for that, given the number of other priorities that he is going to have to face. But going down the road, it may be within reason to think that Singh might loosen the grips on his MP's – especially since he's not likely going to be sitting in the House any time soon – but also because it really doesn't seem like mindless partisanship is what Singh wants or desires in a party that is moving to embrace the challenges of the 21st Century.

Keep an eye on what Singh says and does about these matters going into the next NDP policy conference. I'll bet that we'll see some movement – because it's not as if the formular that the NDP have been using has led to much in the way of electoral success in the past.

Singh's Big Problem - the Alberta NDP

Another significant challenge that Singh is going to have to face at some point is around what he is going to do with Alberta and (to a lesser extent) B.C. New Democrats who continue to be wedded to a fossil fuel-based economic paradigm that he appears to be at odds with. My bet is that he will do nothing to rock the boat – but New Democrats are going to have to something to say at some point that may lead to a kind of unacknowledged break. Rachel Notley in particular is going to be a problem for Singh and for New Democrats who opposes fossil energy projects.

Singh should keep in mind that while the Premier of Alberta is an important person – and a very important New Democrat – she and her provincial party are on the wrong side of history on this issue. The Alberta NDP are also likely going to be swept away by 2019, so it may very well be that the matter will have decided itself by the time Singh hits the campaign trail. And finally, even if not for that, Singh should keep in mind that both he himself, and his vision for a new NDP is much bigger than Rachel Notley – and ultimately far more important to Canada and the world than a desire to simply doubly tar sands output, as Alberta New Democrats have vowed to do.

Same goes for B.C. over LNG. The sooner that Horgan tosses LNG onto the trashbin of history, the sooner he can stop worrying about Andrew Weaver's B.C. Green Party. OK, that's an oversimplification – but LNG is a loser. At least for Singh, it's largely a provincial issues, unlike Notley's pipelines or tar sands expansion effort.

Looking for a Way Forward for the Green Party of Canada

Back to the Green Party for some final comments. Fellow Greens, I continue to share your concerns about the NDP's culture of political expediency and I am adopting a wait and see attitude with regards to where Singh will take his party on those matters. But I suggest that, as we did back in 2012, we begin to think ahead with regards to our own political calculus. In 2012, at the urging of our members, Elizabeth May reached out to the NDP in an effort to ascertain whether there might have been any interest in electoral co-operation of some sort. We all know how that turned out: Tom Mulcair's partisanship – which at that time found him and his party almost completely refusing to verbally acknowledge the existence of the Green Party – led to a complete rebuff of that effort.

Times have changed. Now we have a New Democratic leader who agrees to appear in joint news conferences with his Green colleague. We have a federal NDP leader who is talking about his priorities – which are many of the same sorts of things that Greens have long talked about being our priorities. With new leadership, the NDP is ripe for a bit of a cultural shift – and I believe that New Democrats will be pushing for just that. The grassroots is restless. The motivation to move forward towards action is real and palpable. As Greens, where are we going to find ourselves in light of this reality?

We have some options, for sure. We can continue to build our movement – something we have had little success with over the past decade on the federal scene. We can contest each and every riding in Canada, as we have done in the past, even if only half-heartedly just about everywhere.

Time for Electoral Co-Operation Between Greens, NDP

Or maybe we can get serious about 'doing politics differently' – that catch-phrase that I've heard so many times from my fellow Greens – and to which I myself have long subscribed. Maybe it's time that we ask ourselves whether Canada – and the Green Party of Canada would be better off with four more years of Justin Trudeau (or – gasp! Four years of Andrew Scheer!) leading to four more years of inaction on climate change and electoral reform – or whether what's needed right now is a government led by Jagmeet Singh and the New Democrats – a government interested in taking action on climate change and proportional representation.

I am coming to the conclusion that it may not be in the best interests of my Party to continue to do what we have done – and what has not worked for us, for many reasons – and instead to try something different – to truly do politics differently, in order to benefit Canada. I still believe that the Green Party has the best suite of policies on offer of any political party in our nation – but I am no longer willing to hold out frustrating the very good for the sake of the very best. Simply put, we don't have the time any more – and for the sake of my family, I know real action is needed. And we won't be seeing that under the Liberals or the Conservatives.

By all means, Greens, let's continue to build our list of contacts and create good will in our communities towards the sorts of policies that we want to see implemented. That's what building a movement is all about. But behind these good works, Greens, I think it's time that we sit down and question our electoral calculus. With that in mind, I fully expect to see some kind of motion presented to the membership in 2018 with regards to electoral co-operation with the Jagmeet Singh's New Democrats.

(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 Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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