It’s been an interesting week in Canadian politics. I’ve fallen a little behind with my own analysis of the election that happened two days ago now. In my defence, I, unlike Stephen Harper, don’t mind having a drink or two or more. When the CBC declared Elizabeth May elected in Saanich-Gulf Islands, the champagne (ok, the “Baby Duck”) flowed freely at the Sudbury campaign office. Most of it seemed to flow directly into my belly. Now, although foresight is something that I’ve been accused of not exactly being blessed with (as some of you more constant readers of my blog have surely discovered – not that it stops my prognosticating), I had booked the Tuesday off from work, just in case things got a little out of hand on Monday night. Which, for me at least, they did.
Although it’s far from certain whether I was drinking in celebration of Elizabeth May’s historic win in SGI, or drinking to dull my mind about the prospect of a false majority government for the Conservatives. In retrospect, I think that I am more concerned and upset about the latter than I am happy about the former. I seem to recall comments made by May herself back in 2008 that the last thing that she wanted was to have a handful of Green MP’s elected to stare across the aisle at a Harper majority. But perhaps I shouldn’t bring those comments up.
Despite the other historic upsets which saw a record number of NDP MP’s elected to the House, and the virtual destruction of the Bloc Quebecois, Monday’s election has left me very concerned about the future economic health of our country. Although a minority of voters (around 40%) gave the Conservatives a nod, the fact is that with a false majority, the Cons will be free to pursue their corporatist agenda to, what I suspect will be, the detriment of a majority of Canadians. Four years is a long time; a lot of change can happen in those years. Most of the changes we’ll see, I suspect, won’t be the sorts of changes which Canada needs to make in order to be better positioned to face the future.
Almost certainly we’re not going to see any action to put a price on carbon in order to combat the climate crisis. Our role in international negotiations will undoubtedly remain obstructionist, at best, and completely undermining at worse. In an effort to pretend to be doing something about the climate crisis, and meeting their extremely modest emissions “reduction” targets (which aren’t actually targets to reduce emissions), the Conservatives may wish to continue pursuing the “one offs”, such as the recently announced carbon capture and storage project in Saskatchewan, in an effort to convince voters that they’re doing something. Unfortunately, more projects like this one, which (may) reduce carbon emissions, will end up bankrupting our economy due to a massively high price per-tonne of CO2 removed. Megaprojects aren’t the way forward for emissions reductions, when conservation is a cheap and viable alternative. But I guess conservation doesn’t line any corporate pockets.
With four years of a false majority government taking little or no action on the climate crisis, you’d think that a Green like me might be happy that my party could emerge to fill a void on neglected environmental issues. That seems sensible enough, on the one hand. If Canadians, in 2015, want to see action on the environment, maybe in the same way they did in 2008, or perhaps in a stronger way, turning to the Green Party will make sense. Right?
Not so fast. Here’s why:
The Liberal Party is going to have to try to figure out a way to rebuild itself after the disastrous result handed to Michael Ignatieff. Surely one of the ways forward for the Liberals is the need to define themselves as a Party of bold ideas, and not just the “We’re not the Conservatives” which so many Canadians obviously grew tired of hearing. When it comes to bold ideas, the Liberals are going to have to latch on to the environment as a starting point in a conversation they’ll have with Canadians. Only this time, under bright and articulate leadership (whether that’s Trudeau, Rae or Leblanc, or…dare I say it? Stephane Dion), they’ll be able to make the issue of the environment and climate change their own.
In 2008, they tried this approach and failed. Perhaps the timing wasn’t as auspicious as it might have been; perhaps the messenger wasn’t able to communicate the message effectively. Whatever the reason, the outcome led to the Liberals abandoning their carbon tax plan, and embracing an expensive, untested, and problematic cap and trade scheme which no one wanted to talk about. The fact that the NDP and Bloc also supported cap and trade in this past election meant that carbon pricing was left completely out of the (meagre) policy debates which took place.
Yet, back at the Liberals’ policy and leadership convention in the spring of 2009, the Liberal Party membership reconfirmed their commitment to a carbon tax. Famously, Michael Ignatieff at the same convention went on the record that he would not be running on a carbon tax. Now that he’s gone, the doorway remains open for the Liberals to bring back carbon tax shifting policies, which would be very similar to those promoted by the Green Party (except for the price per tonne charged, which under Dion would have been much lower than the Green’s pricing; and on the flipside, the Liberals would have given you less of your money back than the Greens would have too).
It is almost inevitable that the Liberals will find themselves in this position four years from now. I say “almost” because there really appears to be only one thing which could derail the Liberals from developing a platform which takes a visionary and comprehensive approach on addressing the climate crisis. That “one thing” is if the NDP get there first.
The NDP has been talking a little bit more lately about climate change, but it’s apparent to me that the New Democrats still just don’t get it. In this past campaign, we saw the NDP talk about the need to reduce carbon emissions, and then with the very next breath, they told voters about their desire to lower the price of gasoline, because people need to get to work. At the end of it all, the NDP’s primary focus has been (and likely will continue to be) putting the working class at the front of the line. Generally, I share those concerns with the NDP, but when it leads to inaction or detrimental action on environmental initiatives, we’ve got a problem. Because no matter how much we need good jobs for working families, if we don’t get the climate crisis under control, jobs (good or otherwise) are going to increasingly become a scarce commodity.
The NDP’s support of cap and trade illustrates their lack of understanding regarding climate change, or the needs of small businesses. A fluctuating price on carbon will put businesses at a disadvantage when it comes to figuring out medium and long term expenses. In contrast, a carbon tax is a known quantity, and businesses will be able to plan for expenses. Larger, international corporations doing business in Canada will be better positioned to handle a fluctuating carbon market in a cap and trade scenario; it will be the smaller businesses which will run the greatest risk from a fluctuating market. Since those are the same business which Jack Layton and the NDP claim now to be the champion of, it perplexes me to no end that the NDP should continue to support cap and trade over a direct tax. But that’s exactly the sort of contradiction that I’ve come to expect from the NDP, and in part why I just can not support them.
So I don’t really think that the NDP will have altered their cap and trade stance four years from now, but it is possible, and if they do, they will steal some of the Liberal’s thunder should the federal Liberals decide to go down that road (and for the reasons I’ve identified, I really do believe that they will).
Four years hence, I have to ask myself, which Party is going to be in the best position to deliver on the environment and the economy? Clearly it won’t be the Conservatives, and I doubt it will be the NDP. That leaves…the Greens and the Liberals. And four years from now, there might not be much of a Green Party left, save and except for a rump around Vancouver-Victoria, and maybe an island in Central Ontario.
You see, this election hit the Green Party hard. Yes, Elizabeth May became the first-ever Green elected to parliament, which is a huge accomplishment. I was an advocate of the “putting all of the eggs into one basket” approach to get May elected, developed as the top priority in the Party’s campaign plan. I figured that if May was elected, our Party would have renewed credibility. I suspect that’s going to still be the outcome, but how far will that credibility stretch in the current circumstance?
Aside from May’s election to parliament, what happened to the Green Party on Monday night is going to reverberate throughout the Party in the years to come. Our percentage of the popular vote declined to levels not seen since before Jim Harris was the leader. This might have had to do more with the fact that May was excluded from the Leader’s debate, which shot the Party’s credibility all to hell. At the time, May said that she didn’t see it coming, and that she expected to be included because of what happened last time. Whether this was an unexpected revelation or not, the Party had a decent contingency in place to work the mainstream media and social media to keep the story alive in an effort to change the Consortium’s mind.
I can tell you that her exclusion from the Leader’s debate came as no surprise to me. And four years hence, her exclusion from the Leader’s debate will continue to be unsurprising. I have every confidence that the Conservatives will begin assessing minor electoral reforms, and one of those initiatives will be to codify who gets invited to televised debates. In an effort to keep the Bloc out of those debates, a threshold will be set, and it will be the Leaders of Parties which have Official status in the House. This means no Bloc and no Greens. The other parties, in a rare display of agreement, are sure to endorse this approach. Why would the Liberals and NDP want the Greens at their debate? They had the opportunity to influence matters in this past campaign and chose to sit on their hands while idly mouthing that they thought the decision should have been different. Thanks for using all of your influence to walk the talk there guys.
May’s impact in the House is going to be marginal, whether she can convince the Speaker to authorize special privileges or not. She’s one voice, and she’s up against a majority government. On many of the things which she might speak about, she’s going to end up sounding no different than her NDP and Liberal counterparts. Sure, she may yet wind up to be the moral conscious of the House, but in our win at all cost electoral system, having a moral conscious is almost a sure guarantee that you won’t be returned to the House.
And that maybe most of all is why I’m feeling empty after this past campaign. What we have done is return to power a Party which was found to be in contempt of parliament, who have proven themselves to be the most secretive and power-seeking political party Canada has ever seen. Just about everything that I value about our democratic institutions and traditions, the Conservatives are willing to sacrifice on their alter of political expediency if they think there’s gain to be had by doing so. Yet we’ve rewarded the Conservatives with another chance to govern; in fact, we’ve given them a big blank cheque to make over our nation as they see fit. Why did we just do that?
I’m not going to blame the NDP surge for vote-splitting in the GTA, or the hapless Ignatieff campaign that couldn’t find an issue to stick to. I’m not going to blame the Green Party for mounting a dismal national campaign at a time which we could have seized on the zeitgeist of the moment (had we only known that the moment was upon us; no blame for us Greens here, as no one knew that the moment had come a few weeks ago, until a few days after it had happened). Heck, I’m not even going to blame the pollsters who largely blew making the call.
The votes were cast and counted, and although Canada did not get the government that it voted for, it got what it got, thanks to an antiquated electoral system where most votes simply don’t matter. 60% of voters wanted a Party other than the Conservatives, yet here we are with a Harper majority. Almost 40% of Canadian voters remain disengaged from our electoral process altogether, which remains one of the saddest stories to come out of this election.
The rise of the NDP hurt the Green Party in this election. In a majority situation, the NDP will have plenty of time to consolidate, and by staying in the spotlight for four years, we can expect that the NDP won’t be just experiencing an “ADQ moment” and dissolve back into the background. With an NDP positioned to champion the left, and with a Liberal Party offering something akin to a bold vision for Canadians, where might that leave the Green Party four years from now?
With our electoral defeat, our funding from the per-vote subsidy has been cut in half overnight. With the Conservatives threatening to remove the subsidy altogether, we can expect that funding to dry up in a few years. While it’s true that we’ve been getting better at fundraising, with a loss of votes throughout Canada, our pool of well-heeled supporters is drying up. Perhaps May can re-invigorate the Party, when she’s not busy in Ottawa or doing constituency work or just generally being Wonder Woman. I guess we can add fundraising to her list of things to do.
Without the money in the bank, we can expect a similar national campaign to the one we’ve just been through. Over the past several years, we’ve decided to make May’s election the top priority, at the expense of almost every other initiative we might have undertaken. It’s beginning to show. Last year, dozens of EDA’s were deregistered, while none were created to replace them. EDA’s are the local, grassroots heart of the party, yet they’ve been neglected by the Central Party at the expense of our campaign strategy. Without immediate focus on building healthy EDA’s, we can expect many more to whither, especially with such low numbers of supporters. Here in Sudbury, we’ve grown somewhat used to have to compete with the NDP for progressive votes; now, we’ve just seen that applied to all of Canada. And we can expect it to continue, unless something is done about it.
This past election rewarded the politics of cynicism over the politics of hope, despite what the NDP surge might have you believe. The Green Party clearly didn’t engage on a cynical level (or, pretty much on any level, due to the lack of media coverage). Our hopeful voters left us in droves, casting their ballots for orange (just as progressive Liberals flew the coup as well). In the future, if we are going to experience success, we will need to define ourselves in stark contrast to the NDP while also successfully communicating that message.
For too long now, in the minds of voters, there’s been a great degree of confusion about our Party and the NDP, given the plurality of issues which our two parties appear to support. Perhaps its time to take aim at the NDP’s policies which are problematic for our supporters, and engage in a degree of “negative campaigning” about the issues (and not about the personalities). We may have to use some of our limited media exposure to go after the NDP, in order to define ourselves as something “other”. In this past campaign, the confusion between small “g” green issues which our Party supported and the NDP did as well led directly to our supporters casting their ballot for a different Party.
This kind of messaging won’t go over well with the Green Party. May has already said that she is going to practice politics differently. That’s likely not going to be good enough for the Green Party in the face of a successful NDP Official Opposition. And make no mistake, the NDP will be successful, because they are the anti-Conservatives. With only a Liberal rump in place which doesn’t have a clue how to conduct itself as a third party, and which will be focussed on internal issues for a couple of years now anyway, the NDP under a cagey and canny Laton will have it good. Which is bad for the Greens.
Other options might need to be explored, especially if members and past-candidates begin jumping ship again, demoralized by our efforts in the election, despite May’s inclusion in parliament. Unless those members can be replaced, it may come to a point where the Green Party is going to have to seriously look at opportunities for a merger, although in our case, it would be more like being subsumed by one of the other Parties.
A rejuvenated Liberal Party might provide for a good partner for Greens in the years to come, if they truly begin to embrace a bold vision for Canada. Alternatively, the Green Party could simply bleed away into a regional or multi-regional party, with vast areas of the nation having given up and moved on – for now, with the hopes of being recaptured when a more mature Party emerges.
Either way, in the current circumstance, there must be a change of focus within the Green Party. We may have to return to our grassroots, although I don’t think that electoral success lies in that direction (plus, with May as Leader, along with our current Federal Council, additional power flowing to the grassroots just isn’t going to be on the table). Therefore, we must become like the other parties, only without the money or staff. That’s…a pretty big challenge.
There may be a third way, however, and that’s to focus on only those things which we can accomplish. One strategy might find us centring our scarce resources on winnable ridings geographically grouped together at the expense of everybody and everywhere else, perhaps as a part of an agreement with other parties not to run against them. This kind of “strategic merger”, potentially again with the Liberals, could further our interests, especially if we target Central Ontario and parts of BC (and maybe Alberta, although I’d be reluctant to waste too much time there) where the Liberals currently don’t have seats.
And finally, we should be ready to create our own opportunities when the moment arises. That means fully participating in by-elections (in ways we haven’t done so in years now), and running smart media and social media campaigns which are issue-specific. We need to use the mainstream media to target Canadians about the big issues relevant to our Party, and use social media for micro-campaigns which distinguish us from our NDP rivals. All of this will require planning and organizing. I’m just not sure that we’re going to have the resources to pull it off.
Those…are my thoughts, two days after the 2011 federal election.
(Opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)