Monday, July 8, 2013

Laraque's Bourassa By-Election Gambit a Real Game Changer

The entry of Green Party of Canada’s Deputy Leader Georges Laraque into the Bourassa riding by-election is an absolute game changer, not just for the Montreal-area riding, but for the entirety of the Canadian political scene. Initially, the on-the-ground impacts in Bourassa will throw both the Liberal and NDP campaigns into a tizzy, as neither of the old-line parties saw Laraque’s entry coming (and really, if they had been paying attention, they would have). Media pundits across Canada had written the Green Party out of the by-election narrative, even before Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called the by-election.

Former Liberal MP Denis Coderre’s resigned in May to run for Mayor of Montreal. Harper has some time before he must call the by-election - time enough to enjoy watching four opposition parties beat one another up in Bourassa. Political pundits are saying that the Conservatives have already conceded that they will not be in contention in this race, so the conventional wisdom out there suggests that Harper will wait to make the call so that the opposition parties can inflict maximum damage on one another. But game-changing Laraque might end up forcing Harper to put the by-election wheels in motion earlier than he would otherwise have wanted.

Bourassa – What’s in Play
Bloc Leader Daniel Paille, currently without a seat in Ottawa, has previously announced that he will not be seeking election in Bourassa, which suggests that the Bloc doesn’t think that it can win there. Instead, Paille will look for a more suitable riding should the opportunity arise, or wait for the 2015 general election. With the Bloc polling behind the Liberals and NDP in Quebec, Paille can’t risk being cast as a loser, hence his avoidance of Bourassa.

With the Conservatives and Bloc out of contention, pundits have painted Bourassa as a proxy struggle between Quebec-based leaders Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party and Thomas Mulcair of the NDP. Bourassa has long been a Liberal stronghold, but in 2011, the NDP challenger, Julie Demers, came within 8% of knocking off Coderre. Coderre’s popularity, rather than the Liberal brand, has been credited with staving off the NDP’s Orange Crush in Bourassa. Coderre was a locally popular MP, who made real connections with voters in the multi-ethnic, blue-collar riding of Bourassa. Canada’s largest Haitian community is partly located in the Bourassa riding, with Haitian-Canadians making up about 20% of the electorate. Traditionally, this community has largely voted Liberal.

For more on the history and composition of the Bourassa riding, I strongly suggest taking a quick visit to this Blunt Objects Blog post: “A look at Bourassa”.

Georges Laraque
Georges Laraque has deep ties with the City of Montreal. His parents had emigrated from Haiti to Montreal, where his mother worked as a nurse and his father as an engineer. Laraque played a lot of different sports as a child, but it was his talent in the game of hockey which eventually propelled him to international fame. Laraque was drafted by the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers in 1995, for which he played for until 2007. A leader on the ice, Laraque’s role was largely that of enforcer, but I certainly remember him scoring more than a few key goals. Eventually, his career in the NHL took him to Phoenix and back to his home town of Montreal, where he played for the Canadiens before retiring in 2010.

Laraque has always had a life outside of hockey. Recently, he has been very involved in efforts to help bring relief to the people of Haiti after the earthquake which ravaged that nation in 2010. Laraque has also been involved in public education campaigns around shaken baby syndrome. As a vegan, Laraque has also been vocal about animal rights issues. In August, 2010, Laraque was named male Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada, and since that time he has had an opportunity to mature in that role.

Given Georges Laraque’s long association with the City of Montreal, and his status as Deputy Leader of the Green Party, and that the riding of Bourassa has a high concentration of Haitian voters and hockey fans, it has been apparent to me since before Denis Coderre announced his resignation that Laraque would be a great candidate for the Greens to field in Bourassa. Today’s announcement suggests that at least a few others must have thought the same thing, including Laraque himself. What astounds me is that political pundits in the mainstream media, along with the braintrusts behind the Liberal and NDP by-election campaigns, failed to see Laraque coming. Of course, the same could be said of many on the receiving end of one of Laraque’s crushing body checks from his days in the NHL.

The Liberals and the NDP will both try to write off Laraque as being a political neophyte, running only on his national popularity. This will be a mistake. For while its true that Georges Laraque has no political experience and has never campaigned for an elected position, voters won’t be fooled into thinking that a lack of political credentials should hold any candidate back. Indeed, given the performance of many long-standing politicians, a lack of personal history in the political arena will likely be viewed as refreshing by many voters.

And make no mistake – although Laraque may only be considered a “minor celebrity” by some – and a bit of niche celebrity from the world of hockey at that – his accomplishment both on and off the ice speak for themselves. Laraque has also amassed almost 300,000 followers on Twitter – an accomplishment that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau probably wishes he could brag about.

And Laraque’s own rich life experiences have certainly helped shape his political perspective. Laraque, as Deputy Leader, has been a great fit for the Green Party of Canada, given the significant overlap in values. Unquestionably, Laraque, always an optimist, will run a positive campaign, despite the NDP and Liberal smear-jobs which are sure to come his way.

Georges Laraque and the Green Party’s Vision, Values
Being recognizable by the electorate isn’t going to win Laraque the vote, however. Laraque must make connections with voters in Bourassa based on those very same values he and his Party share. By offering North Montreal voters an opportunity to make a real difference on the national political scene by electing Canada’s second Green MP (and the first from Quebec), Laraque may have a bit of a natural advantage over the Liberals and NDP, whose hypothetical MP will be but one more bleating sheep in their partisan fold.

Further, the Green Party has really begun appealing to voters across Canada by offering a different vision than the old line parties. In fact, the Green Party’s vision of Canada has long been on offer to voters; what’s changed is the Party’s ability to communicate this vision, thanks to strong national voices such as Elizabeth May’s (MP, Saanich-Gulf Islands), Chris Turner (2012 by-election candidate for Calgary Centre – 25% of the vote) and Donald Galloway (2012 by-election candidate for Victoria, finishing second with 34% of the vote). The recent election Andrew Weaver of the Green Party of British Columbia also shows that voters have really started to tune into the different approach to politics on offer by Canada’s Green parties.

By offering voters a completely positive vision about the future, and the role that elected representatives from outside of the political norm can play in Ottawa, Georges Laraque, the Green Party’s candidate for Bourassa will undoubtedly find resonance with voters in North Montreal. Although pundits loudly claim that positive campaigning can’t win an election (and point to the recent dirty but successful re-election campaign of the B.C. Liberals), the fact is that by-elections are quite different from general elections, and electing an individual from a smaller political party to help punch above its weight, makes more sense, especially when weighed against the notion of simply electing yet one more Liberal or New Democratic MP.

Bourassa By-Election Suddenly a Threat to the Conservative Party
A big question which remains unanswered, however, has to do with timing. Typically, in by-elections where the Conservative Party is deemed to have little chance for success, Stephen Harper has held off on dropping the writ until the last minute, likely because he relishes seeing the opposition parties beat one another up during the pre-writ period. From the Conservative Party’s point of view, this tactic has made the most sense, and as a result, pundits have predicted that Harper is unlikely to call for a by-election in Bourassa and Toronto Centre (vacant as a result of Liberal MP Bob Rae’s recent resignation, and certainly not a bastion of strength for the Conservative Party) until the last minute, likely after Quebec municipal elections have occurred in November (the latest date required by law in which a by-election in Bourassa must be held is December 23, 2013, according to Pundit’s Guide).

That being said, I think that today’s announcement might just lead to an earlier by-election call. Here’s my reasoning. Polling continues to suggest that many disaffected Conservative Party supporters, especially those who self-identify as “Red Tories”, are more likely to vote Green than for the Liberals and NDP, if they are looking for a party to park their votes with, even temporarily. With Conservative support having sunk to about 30% from its 2011 election day high of 40%, the shrewd Conservative machine no doubt realizes that the Green Party poses a clear and present danger to its future chances of success, even if only in a small way at this time.

This analysis runs counter to what many of Canada’s political pundits might think, especially those on the right of the political spectrum. The Green Party has been long portrayed as being a “left wing” party, incorrectly so in my opinion. In fact, when talking about the policies of the Green Party of Canada, the whole notion of a “left-centre-right” political spectrum really breaks down. Given that pundits and parliamentarians are both reluctant to abandon the left-right spectrum narrative, there’s no doubt that pinning the Greens down on it can be difficult. Voters, however, who care less about left vs. right than they do about right vs. wrong, are more apt to tune out the pundits and vote for the better set of policies or candidate.

The Green Party’s recent emergence as a serious electoral player, with a victory in Saanich-Gulf Islands (formerly held by a Conservative Party cabinet member), a strong second place in Victoria (nipping at the heels of the NDP in one of their left-coast fortress ridings) and a strong and vigorous campaign in the Conservative heartland of downtown Calgary, only goes to reinforce that the Green Party of Canada poses a more significant threat to the Conservative Party than it does to the Liberals or the NDP. After all, from where did those voters in Saanich, Victoria and Calgary come from? An analysis shows that at least in two of those three ridings, the Green vote was pulled mostly from Conservative voters, and in the third, from both the Conservatives and the NDP.

Indeed, it seems that Harper and the Conservatives have long known that the rise of the Green Party would pose a threat to their long term electoral success. Many have speculated that Harper’s early call for a general election in 2008 happened because of his concerns about the Green Party. Harper ostensibly broke his own fixed election date law to call a general election, pre-empting a by-election in Guelph in which the Green Party was polling ahead of the other parties, and pre-empting a session of parliament which would have seen Canada’s first Green Member of Parliament, Blair Wilson, take a seat in the House of Commons (Wilson had joined the Greens on the weekend which the general election was called, after having sat as an Independent; he was originally elected as a Liberal). An election win in Guelph, and a sitting MP would assuredly have raised the Green Party’s national profile, and would have allowed Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to participate in the televised Leader’s debates (recall too that the Conservative Party, then-NDP Leader Jack Layton, and the Broadcast Consortium originally conspired to exclude May from the 2008 Leadership debates, because the Green Party had no “sitting” member in the House; it was only after a public outcry that the Consortium relented, and allowed May to participate. In 2011, the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP all conspired to keep May out of the debates, despite the Green Party having fielded candidates across Canada).

An early by-election call in Bourassa should definitely be interpreted as a sign of Stephen Harper’s fear of all things Green, including Georges Laraque and the Green Party of Canada. If Harper holds out until the fall to drop the writ, it may have something to do with his more recent obsession to make Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau look foolish, as it would give Greens in Montreal some valuable time to do some pre-writ campaigning, as it is now clear that a formidable foe to Trudeau and the Liberals has arisen in Bourassa in the form of Georges Laraque.

Tom Mulcair and the NDP : Biggest Losers
Ultimately, the biggest loser in today’s announcement is bound to be Tom Mulcair and the NDP. The NDP’s ground game in Quebec, while improving, is still nowhere near on par with the Liberals, especially in Bourassa. Simply put, the NDP really has no idea who, exactly, the voters which elected so many NDP MP’s to office in Quebec in 2011 are. Lists of voters and supporters are incomplete, and the NDP’s Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) initiative on e-day, which is so very strong in other parts of Canada including here in Sudbury), can’t possibly compete with the Liberals in Bourassa or throughout most of Quebec.

Further, the NDP’s likely candidate in the by-election is Julie Demers, who may have significant roots in the community, but is far from a household name in the riding. In a straight-up fight between the as-yet-to-be-named Liberal candidate and Demers, Bourassa might have proven a toss-up between the Liberals and the NDP this time around. The NDP strategy so far has been to bank on the notion of turning former Coderre supporters to their candidate. Now, however, the NDP are going to have to go back to the drawing board to figure out a way to take on one of the strongest (literally!) Green candidates the Party has ever fielded, in a riding which seems almost built to showcase his strengths. That means that the NDP is going to have to find someone with a much bigger name than Julie Demers in a “go big or go home” Hail Mary attempt to stave off disaster.

For disaster it would be for Mulcair not to elect an NDP member in Bourassa. Not that one extra NDP MP is going to make any difference to Mulcair’s future electoral success. But remember that Bourassa has already shaped up to be a proxy war between Mulcair and Trudeau – a microcosm of the 2015 Battle of Quebec. If NDP support ultimately collapses, it doesn’t matter which candidate emerges on top – if the NDP doesn’t win, the national news story is going to be that Thomas Mulcair can’t hold it together in Quebec, the NDP’s power base. And if Mulcair can’t hold Quebec, what might all of those would-be voters in suburban Ontario (whom Mulcair must woo if he has any hope of forming government) think about casting ballots for a party perceived by the public to be in decline?

No, Mulcair needs to pick up either Bourassa or Toronto Centre from the Liberals (both would be best for the NDP, obviously, but Bourassa really is the key).

Losing Bourassa to Justin Trudeau and the Liberals will be bad enough for Mulcair. But what if the NDP loses the riding to the upstart Green Party? Sure, Mulcair would likely benefit in the short-term, by spinning such a defeat as a one-off thing, common in by-elections which have little impact on the composition of parliament. But Mulcair and the NDP, - who are reluctant to even mention the Green Party’s name in public, for fear of legitimizing its existence - know full well that a Green Party victory in Montreal will have a significant impact on their own electoral success in 2015.

Not only will Mulcair fear that another viable political party has emerged as a champion of the environment and social justice, to challenge the NDP on that flank, the national spotlight which might have been his will instead shine brightest on Elizabeth May. And Greens, thick on the ground in coastal British Columbia, will almost certainly threaten NDP seats in that province in 2015 – seats which Mulcair can’t afford to lose. And in Ontario, the potential for 3-way vote splits in numerous ridings which the NDP views as being “in play” in 2015, will only increase uncertainty and risk to his Party.

Liberal Risks
The Liberals, too, might end up regretting overtures made to their Party by Elizabeth May to come to some sort of agreement about co-operation. Already, the Liberals (wrongly) blame the Greens for sabotaging their chance to steal a seat from the Conservatives in Calgary Centre (whereas we Greens rightly blame the Liberals and a late-election rogue poll from a polling firm with strong Liberal connections for preventing Chris Turner from stealing the seat). Sure, we played nice in Labrador, but that was an exceptional circumstance. I know that the Liberals and their bought and paid for media pundits expected the Greens to go belly-up in Bourassa as well, given our lack of electoral bench strength in Quebec. But looking at the specifics of Bourassa, how could they ignore the presence of Georges Laraque on the Green Party’s roster?

A Liberal loss in Bourassa will reflect poorly on their newly crowned Leader Justin Trudeau. However, Trudeau’s own personal popularity might not be as severely impacted across Canada by such a loss. Certainly, the Liberals would prefer to lose to Laraque and the Greens than to the NDP, particularly if the NDP runs a nobody candidate like Demers. That way, the loss could be spun as a one-time thing, due to the presence of a celebrity candidate. But if Laraque’s presence in the by-election allows the NDP to come up the middle, Trudeau and the Liberals are going to have a hard time spinning how they still have electoral momentum in Quebec (and specifically on the island of Montreal). Trudeau, I’m sure, would have preferred a straight-up battle between the Liberals and the NDP, in a riding the Liberals have pretty much owned for decades.

Play of the Game
The only thing which appears to be certain right now is that Georges Laraque’s announcement today that he’ll be asking voters to cast their ballot for him as the Green Party’s representative in Bourassa has completely changed the game – both in that by-election and on Canada’s national political scene. And that’s just the sort of gutsy and principled play that I’ve come to expect from Georges Laraque and the Green Party.

(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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