Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Is the Green Party Still Relevant? Part 1: Canada's Political Reality from a Green Perspective

Is the Green Party still relevant?

That probably seems like a bit of a silly question coming from a dyed-in-the-wool Green partisan such as myself. Especially one who just recently blogged about making a personal decision to renew my own efforts within the local chapters of the Green Party (see: “Time to Get Ready for the Future: My Personal Decision”, published July 13, 2013). Yet, with a general election currently scheduled for the fall of 2015, and with Canada truly beginning to suffer from the short-sighted economic policies of our Conservative government, no question about our political future should be removed from the table – including this one.

Over the past year, Greens have been heard heralding our recent electoral successes – which, in the grand scheme of things, have been very minor – except when viewed through the lenses of Canada’s Green parties. In the fall of 2012, four federal by-elections were held, and the Green Party proved to be competitive in two of them, including a strong 3rd place finish in a bastion of Conservative Canada, Calgary Centre. On E-day in Victoria, the Green Party, with clear momentum, led the polls throughout the evening, but when advance ballots were cast, the NDP managed to squeak by. In the May 2013 provincial election in British Columbia, voters elected Andrew Weaver as the first B.C. Green MLA in that province, and two other B.C. Greens, including Leader Jane Sterk, did well at the ballot box. Clearly, this is the type of success which the Green parties in Canada haven’t experienced.

Yet, it’s not all been rosy for Canada’s Green parties. While the 2011 federal general election saw the election of the Green Party’s first Member of Parliament in Elizabeth May, across Canada the Party’s share of the voter percentage was down to less than 4%, after having surged to a high of 6.8% in the 2008 federal election. In the spring 2013 federal by-election in Labrador, the Party, in consultation with local Greens in Labrador, chose not to field a candidate (which was probably the best thing the Party could have done, given our past performances in Labrador). And in 5 by-elections held in Ontario last week, the Green Party of Ontario, after polling between 7% and 9%, managed to gather less than 5% of all votes cast, and in some ridings considerably less than that. Even while taking 4.25% of the vote in London West (the GPO’s best showing), the success story was marred by the fact that the Green Party finished in fifth place behind the upstart Freedom Party (4.9%).

The Conservative Colossus

Polls suggest that a majority of Canadians believe that the current Conservative government is taking the country in the wrong direction. Through Canada’s archaic first-past-the-post electoral system, the Conservative Party was able to form a majority government with only 40% of votes cast (and with the ballot box support of less than 30% of Canadians – the greatest minority of which – 40% - cast their ballots for no one). Rather than acknowledging their limited electoral mandate, Canada has seen the seeds of a wholesale transformation sewn through omnibus budget bills which incorporated everything from changes to environmental and social legislation along with what Canadians would normally think of as “budgetary” measures. Debate has been stifled in parliament, and the right-wing Conservative Party has been able to stand on Election Readiness footing, in part as a result of their ability to raise more government-subsidized money for their political party, while eliminating the more equitable per-vote subsidy all parties had previously received. Indeed, the Conservative Party has become an unaccountable juggernaut which dominates the Canadian political scene. It is questioned little by the mainstream media (whose owners tend to share its short-sighted and greedy economic values), and has proven itself to be effective at delaying legal investigation after legal investigation into its activities and that of its members, both elected and unelected.

The signs were there before the current government was sworn in, but it’s fair to say that the most provocative image for voters who do not identify with the Conservative Party was that of Senate Page Brigette DePape, who was removed from the Senate floor over her silent yet poignant “Stop Harper” display during the 2011 throne speech. What have largely amounted to mute displays of dissatisfaction, however, have been about all that Canadians have been able to muster over the past several years, thanks to the entrenchment of Harper’s majority government.

Electoral Co-Operation: The Liberals and New Democrats

Almost immediately after Election Day in May, 2011, grassroots efforts around the nation began to take shape to promote co-operation amongst opposition parties, and in some cases their outright merger. These efforts were spearheaded by pro-democracy groups such as Avaaz Canada and LeadNow, which believed that the results of the next federal election could also be jeopardized by vote-splitting amongst opposition parties. The unexpected NDP Leadership race, sparked by the death of Leader Jack Layton, was used by some to test the waters for co-operation. MP Nathan Cullen, the only declared pro-co-operation candidate, finished a surprising 3rd in a field rich with big-name New Democrats. Later, the Liberal Leadership race would give rise to its own co-operation candidate in the form of Joyce Murray, who finished in second place, but with only a tiny fraction of Liberal support.

With questions related to a Liberal-NDP merger now firmly answered in the negative by new leaders, even the suggestion of electoral co-operation amongst political parties seems to have completely gone away. Both the NDP and the Liberals have determined that they will fight it out with one another, along with the Conservatives and whoever else, in 2015. Only after the votes are counted and the results are known will the Liberals and the NDP talk about the possibility of working with one another, should circumstances favour that level of co-operation. Two years out from the 2015 general election date, only the Green Party of Canada seems to want to talk about electoral co-operation any more.

Electoral Co-Operation and the Green Party of Canada

In 2012, grassroots members of the Green Party of Canada gave our Federal Council the mandate to work with other parties towards electoral co-operation as long as the goal of a one-time co-operative effort would be to change our first-past-the-post electoral system to a more equitable electoral system, such as proportional representation. To a point, this was what New Democrat Cullen and Liberal Murray had called for – a one-time deal to defeat the Conservatives and change the antiquated rules which led to their false-majority in the first place. Yet, a deal with the Liberals and/or the New Democrats seems very remote at this time, given the direction that their new Leaders Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair have set out on.

Yet, Greens may not be satisfied with the electoral status quo. Will Party Members and supporters choose to cast their ballots for a non-Conservative candidate who is perceived at having the best chance to be elected in a local riding, in preference to a Green candidate that likely has little chance? This, of course, has been the conundrum that Green Party Members and supporters have found themselves in since the Party’s inception. Yet, the conundrum may take on a certain urgency in 2015, given the devastation caused to Canada by the current Conservative government. Clearly, Green Members and supporters might have a greater propensity to cast their ballots for a Liberal or New Democrat in 2015.

Greens and the Nitty-Gritty of Electoral Success

Sure, the Green Party has shown that we have the ability to fight on our own terms, especially in by-elections, where scarce national resources can be concentrated. Yet, for all of that, voters have still not sent another Green to Ottawa to join Elizabeth May. Provincially in B.C., Andrew Weaver was a high-profile candidate who benefitted from a significant injection of Party resources into his riding – a circumstance that very few Green candidates will find themselves in in the 2015 general election. Right now, the Party is doing what it can to promote Deputy Party Leader Georges Laraques as the Montreal-riding of Bourassa’s next MP. Laraque enjoys a certain degree of local popularity, bordering on celebrity status even, but what if voters fail to elect Laraque? We are gambling big in Montreal – the size of our success there could be staggering. But what if we lose the gamble? If Greens can’t get a high-profile candidate like Deputy Leader Georges Laraque elected after running a fully-funded campaign (not to mention all of that pre-writ spending), what might that say to potential Green candidates, Members and supporters?

The reality is that there will be very few ridings in play for the Green Party of Canada in the 2015 general election, and most of those ridings will be in and around British Columbia . Smartly, the Party will be concentrating its financial and volunteer resources in those few ridings deemed “winnable”. What that means for the vast majority of ridings, however, is that the Party will not be able to offer significant levels of support, and local ridings will be left on their own, to sink or swim.

I agree that’s as it should be. If the Party is going to remain relevant after 2015, it’s clear that we’ll need to have more than one MP elected, so focussing our limited resources in those areas with a better chance of success only makes sense. But what about all of the other ridings? Very few will be able to raise even half of their election spending limits in order to mount a serious campaign. Many will certainly nominate candidates to carry the flag, and some of these will do so with an eye towards the building for the future. But if Party Members and supporters realize that there is little chance of success, with the stakes higher than ever before, what sorts of on-the-ground impacts can we likely see?

Greens and the 2015 General Election – Money and Volunteers

One would think that perhaps one of the very first impacts would be that donations to the Party would begin to dry up. If a Green isn’t going to be competitive in a local riding, what’s the point of giving money? The reality we’ve seen so far, however, has been the opposite. Donations to the Green Party are up, and the trend seems to be one which is likely to continue. It may be that Green Members and Supporters are aware that our best chances for success are in by-elections like Calgary Centre, Victoria and the upcoming by-election in Bourassa. It may be that donors have become accustomed to the Party’s wise use of scarce resources, and have given the Party money knowing that it will be spent as-needed, in competitive ridings, rather than in relatively hopeless local circumstances. What this trend suggests to me is that Green financial supporters increasingly understand the need to elect Greens to parliament.

That’s all well and good for the Party, but what about for local candidates? Certainly, it’s not going to be helpful for Green candidates campaigning in non-“winnable” ridings. In some respects, this circumstance makes it even more difficult for local Greens to mount serious campaigns, as financial supporters will have already given to the Central Party with hope for success elsewhere rather than to a local candidate who likely would not succeed. Having said this, it’s not as if this is a completely new reality for the Green Party.

Volunteers, too, may find themselves working the phone for out-of-town campaigns. Or perhaps they will be persuaded to join the campaigns of non-Green candidates, with the hopes that a Liberal or an NDP has a chance of defeating a Conservative. With 3 opposition parties vying for a limited number of volunteers, it’s going to be difficult for Green candidates who will likely not be in contention in local races to make the case to supporters to join their team. Again, this isn’t a new reality for the Green Party. But both this circumstance and the one with donors will likely have a more significant impact on local Green campaigns in 2015, given the expected dynamics at play in that elections.

Greens and the 2015 General Election - Outside Influences

With two popular Opposition Leaders going head-to-head to charm non-Conservative voters, Greens and undecided voters are going to have a tough choice to make. Local political circumstances might come into play (ones based on personalities, funding, well-developed volunteer teams, etc.), although it’s more probable that the national media narrative will have a greater impact on the way in which ballots are cast. Unless Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau falls flat on his face over the next two years, expect the media to line up behind the Liberal Party as the real opposition to Harper (not because of Trudeau himself per se, but more because the national mainstream media has never been a friend of the NDP). Tom Mulcair and the NDP, however, will continue to present a strong message to voters about why they are a better alternative to Trudeau’s Liberals. Both parties will have built up significant election war chests, and both will launch savvy media campaigns. Both parties will also attract quality candidates in ridings which they perceive to be “winnable”. And those ridings will field robust campaign teams, with a mixture of local volunteers and Central Party reps.

In this expected political reality, Greens will continue to be squeezed out of the national media’s narrative, and we will struggle to have our voices heard throughout the campaign, except in certain specific local circumstances. Green candidates are likely not going to have the same starting-point advantages that Liberals and New Democrats have – we will largely lack candidates with household names or the sort of credentials perceived by some to be advantageous for candidates to have. There will be no national media campaign of any significance to promote our Party’s national profile. One of the only opportunities the Green Party might have to be on display on the national political stage – the televised Leader’s debates – is likely going to remain out of reach for Elizabeth May, who has continually been denied participation in the debates by the Broadcast Consortium.

With this in mind, Green Party Members and supporters are right to ask about the Party’s relevance in the vast majority of Canada’s ridings. Why should money or volunteer time, or even support at the ballot box, be given to a Green Party candidate who can’t win and who may, if a decent campaign is mounted, end up splitting the non-Conservative vote, allowing for a Conservative win?

In my next post, I’ll look at what all of this means for the Green Party of Canada at the local level, and examine some of the conversations which are currently going on amongst Greens in local Electoral District Associations (EDA’s). Is political co-operation with other parties the answer in some parts of Canada? Is it even possible at the local level, given the structure of our Party? And I’ll continue to assess whether the Green Party of Canada remains relevant in our current Canadian 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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