Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Lessons Canada's Green Party Can Learn for 2015 from the Australian Greens in 2013

In the heat of a federal election campaign, an unelected and unaccountable group of television media heads makes a decision about which Party Leaders to invite to the televised leader’s debate. Seemingly out of nowhere, the decision is handed down, and only the men leading the old-line political parties are invited to the debates, much to the chagrin and dismay of the Leader of the Green Party. She and her supporters object to the anti-democratic decision, citing a significant share of voter turnout in the previous election, along with the fact that her Party currently holds a seat in the legislative assembly’s lower house. But nothing can change the minds of the unelected and unaccountable media heads, and the Leader of Greens is left to live-tweet her observations, while families around the country are denied the opportunity to hear from the dynamic leader of a truly innovative political party.

Who is this Green Party Leader?

Elizabeth May in 2015? Well, maybe. But try Christine Milne, Leader of the Australian Greens, who is currently fighting for her political future in Australia’s general election. Voters will go to the polls on September 7th, to cast their ballots for what is largely a two-party race, thanks in part to the intransigence of national media outlets who have decided to silence the voice of Australia’s third-largest political party (judging by the number of votes cast in the last federal general election).

(Opposition Leader Tony Abbot leads a coalition of several right-wing political parties: the Liberal Party of Australia; the Liberal National Party; the National Party of Australia; and the Country Liberal Party of Australia, which are together known as “the Coalition” or just “the Liberal Party”. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s centre-left Labour Party is the other horse in the race)

In 2010, Australian voters elected their first ever Green Member of Parliament to Australia’s lower chamber, the House of Representatives, (the equivalent to our House of Commons) in the form of Adam Bandt, MP for Melbourne. Previously, Greens had been elected to Australia’s Senate (yes, they have an elected upper chamber in Australia) as well as to state government (including their breakthrough March 2010 election in Tasmania, where Greens took over 21% of the vote, and held the balance of power in that State’s lower house). The 2010 elections saw Greens hold the balance of power in both the upper and lower chambers, taking over 13% of the Senate vote and over 11% in the House of Representatives. Eventually, Bandt and three independent MP’s entered into an agreement with then-Labour Prime Minister Gillian Gillard to support her Labor government, which has lasted up until the present day.

But the past few years haven’t been all that rosy for Australia’s Greens. Greens in Canada would do well to take note of a few of the negative experiences of our cousins from Down Under.

Beware the Preferrential Ballot in Electoral Reform Clothing

After Green success at the ballot box in 2010, the right-wing Liberal Coalition (similar to our Conservative Party) began to implement a strategy targeting Greens for non-election. This strategy was implemented successfully during the State of Victoria’s election, and the Greens were shut out, despite marginally increasing their popular vote. In the current federal election, the same strategy is being employed by the Liberals – they are urging their supporters to “prefer” Labor over the Greens on the preferential ballot.

Yes, Australia has a preferential (or ranked) ballot system, which allows voters to indicate their order of preference for all candidates on the ballot. This preferential ballot is exactly the sort of ranked ballot system which the Liberal Party of Canada recently endorsed for Canadian elections, and which I understand Leader Justin Trudeau also believes would be a good thing for democracy in Canada.

In a ranked ballot election, unless a single candidate receives an outright majority of first preferences, the count continues to second and maybe even third preferences, so that it becomes possible that a candidate could win a seat without having received the largest number of first picks – but must obtain a plurality of picks amongst first and second (and maybe third and fourth) place picks.

Ranked Ballots - Tool of Vested Interests

The dynamics of the ranked ballot played out against Australia’s Green Party in the State of Victoria’s Melbourne by-election in 2012. Greens had high hopes in this by-election, having elected MP Adam Bandt in its federal counterpart less than two years previous (thanks to Liberal preferences for Greens over Labor at that time – a policy which the Liberal Party quickly changed, in order to avoid electing more Greens, and continuing to perpetuate the virtual two-party state which exists in Australia to this day. It is certainly not out of a love for Labour that the Liberals ask its voters to now preference Labor over the Greens. To be sure, it is to silence the voice of the Green Party and to continue the monopolization of power amongst the two old-line parties).

Although the Green Party candidate in the Melbourne state by-election, Cathy Oke, received the largest number of first place votes, she didn’t obtain the 50% threshold. When second-place votes were counted, Labor’s Jennifer Kanis held on to the seat. Interestingly, the Liberals chose not to run a candidate in this by-election, recognizing that it was a no-hope riding for them (and concerned that their supporter’s preferences might lead to a Green victory).

“How to Vote” cards were distributed by the candidates in the election, with voters urged to rank preferences largely on the basis of shutting out the Green Party, rather than trying to find the “next best fit” for a party with similar policies or positions on the issues. Not surprisingly, the small Democratic Labor party urged its supporters to preference Labor. The Sex Party, too, urged its supporters to preference Labor (even though it appears to me that the Sex Party’s policies are probably closer to the Greens). Perhaps more surprisingly, the ultra right-wing Family First Party urged its supporters to preference Labor, but they likely did so after Labor aggressively pursued Family First support. Interestingly, the Family First Party holds positions which many Labor voters would find regpugnant, including promoting active discrimination against same-sex couples.

But politics, apparently, makes strange bedfellows. At least it does for parties which claim to be the champion of the labour movement, but really are focussed on obtaining and retaining power as their principle priority. Just as NDP Leader Jack Layton sought to keep Green Party Leader Elizabeth May out of the televised debates in 2008 (unsuccessfully) and in 2011 (successfully), so too has the NDP-like Australian Labor Party tried to sideline the Greens (despite having had to work with the lone-Green MP, Adam Bandt, to form government). Cozying up to the Family First Party to obtain preferences is probably the most outrageous example.

With Greens thinking about how best to implement electoral reform in Canada, if and when the opportunity arises, we should all keep in mind what happened in the Melbourne by-election. A preferential ballot, which is the only form of electoral reform the current Liberal Party of Canada has on offer, can be used as a tool to entrench the position of the old-line parties at the expense of other voices. In fact, a ranked ballot might provide little difference in the way of outcomes than in today’s First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, thanks to innovations like “How to Vote” cards, and to the comfortable power-sharing relationship which has come to exist amongst Canada’s more established political parties.

See No Greens, Hear No Greens: The Old Line Party's Electoral Strategies

In other words, if Greens think for a minute that the NDP or the Liberals would welcome us with open arms onto a level playing field during an election – I believe that those Greens are deluding themselves. Examples from throughout the world, such as what has happened and is currently happening in Australia, along with examples from Canada clearly point to the desire of old-line political parties to silence the voices of Greens, and any other political players who might arise.

Have you ever noticed how little elected MP’s and MPP’s from the other parties ever refer to the Green Party? It’s almost as if by not uttering its name, they can pretend that the Green Party doesn’t exist or can be ignored. The NDP in particular has followed this course of action for years now, starting under former Leader Jack Layton. In the recent B.C. provincial election, the Greens couldn’t be ignored any longer, although Adrian Dix, Leader of the Provincial NDP tried to, with he and his supporters cynically deigning to utter the name of the Green Party only when chastising voters that a vote for the Greens would be a vote for Christy Clark’s Liberals. Clark, too, played electoral politics with the Greens, with her Liberal Party taking out an ad which suggested that if voters on Vancouver Island were concerned about they environment, they’d vote Green rather than for the NDP (and bizarrely, rather than for the Liberal Party).

Elizabeth May, the Green Party and the Televised Leader's Debates in 2015

Many Greens believe that Elizabeth May’s participation in the televised Leader’s Debates in the 2015 election will be a slam-dunk, based on historic circumstances. In 2008, May was ultimately invited to the debate, after being originally excluded by the debate organizers, the unelected and unaccountable custodians of "democratic debate", also known as the Broadcast Consortium. In Canada (as in Australia), it’s a collection of media heads which gets to decide which voices the general public gets to hear from at election time, by inviting some, but not all national party leaders. Media heads claim that it would make for bad television and be somehow unhelpful to voters to have all registered party leaders in attendance, citing that many smaller parties are only running candidates regionally, or in a few ridings. For a long while, the Green Party has been considered by the media to be one of these “fringe” parties.

In Australia, there really was no excuse to exclude the Greens’ Christine Milne from the televised debate. The Greens had elected several members to parliament, in both chambers. In the previous general election, they took over 11% of the vote. Green candidates are in the running throughout Australia. Why, then, was she excluded?

Tradition? Maybe. How about tradition coupled with a desire to perpetuate the two-party state in Australia?

In Canada, Elizabeth May and the Greens might run into the same scenario in 2015, only it will be three parties opting to exclude her from the debates. Remember, although May leads the Green Party of Canada, the Green Party (along with the Bloc Quebecois) are not recognized as “official parties” in the House of Commons, because they have not obtained the official party threshold of 12 seats. And while the Broadcast Consortium has usually invited to the televised debates the Leaders of each and every party holding at least one seat in the House at the time of its dissolution, there was a time when they didn’t – in 2008, when May’s Green Party was originally shut out of the debates (you will recall that Blair Wilson, who had been elected as a Liberal, but was sitting as an Independent MP, joined the Green Party just days before Stephen Harper broke his fixed election-date law and dissolved parliament. Wilson never technically "sat" as a Green MP, but undeniably he had made his intention to do so quite clear - by joining the Green Party and telling the world).

That a public outcry forced the Consortium to rethink its decision, after a very public retraction by Jack Layton of the NDP’s stated position to keep the Greens off of Canadian TV’s, the fact remains that the Greens had a seat in the House at the time that it was dissolved by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but were still originally excluded from the debates. This went against all tradition, but it nevertheless happened.

Greens should wisely expect the same treatment in 2015. There is no good reason for either the Broadcast Consortium or the other political parties to want May at Leader’s debates (unless Stephen Harper cynically thinks that a good performance by May might split the non-Conservative vote even further, and thus increasing the odds for Conservative candidates to come up the middle in tight races – but I think that Harper himself would prefer to simply watch the NDP and Liberals beat one another up, than to potentially contend with the Greens as an official party in the House, thanks to a good debate performance by May). That it might be in the public interest to have May attend the debates would be of no matter to the Consortium or the old-line political parties which are primarily first and foremost motivated by obtaining and retaining power. Clearly, what was in the public's interest failed to motivate the media and the other parties in the past.

A Wild Card: The Presence of the Bloc

In light of this circumstance, I think it’s inevitable that May will be kept from televised Leader’s debates, just as her counterpart in Australia, Christine Milne, was silenced. The only thing that I’m going to hold out hope for is a bit of a wild card: how would the Consortium deal with the exclusion of the Bloc Quebecois from the debates? The presence of the Bloc in Canadian politics might be the only thing which saves May’s participation in the debates.

To be blunt, what kind of hell would Bloc supporters raise in Quebec if predominately English-language media heads sought to exclude the Bloc Leader from the televised leader’s debates? If the Broadcast Consortium wanted to court controversy, excluding the Bloc from the debates would be a very efficient way of doing so. Certainly, however, the other old-line political parties would be very happy to sideline the Bloc. After all, the Bloc is only a regional party, and doesn’t run candidates in most ridings. And, since 2011, it is no longer an Official Pary, having elected only 4 MP’s in the last general election (it’s up to 5 now, after the defection of former NDP MP Claude Patry). If the Greens are to be excluded from the debates, so too should the Bloc.

The presence of the Bloc on the Canadian political scene might lead the Broadcast Consortium to look for some form of compromise, rather than to simply invite May and Daniel Paille, the Bloc’s Leader, to the debates. It is quite possible that in 2015, we may see a new format for the debates, with “the big 3” getting a greater opportunity to debate amongst themselves. Perhaps May and Paille will be left to take on one another, during a Tuesday afternoon time slot (although even on a Tuesday afternoon, I can’t help but think that such a “debate” would make for some pretty lousy TV). Or maybe the Consortium will simply invite the Bloc to the French-language debate only, out of some misguided notion that while it’s ok for French Canadians to hear from Paille, English Canadians will at least be spared from exposure to a separatist party. And in this circumstance, May probably wouldn’t be invited at all.

Lessons for Canadian Greens

If Greens in Canada are to learn any lessons from our Australian counterparts, I believe that they are as follows:

1) That old-line political parties will do whatever it takes to silence Greens and perpetuate the electoral status quo, including going so far as to putting their own partisan interests ahead of their nation’s interests;

2) Elizabeth May’s participation in the televised Leader’s debates is anything but assured in the lead-up to the 2015 election date. Greens should not be complacent, and should such an anti-democratic decision be made, Greens should instead be ready to rise up en masse in a way that we didn’t in 2011.

3) The situation with media heads manipulating and controlling the range of voices heard from during a general election due to their gatekeeper status for televised debates is intolerable for a mature democracy. Each and every political party in Canada should be calling for a clear set of rules regarding participation (but despite what the old-line parties should be doing, the only truly national party to do so has been the Greens).

4) That Justin Trudeau’s “Preferential Ballot” is nothing but window dressing in the world of electoral reform, and will in fact become just another tool the old-line parties use to placate the increasing number of Canadians who are coming to realize that there’s something terribly wrong with our electoral system. If Greens want to talk about electoral reform, the Liberals’ “ranked ballot” is a non-starter. Let’s stick to proportional representation, period.

Our Future Success

Voters in Australia go to the polls on September 7th. It will be interesting to watch from afar how well our Green counterparts are able to perform, despite the deck being stacked against them by the old-line parties and the media. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there might yet be some truly thrilling election-night success stories which emerge from Down Under to inspire Canadian Greens. But even if there are, one thing is certain: we Canadian Greens are going to have to make our own way forward, continuing to blaze our own trail in the face of organized adversity. We’ve come this far together – I know we can go much further yet.

(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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