Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Green Party - Table for Two?

There’s been a lot of speculation all week that Thunder Bay-Superior North Member of Parliament Bruce Hyer (Independent) is getting ready to join the Green Party of Canada. Last week, Hyer made it known to local Thunder Bay media that he would be making an announcement on Friday, December 13th, regarding his future plans in parliament – including a shift from Independent status. This past weekend, he told the CBC that he could never return to a party which whipped votes – and that his joining a party would have to be on his terms, as an “Independent-Plus”.

I’ve learned to take little for granted in politics, but the since Hyer’s announcement last week, it’s seemed pretty clear to everybody that the Green Party would be doubling its caucus in Parliament, with Hyer joining Elizabeth May at the table. Interestingly, if MP Hyer does join the Green Party, it will be the shortest-ever “floor crossing” Canada’s parliament has ever witnessed, as Hyer won’t actually be crossing the floor – or even moving at all. May and Hyer are already seated adjacent to one another in the House of Commons (Hyer in seat 308, while May is in seat 309 – not sure why there are 309 seats in a House built for 307 MP’s and 1 Speaker, but there you go).

The Past is Prologue

Bruce Hyer was elected under the NDP’s banner in 2008, and again in 2011. Shortly after the 2011 election, Hyer lost his speaking privileges with the NDP after voting against his Party’s wishes on the dismantling of the long gun registry (along with Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP John Rafferty). After months of being silenced, new NDP Leader Tom Mulcair invited him back into the fold. Hyer questioned what role he would play in shadow cabinet – the answer was “none” – and he asked if he would be able to vote for the wishes of his constituents again or have to face the whip – the answer was the whip comes first, always.

So Hyer quit the NDP to sit as an Independent, where he believed he could do more to express the wishes of his constituents.
And he’s been sitting as an Independent since April, 2012. I shared my thoughts regarding what I thought Hyer’s next move ought to be back in late April, 2012 (see: “Bruce Hyer and the Values of Political Parties” , Sudbury Steve May, April 30, 2012). Not surprisingly, I came to the conclusion that Hyer might really want to think about joining Elizabeth May and the Green Party, for a number of reasons. I’m not sure that it was one of my better blogposts – it received only one comment – but for me, it was a very valuable one – it was from Bruce Hyer.

Many pundits this week are already writing off Hyer’s electoral chances in 2015 should he decide to run for the Green Party. On the surface, given the Party’s lack of success in the riding (and more generally, throughout Northern Ontario), it might seem a stretch to think that the good voters of Thunder Bay-Superior North are going to return Hyer to parliament under the Green Party’s banner. That kind of tree-hugging nonsense doesn’t play well in cold, resource-based communities anyway – so what’s Hyer thinking?

The Green Party - Elusive Electoral Success

Let’s break this down a little further. First off, the Green Party’s success rate in Thunder Bay-Superior North is no better – or no worse – than it has been in a multitude of Canadian ridings. In the 2011 election, the Green Party’s Scott Kyle received just 3% of the vote – which was only slightly below the 3.9% average for all Green Party candidates in that election. In 2008, the Green candidate received a healthier 6.9% - just slightly above the 6.7% average of all Green candidates. And the 2008 race in TBSN was a close one between the NDP and Liberals, with the Conservatives increasing their vote share. In 2011, the NDP widened the gap, the Liberals fell to third place, and the Conservative numbers continued to climb for a second place finish. Interestingly, the outcomes and the narratives of those two elections were almost exactly what we here in Sudbury experienced.

The fact is, even in ridings were Greens did a fair bit better in general elections in 2008 and 2011, for the most part, Greens didn’t challenge the old line parties anywhere – save for Elizabeth May in Central Nova in 2011 and Saanich-Gulf Islands in 2011. In 2011, our next best finishes were 19% (and 3rd place) in the Yukon, and 15% in Vancouver Centre (4th place) and 15% in Dufferin-Caledon (2nd place). This would have been a real downer for the Green Party of Canada had we not succeeded in implementing our election strategy – get leader Elizabeth May elected at all cost.

Green Election Strategies

Some pundits have criticized the Green Party for making the 2011 general election all about May. Unlike in 2008, there really wasn’t much of an effort to engage in a national campaign. May spent most of her time knocking on doors in Saanich-Gulf Islands, both pre-writ and post. The Party poured money into that riding – in order to elect May, and to start building a regional base of operations on Vancouver Island. The strategy paid off – May got elected by a healthy margin, and the regional base continues to grow, with the BC Green Party electing MLA Andrew Weaver from the Island riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head. In 2012, Green Donald Galloway came within a few percentage points of taking Victoria in a by-election.

May’s election to parliament was critical for another reason – and it has everything to do with 2015. In 2008, Independent MP (and former Liberal) Blair Wilson had publicly joined the Green Party just days before Harper broke his fixed election law and called for a new mandate. With one Green MP in parliament (although never technically recognized as such), May (backed by concerned Canadians) was able to ultimately make a case to the Broadcast Consortium that she deserved to be a part of the televised Leader’s debates. As a result, it’s no wonder that 2008 was the Green Party’s best showing nationally. In 2011, without an MP, May was shut out of the televised debates. With an MP, it only stands to reason that May will be back in the televised debates in 2015, and the fortunes of the Green Party in the next election may very well be tied to her performance in the debate.

The point here is that the previous election isn’t the best indicator of the next election – especially in circumstances where a riding is targeted by a particular political party. Should Hyer decide to join the Greens, it can be expected that Thunder Bay-Superior North will be ground zero for the Green Party on election day 2015. Make no mistake – if Hyer joins the Green Party and runs in 2015, results from this riding are certain to be better than any Green has seen in Northern Ontario.

The Green Party and Resource Development

What about those pesky pro-environmental policies of the Green Party of Canada, though – won’t they turn off voters in a blue-collar town like Thunder Bay? Well – yes, they will turn off some voters – but others are sure to be energized by those policies. First of all, Thunder Bay isn’t really such a blue-collar town any more – it’s a city of 100,000 people, many of whom are employed in excellent jobs in the education and health care sectors. It’s a pretty progressive place, actually – progressive enough to elect an MP in 2008 and 2011 from the NDP despite his having few ties to unions (Hyer is a biologist and a forester, an environmentalist and tourist outfitter).

In my opinion (and let me be frank about “my opinion” here, as it’s one that I’ve given a great deal of thought to over the last several years), the Green Party’s biggest problems in Northern Ontario ridings have a lot more to do with communication than policy. Frankly, I see little reason why the Party’s platform wouldn’t resonate with a plurality of voters in Northern Ontario, particularly in our urban centres – and I’m certain that it would resonate, if only we could do a better job of communicating it to voters.

But the Green Party is anti-resource development, surely? And Northern Ontario cities and towns like Sudbury and Thunder Bay rely on mining and forestry for jobs.

No, the Green Party’s policies are not anti-resource development – we just have a different take on how our resources should be developed – sustainably, rather than not. But sustainable development will require a different way of looking at resource development, and the notion that doing things differently equates with a greater expense and lost jobs is, frankly, the wrong way of looking at the issue. If anything, sustainable resource development, even in non-renewable sectors such as mining, will surely create jobs and reduce expenses for taxpayers.

Sustainable Resource Development - A Compelling Narrative for Canadians

Should Hyer join the Green Party, he’s going to have to explain that trick to voters in his riding. It’s actually a very compelling story, one I know that Hyer will tell well, to all of Northern Ontario’s benefit. Should Hyer join the Green Party, I think it’s fair to say that we’ll finally have a voice which can’t be ignored speaking about sustainable resource development in Northern Ontario.

Think about it – what would sustainable development for Northwestern Ontario’s remote Ring of Fire look like? I’ll leave that with you to ponder – but suffice it to say, it won’t look anything like traditional mining camps which have been developed in the past – which are exactly the way that everybody thinks the ROF should be developed today. Hyer here has a golden opportunity to expound on 21st Century sustainable mining development, which is exactly what’s needed to move the Ring of Fire forward. Unquestionably, one component of sustainable development for the ROF will consist of value-added jobs being created in the region. Thunder Bay, with its major port on the Great Lakes, could benefit from the development of an entire new industry to smelt chromite and produce stainless steel, but only if we take the notion of sustainable development seriously.

The Green Party and Canadian Democracy

With all of that being said, though, it’s clear that there are a number of Green Party policy initiatives which will play very well in Thunder Bay-Superior North, particularly for Mr. Hyer. The Green Party is really the only party which is taking the democratic deficit seriously. In fact, it was the NDP’s own anti-democratic efforts which created this situation in the first place, by cutting Hyer off at the knees (well, at the microphone anyway) when he had the audacity to represent the interests of his constituents – the people whom elected him – rather than the interests of the Party whip.

No doubt died-in-the-wool NDP partisans will criticize Hyer’s “floor crossing” to join the Green Party as being anti-democratic (although, if they do so, they'd be violating the NDP's unwritten rule to never acknowledge the existence of the Green Party by uttering its name). NDP partisans will call for a by-election to be held in Thunder Bay-Superior North, because they want Canadians to believe that politicians elected under a specific banner need to stay in their place, or face the electorate for the gall of exercising their free will. These partisans should be reminded at every opportunity that Canadians elect people – real people, not party colours – to parliament to represent the voters who sent them there. And Bruce Hyer amongst all of Canada’s parliamentarians has clearly taken a principled stand on behalf of his constituents.

If the NDP want to challenge Hyer by trying to play the anti-democracy card, good luck to them.

And that one issue, more than any of the others, is going to be what resonates with voters in TBSN – that their elected official, Bruce Hyer, stood up to the game playing and nonsense of his former party to represent the will of the electorate – his constituents. He was punished for doing so – and by extension, so were his constituents. There can be no question that he will stand up again – in a heartbeat, if push came to shove. But by becoming first an Independent, and second (maybe) a member of the Green Party, Hyer will never again have to face making a choice of representing the interests of his constituents or that of his Party.

No Whip Required

But the Green Party is a political party, right? There will be an expectation that, as a member of that Party, that he’s going to have to vote a certain way on issues, surely? Well, yes and no – as a member of the Green Party, should Mr. Hyer join, there will be an expectation that he follows the party line on issues where the Party’s membership has created policy – but keep in mind, one of those member-approved policies explicitly states that the Green Party will never whip votes (adopted by the Party in August, 2012). We’re the only party which offers its MP’s that degree of flexibility. On matters which the Party has not adopted policy, it may very well be that Hyer and other Green MP’s turn to the party’s values for guidance. They may even discuss how they will vote. But at the end of the day, I would not be surprised to find Green MP’s voting differently on some matters. I think it’s fair to say that had Hyer been a part of the Green Party for the vote on the long gun registry, he and May would not have voted the same way. The difference being, of course, Hyer would not have been punished for voting for the will of his constituents had he been a Green. And that’s the hallmark of a truly progressive and democratic political party, in my opinion – one which tries to keep politics out of the political realm as much as possible.

Party Membership has its Electoral Privileges

Be that as it may, what’s the advantage for Bruce Hyer to now join the Green Party? Some pundits are suggesting that it’s because he likely won’t run again in 2015 (they’ve largely been the ones to write off Hyer’s hopes of being re-elected as a Green). I think it’s the exact opposite: it’s because Bruce Hyer wants to run again and win in 2015, to continue to provide the best possible public service to the voters of Thunder Bay-Superior North, that Hyer (may) join the Green Party, despite the apparent drawbacks.

It is fair to say that Hyer’s electoral success might have been better served if he decided to return to the NDP, or join the Liberals. But remember, Hyer clearly isn’t interested in his own success – at least not at all costs – “success” isn’t the primary engine of motivation here, clearly. Had Hyer been concerned about getting re-elected in 2015, he would have never left the NDP in the first place – and likely not voted on behalf of his constituents in the long gun registry vote.

The fact is, in our current electoral system, Independents have the deck stacked against them. Only members of political parties can reap the full benefits of our current electoral system – and it’s a damn shame, because it really shouldn’t be like this. The reality is, however, that one of the best predictors of electoral success has been, and continues to be, money. If you’re running as an independent, you are subject to the same rules for raising and spending money as are all other candidates, during an election campaign. But outside of the actual writ period, wannabe candidates can’t raise money for themselves or spend it.

But Electoral District Associations – those collections of local partisans who nominate the candidates – can. And do.

If you want to be a successful candidate at any level, part of your effort is going to require self-promotion. As an Independent, Hyer is really restricted in the sort of promotion he could engage in. But, if he had an EDA at his back, he technically wouldn’t have to engage in any self-promotion – he could instead rely on the EDA to do his promoting for him. The EDA can raise money between elections – and spend it. That means mail-outs, billboards, paying the travel expenses of big-name whoevers to come and show their support to the locals. Purchasing ads on the radio and in local newspapers. If you name it, the EDA can do it – whereas an Independent can’t.

Parties and Values

Hyer the Independent can’t help but see that if he really wants to continue representing the good people of TBSN, he can’t risk putting himself at a disadvantage to the other parties, who can spend like drunken sailors before election day. It’s in part because he is motivated by his public service, while grounded in our current, archaic electoral reality, that I believe Hyer will decide to join the Green Party. Of course, it’s also a happy coincidence that Hyer and the Green Party share so many of the same values.

Values which if, I believe, Independent MP Brent Rathgeber were to take a look at, might surprise him too. Rathgeber has already shown Canadians that he values democracy and public service. I sincerely hope that May and Hyer (if he joins the Greens) might have some serious conversations with Mr. Rathgeber about the benefits of whip-free Green Party membership. It's something to think about, Mr. Rathgeber.

And now, let’s wait and see where Friday the 13th takes us.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be considered consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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