Monday, August 25, 2014

What might a Bloc Collapse mean for the Green Party of Canada?

Many of Canada’s politically engaged are watching with glee the collapse of the Bloc Quebecois. Election night, 2011, saw the Bloc return to Ottawa with a tiny cadre of 4 MPs (which ultimately grew by one when Claude Patry, elected under the NDP banner, crossed the floor to sit with the Bloc). The rise of the NDP in Quebec was clearly at the expense of the Bloc, and to an extent, the Liberals. Unlike the Liberal Party, however, the Bloc hasn’t been able to find a way forward. Their new leader, Mario Beaulieu, elected by old-guard sovereigntists on a platform pushing aggressive separation, simply isn’t resonating with voters, or elected members of his own Party.

Two of five Bloc MP’s have already left the Party – Marie Mourani was kicked out last year for being less than supportive of the Provincial Parti Quebecois’s so-called Charter of Values. Last week, Jean-Francois Fortin left the Party to sit as an Independent, citing Beaulieu’s leadership and the direction he is taking the Bloc. Today, Andre Bellevance announced that he will be sitting as an Independent in the House, and that he won’t be seeking re-election in 2015. That leaves just Patry, who has said he won’t run in 2015, and Louis Plamondon, who was first elected to the House in 1997. The Montreal Gazette is reporting that Plamondon has apparently advised a local newspaper that he will stand for re-election in 2015 (see: “MP Andre Bellevance leaves Bloc Quebecois”, Montreal Gazette, August 25, 2014).

Not many outside of Quebec are going to miss the Bloc. I’m certainly not.

Canada's Changing Political Landscape

What is becoming evident now is that the federal electoral landscape continues to shift, and in so doing, it will have a national impact. Recent polling by Abacus Data (see: “Federal politics without the BQ”, August 21, 2014) suggests that the NDP, and to a lesser extent the Liberals, would see gains should the Bloc collapse and/or disappear altogether. Certainly, without the Bloc (or with a Bloc that voters perceive to be a significantly less serious party), Tom Mulcair’s chances of holding the NDP’s “Fortress Quebec” are enhanced, and will likely deprive the Liberals from a handful of seats that it might otherwise covet to push Justin Trudeau’s party into majority territory.

Ultimately, though, Trudeau’s popularity in the rest of Canada might be enough for the Liberals to get their majority anyway. But a strong Bloc splitting a handful of ridings with the NDP might have allowed a few Liberals to come up the middle. What’s uncertain is whether Liberals winning tight three-way races might offset Liberals winning straight-up fights with the NDP after having picked up some of the Bloc’s former supporters.

The Bloc Quebecois and the Green Party in the House

Beyond potentially determining whether Canada ends up with a majority or minority government, I believe that a collapsing Bloc may end up having another impact on the 2015 election in the rest of Canada – one that directly affects the Green Party. So let me dive in and talk shop for a few minutes – but throughout this conversation, I’d ask that you keep in mind that I remain glad that the Bloc seems to be removing itself from the Canadian political landscape, as I believe that Canada’s broader interests don’t include a contingent of MP’s whose main reason in the House is to promote the break-up of our country.

The continuing presence of Bloc MP’s in the House of Commons, though, works in favour of the Green Party’s electoral prospects in 2015. Keep in mind that neither the Bloc Quebecois or the Green Party are recognized as an “Official Party” in the House, as neither meets the 12 MP threshold (the Bloc is down to 2 MP’s, while the Green Party is up to 2).

Electoral Success for Greens in 2015

The Green Party is hoping to for a breakthrough in 2015 by finding a way to entice Canadians to elect Greens in a couple of dozen ridings throughout the country. One of the Green Party’s biggest challenges, though, is making connections with voters. A lot of Canadians don’t know what the Green Party stands for, beyond the notion that the Party is pro-environment. A lack of historic success with voters has meant that the Green Party continues to be viewed as “unelectable”, even by voters who are aware of our position and policies, and whom otherwise might want to vote Green.

Greens simply don’t get the media coverage that the other parties do. Pollsters don’t always include the Green Party in their polls. Other party leaders are reluctant to even acknowledge the existence of the Green Party (when was the last time anybody heard Tom Mulcair, or any elected NDP MP, refer to the “Green Party” by name? This is a great tactic that the NDP uses to de-legitimize Greens). All of this creates a significant challenge for the Green Party to gather any oxygen between and during elections, and makes connecting with voters that much more difficult.

One thing Greens are counting on is the more prominent exposure of our national Leader, Elizabeth May, in the upcoming 2015 election campaign. Although May will probably be spending most of her time in just a couple of dozen ridings, her presence at the national televised leader’s debate will bring exposure to May and the Green Party into the living rooms of a lot of Canadian households. A successful performance at the debate may very well generate additional coverage for May and the Party in the small number of days between the leader’s debates and the election.

The Green Party and Televised Leaders' Debates

When May was in the televised leader’s debate in 2008, the Green Party’s vote share rose to its highest ever – almost 7%. In 2011, without a leader in the televised debates, the Green Party was back down to just 3% of the national vote.

Many Greens believe that May’s presence in the House of Commons (along with that of Bruce Hyer) all but guarantees her participation in the televised leader’s debates, based on past precedent. These Greens should be reminded not to pin too much hope on the unelected and unaccountable Broadcast Consortium, which manages the leader’s debates and essentially gets to make up the rules as it goes along. The Broadcast Consortium, in negotiation with political parties (which does not include the Green Party, as Greens are without official party standing in the house). In the past, the Broadcast Consortium has tended to allow the parties to take a leadership role in defining who is invited to the debates, and to the format of the debates.

In 2008, when Stephen Harper broke his own fixed-dated election law and dissolved parliament, the Green Party had 1 MP in the House. Blair Wilson had joined the Green Party earlier in the weekend, and although he never technically sat as a Green, he had been very public about his intention to do so. I remember this time very well, as the thrill of finally having an MP in the House was tangible for me and other Greens. A Green MP meant an opportunity to have our Leader in the televised debates, just as it had meant the same for Preston Manning’s Reform Party in the 1993 election.

But May was initially disqualified by the Broadcast Consortium. Reports at the time indicated that the Conservatives and the NDP had disagreed with having May at the debate, because both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton believed that the no-compete agreement between the Liberals and the Greens in each leader’s riding meant that the Green Party was really the Liberal Party in disguise. The arrogance of this thinking, and the Consortium’s decision, didn’t sit well with many engaged Canadians, particularly those in the New Democratic Party. Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe and Liberal Leader Stephane Dion had both offered lukewarm endorsements for May to be invited.

Under pressure from within, Layton eventually changed his mind, and May was invited to the debate. In 2011, however, Layton and then-Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff had no concerns about silencing the Green Party – May was sidelined from the Leader’s debate.

Blocking the Bloc

Could the same thing happen again in 2015? At first blush, it would seem that it can’t. May’s participation in the televised leader’s debate ought to be a given. With two MP’s in the House, one of whom (May) was elected as a Green, based on past precedent (see: Deb Grey, and May herself in 2008), there should be no reason to keep May out.

However, May’s presence in the debates means that Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu, who can hardly be described as telegenic, especially in English Canada, must also be given the opportunity to participate. And you can bet your bottom dollar that both the Liberals and the NDP, which will be battling hard for Quebec votes, will do all that they can to keep Beaulieu out of the debates.

Tom Mulcair’s NDP and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are doing what they can to show that the level of crassness and political opportunism which exists in their parties rivals that of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party. Rather than putting the interests of Canadians, and the interests of democracy front and centre, what we’re seeing from Mulcair and Trudeau is ultra-partisanship and game-playing. Moving ahead towards the 2015 general election, it’s certain that Canadians will only see more of this.

Working together to keep Beaulieu out of the debate might be a double-edged sword for the NDP and Liberals in Quebec. Certainly, neither party will want to take ownership of the decision to silence the Bloc, and will instead point fingers at the Broadcast Consortium, which ultimately does have the authority to determine who gets invited to participate. Keep in mind, though, that the Consortium takes its marching orders from the parties – so if Beaulieu isn’t invited, it’s because the NDP and Liberals don’t want him there.

And if Mario Beaulieu isn’t allowed to participate in the televised leaders debates, Elizabeth May will have to sit them out too.

The good news for the Green Party is that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, from a purely crass partisan political point of view, might want Beaulieu to participate in the debates, with hopes that the Bloc might be able to steal a few seats in Quebec away from the Liberals and NDP, which will make obtaining a majority government that much harder for those parties. Of course, it may very well be that the Conservative Party ends up supporting sidelining the Bloc from the debates – as a matter of principle and in the interests of a united Canada!

Bumping Beaulieu

What about the people of Quebec? Don’t they get a say in whether the BQ participates in the debates? Well – no, they don’t. Not unless you count the results at the ballot box as an opportunity for expression. And based on what happened to the Green Party in 2011, if I were a Bloc supporters, I wouldn’t want to rely on voters protesting Beaulieu’s exclusion from the debates at the ballot box. It’s far better to have one’s leader in the debates than not. Credibility certainly takes a hit – especially if the leader was there in the past, and not in the present.

If both Bloc MP’s Patry and Plamondon decided that they weren’t going to run again (as Patry has already indicated for himself), the rationale to exclude the Bloc’s unelected leader from the debates becomes that much more compelling. If neither Patry or Plamondon finished this session of the House as Bloc MPs, it’s almost certain that the Bloc Quebecois would be shut out of the leader’s debates. Does any of this mean that May wouldn’t be invited?

The Consortium Speaks

It’s not a given, for sure. Even without a Bloc Quebecois in Parliament, the Consortium might still agree to invite May. But the case against May’s participation becomes easier to make. Take a look at what Bob Weiers, Senior Producer, CBC news had to say about determining how party leaders were invited to the televised leaders debate in the recent Ontario provincial election (see: “Ontario Election 2014: How to Make a Debate”, Bob Weiers, CBC, June 5, 2014)

Weiers, who produced the Ontario leaders debate television program, has probably given us the most insight into how the Consortium decides which leaders to invite. The rationale Weiers uses to come to the decision to exclude the Green Party of Ontario’s Mike Schreiner from the debate is interesting and worth noting. Weiers notes that the networks want to create both a “watchable” and “journalistically sound” program.

Watchability and Journalistic Soundness

Green supporters might automatically think that May’s presence in any televised debate would certainly contribute to the debate’s journalistic integrity and watchability (I know that I feel that way). But we’ve heard far too often that the number of people in any debate really detracts from watchability – and frankly, it’s hard to argue otherwise (although some of the 2011 GOP Presidential primary debates in the U.S. weren’t bad, just tune in to any City of Toronto mayor’s debate and you be the judge). Anyway, I don’t think that Greens should rely on the Consortium inviting May because she’ll contribute to watchability.

So what about journalistic soundness? Well, Weiers goes on to suggest that the Green Party of Ontario really failed to meet the test of being journalistically interesting? Here’s the full excerpt from Weier’s insider piece:

“One contentious issue that the seven broadcast organizations decide alone is who to invite to the debate. It's an issue we agree on unanimously. There are 23 registered political parties for the current election. Clearly, a 90-minute debate that includes all of them is not an option. The criteria we used as a guide is as follows:

• Is the party registered with Elections Ontario?
• Does the party have an identified and full-time leader?
• Are they running candidates in all, or nearly all of the 107 ridings?
• Does the party, based on reliable polling data over a period of time and recent political history, have a legitimate chance to win the government?
• Does the party hold a seat in the legislature that they were elected to in the last vote? (Floor crossers don't count)

The Green Party of Ontario meets some of these criteria. But they did not win a seat in the last election or in a subsequent byelection. In 2011, they received only 2.92 per cent of the popular vote.

That said, if the Greens win a seat next Thursday night and hold it until the next election, there would be a very strong case to be made for them to participate in the next debate.”

Will 'Legitimate Chance to Form Government' Exclude Greens & Bloc?

So, based on Weier’s analysis, since Elizabeth may won a seat in 2011, the Green Party of Canada should be able to make a “very strong case” for participation in the 2015 leader’s debate. So why am I concerned? Well, take another look at that second-last bullet; the one about having a legitimate chance to win government, based on past performance and reliable polling data? I think that it’s fair to say that in the context of the Green Party of Ontario, and the Green Party of Canada, neither Party meets that test.

In the past, it could have been argued that the federal NDP certainly never had a realistic chance to form government. Or the Reform Party for that matter, when they were only running candidates west of the Ontario border. And the Bloc Quebecois throughout its history, never had a chance to form government, given that they’ve only ever run candidates in one province. Yet NDP, Reform and Bloc Leaders have all participated in the debates. Why change the criteria now?

I actually don’t see any good reason to change it – but I’m not the Broadcast Consortium, trying to make the debates watchable and interesting to an ever-decreasing pool of Canadian voters who get upset about having their prime-time shows pre-empted for largely bland political theatre – especially politically theatre which includes the hapless and unknown Mario Beaulieu. Despite Weier’s suggesting that May would have a compelling case, the criteria that he outlines could clearly be used by the Consortium to sideline May – and Beaulieu too, for that matter.

Silencing Greens Gravy for Liberals, NDP

Given that the NDP and Liberals will have the knives out for Beaulieu, sidelining May and the Greens will really just be gravy for them. With the Green Party polling around 15% in battleground British Columbia (where all three of the other national parties believe they can pick up seats – and with redistribution, they might just do that), keeping May and the Greens off of the national front pages of our print media and off of the television sets of British Columbians furthers their ambitions.

The cards are being stacked against Elizabeth May and the Green Party, by both the mainstream media and the other political parties. The only thing which might save May from being shut out of the debates is the continuing presence of the Bloc Quebecois in the House. With MP Louis Plamondon insisting that he’ll run again for the Bloc, it may ultimately be difficult for the Broadcast Consortium not to invite Bloc Leader Mario Beaulieu to the debates – even with Weiers criteria in their back-pocket. If Beaulieu participates, there can be no case against keeping May out – especially if each Party’s caucus consists of one elected MP / one MP who joined after the last general election.

Sinking Bloc Might Sink Elizabeth May Too

If anything, May’s case is much stronger, given that she is the leader of the Party and has a seat in the House, and that her Party will be running candidates in ridings throughout Canada – a likely outcome now that May and the Greens overtures for co-operation have been completely rebuffed by the go-it-alone NDP and Liberals.

But my money is against May and Beaulieu’s participation, for all of the reasons identified above. Yes, Canadians should be up in arms if May isn’t invited to participate – just as Canadians should be up in arms if Beaulieu isn’t invited to participate. Oh…wait a minute. We can’t apply our outrage towards biasing democratic processes selectively? Uhm, so if want to foment a popular early-election uprising like what happened 2008 to get May in the debates, we’ve got to take Beaulieu and his separatists too? Or be labelled hypocrites?

Sorry, folks – that’s not going to happen. Canadians from cost to cost to cost will not be calling into Tom Mulcair’s or Justin Trudeau’s office to insist that they change their minds about Elizabeth May knowing that it means Mario Beaulieu and the Bloc would also have to participate in the debates.

I’m just going to cross my fingers that those in charge of the Broadcast Consortium’s federal debate planning didn’t get Weiers memo, or that if they did, they’ll add their own bullet to the equation: that of past precedent. But I’ll believe it when I see it – when I see Elizabeth May in the debate, that is.

Unfortunately, if May appears on my tv screen, I’ll also have to endure watching a man who wants to break up my country debate legitimate national party leaders.

(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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