Let me tell you in no uncertain terms: what happened last week was very bad news for the Party. We were wiped out. Out of 338 contests, we finished in first in one, and in 2nd in one other. We had a few third place finishes, but in those we were mostly well back, percentage wise.. Even in many of the ridings that we ourselves thought we had a chance in (and poured money and volunteers into), we finished 4th.
These results need to be a strong wake-up call to the Party. What we are doing is clearly not resonating with voters.
I understand that there are many who subscribe to the belief that the Green Party, like the NDP, were largely swept aside by a Liberal tide. Voters were looking for a strategic option to replace Stephen Harper, and a many turned to the Liberals under leader Justin Trudeau. The NDP lost 51 seats, including seats held by Deputy Leader Megan Leslie (Halifax) and other prominent MPs like Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, Pat Martin and Peter Stoffer.
I saw the Liberal tide wash away popular local New Democrat Claude Gravelle here in the Nickel Belt – it should have been a safe riding for the NDP. Thomas Mulcair barely visited Northern Ontario at all, likely because the polls were all telling him that New Democrats would hold their seats in the region. It didn’t work out that way for the NDP – and it didn’t work at all for the Greens.
Modest Green Election Strategy
Unlike the NDP, the Green Party had more modest goals to achieve in this election. With only limited financial resources to spend on a national campaign, the Green Party had to be strategic in selecting which ridings to put in play. When asked by the media what “success” would be defined as for Greens, Elizabeth May was originally on record suggesting that maybe 15 seats would be a success. That number continued to trend downward throughout the election.
Our party’s strategy was a good one, in my opinion. While I wasn’t plugged in to the national campaign, I did help local Greens here in Sudbury and Nickel Belt with their campaigns. Although I was not a part of the national campaign, it’s fairly easy to see where our Party was concentrating its resources (and when the financials are filed, it will be even that much easier to determine).
With only limited resources at our disposal, our leader could only visit so many ridings. The National Post has maps of all of the Party leaders campaign trail visits (see: "Follow the Leaders," the National Post), and in comparison to the 3 old line parties, May’s travel plans were very modest. Since leaders are likely to mostly visit the ridings they are looking to win, we can put together a pretty good list of those ridings which the Green Party had identified as “to win” ridings.
"To Win" Ridings
Clearly, all of Vancouver Island was in play for the Party. Vancouver Island includes 7 ridings, one of which was held by the Party at dissolution (Saanich-Gulf Islands). Redistribution shook up the boundaries of Island ridings, leaving 2 of 7 ridings open. North Island-Powell River (where Conservative Laura Smith was in the running), Courtenay-Alberni (where Conservative John Duncan ran), Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke (held by the NDP’s Randall Garrison) and Victoria (held by the NDP’s Murray Rankin. In a by-election in Victoria in 2012 when Rankin was elected, Greens came within 3 percentage points of winning there) all fielded incumbents from at least a portion of earlier ridings.
In Ontario, Greens tried to defend the Northern Ontario riding of Thunder Bay-Superior North, held by Deputy Party Leader, Bruce Hyer. Hyer had been elected in 2011 under the NDP banner, but ended up leaving that party in 2012 to sit as an independent in the nether regions of the lower chamber (beside Elizabeth May). In late 2013, he joined the Green Party.
Guelph was also targeted by the Greens, with former Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller carrying the flag. Interestingly, Miller’s connection to the community of Guelph was not all that firm – in many respects, he was a candidate parachuting into a “winnable” Ontario riding.
Deputy Leader Daniel Green’s Montreal-area riding of Ville Marie-Le Sud-Ouest-Iles des Sœurs also appears to have been in play, if only marginally. And further east, the Fredericton riding in New Brunswick and the Charlottetown riding in PEI were also marginally in play, after provincial Greens David Coon and Peter Bevan-Baker managed to get themselves elected recently in similar geographies.
Crash and Burn
These 16 ridings (along with maybe Vancouver Centre, the riding in which former Deputy Party Leader Adriane Carr used to run) represented the best and brightest hopes for the future of the Green Party in 2015. We fielded star candidates (and former CBC on-air personalities) Jo-Ann Roberts and Claire Martin to run in Victoria and North Vancouver. Simon Fraser University professor and arrested Burnaby Mountain pipeline protester Lynne Quarmby ran for us in Burnaby-North Seymour. These 3 candidates, along with May, Miller and Green, gave the party a certain small degree of star power in 2015 that, for the most part, the party lacked in previous elections.
(Note: Information about these ridings, along with 2015 election results, appear at the bottom of this post)
Despite having a modest, workable election strategy to contest to-win ridings, and despite having some modest star candidates and two incumbents (three, if you count Jose Nunez-Melo, who joined the Party after dissolution – and I don’t count him), the Green Party crashed and burned on Monday, October the 19th, with but 1 Green MP elected: our leader, Elizabeth May.
And going forward – unless something beyond our control is to give – it looks to me like we’re going to face considerable hardship in the next general election as well. Here’s why.
Throughout this election, the Green Party came under fire from the NDP (especially in the west) for essentially having the audacity to challenge New Democrats in “their” ridings. This notion of riding ownership is a peculiar one, in my opinion. But the NDP seems to think very highly of it – especially since one of their rallying points in the election was “35 more” – a reference to the seats that the NDP thought they needed to win in order to form government. Of course, when you add 35 to zero – which was the number of NDP ridings they held throughout the election campaign, you get just 35. Clearly, the NDP were also counting the 95 ridings they held at the time of dissolution, believing (wrongly, considerably wrongly, as it turns out) that they would hold all of these ridings.
Nevertheless, the NDP’s message about the Green Party clearly resonated with the electorate on the west coast. New Democrats, never ones to let facts get in the way of their spin, were actually only facing real competition from the Green Party in two ridings where their incumbents were running (Victoria & Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke; although the NDP might also have felt that the open riding of Vancouver East was also “theirs” given Libby Davis’ retirement). In all other non-Green held “to win” ridings, Greens were facing off against Conservative or Liberal incumbents, or the ridings were open.
New Democrats claimed that a Green vote was either a wasted vote, because Greens weren’t going to form government, or a vote for the Conservatives, because it split the progressive vote. Environmental groups and others (including strategic voting advocates) eventually bought into this narrative, and voters were being urged to vote for the NDP or the Liberals in west coast ridings (the NDP on Vancouver Island –except for Elizabeth May; and a mix of NDP/Liberals in the Vancouver metro area), rather than for the Greens. Voters followed up by electing just one Green MP – Elizabeth May.
Clearly, this narrative was a powerful one, and it’s one that the Green Party is going to face in 2019 as well. Only in 2019, more than 2 ridings are likely to be held by NDP incumbents.
"Fortress" Vancouver Island
Prior to the election, Green Party members were hearing about something called, “Fortress Vancouver Island”. Apparently, the Party had done some polling throughout the Island which pointed to the Greens having a decent shot at electing MP’s in every riding (some, like Victoria, were better positioned than others - but all were "in play"). With a power base in Saanich-Gulf Islands and a party leader readily on hand to campaign throughout the Island, everything about the idea of a Green Fortress on Vancouver Island made sense.
What the 2015 election showed was the following: After all the votes were counted, Vancouver Island can appropriately be compared to a "fortress" of Green support. Some of our best results of the election were on the Island, and voter turnout on the Island was higher than the Canadian average (you may have heard that when Greens do well, voter turnout increases - while that's happened in certain ridings, it's not actually a universal truth. Look no further than the two 2012 by-elections in Victoria and Calgary Centre). Clearly, we had picked a winner with our Fortress Vancouver Island strategy.
Vancouver Island proved to be the most hopeful geography for Green supporters in the entire nation.
And yet we still failed to elect any additional MP’s beyond Elizabeth May. Outside of Saanich-Gulf Islands, the NDP swept the other 6 ridings – a feat which they accomplished despite the national trend of seeing New Democrats going down in defeat elsewhere. A near-sweep of Vancouver Island was one of the few election-night highlights for the New Democrats.
Going forward in 2019, Greens will face strong, progressive incumbents throughout the one region of Canada where we have a higher level of support than average.
Similarly, on the mainland, the Liberals swept away Green hopes in the Vancouver area ridings we had targeted to win. The same results occurred in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. In 2019, our 2015 “to win” ridings – those ridings we had identified as areas of strength for the party – will be held by Liberal incumbents, some of whom may end up in cabinet.
I understand that a lot can change in 4 years. But Greens ought to keep in mind that the circumstances in 2019 are likely to be less favorable for a Green breakthrough than they were in 2015. In 2015, Canada had an unpopular Conservative government with an even more unpopular leader. The NDP were certainly strong in the beginning of the election campaign, and that likely did hold Greens back to an extent, but once the NDP’s support started to collapse, the Green Party might have capitalized on that collapse in some of our “to win” ridings, like those on Vancouver Island (and Burnaby-North Seymour, where a strong New Democrat was running, and to a lesser extent, Thunder Bay-Superior North, which the NDP had taken in 2011). As for the Liberals, one might think that there are enough differences between the Liberals and the Green Party in the minds of voters that at least some of the anti-Harper sentiment that the NDP lost in the latter weeks of the campaign might have ended up with us.
But none of that happened. Poll after poll continued to show that the Green Party was out of the race. If anything, our support actually declined during the last two weeks of the campaign, and we finished with the lowest level of support that we’ve had since pre-2006.
It’s certainly true that Greens faced significant challenges in getting our message out during the campaign. At the very outset, voters were once again told not to take the Party seriously by those organizations holding leader's debates. The fact that Elizabeth May was only in 1 of the English-language debates (and the very first one, held at a time that few voters were paying much attention) really did hurt the Party’s credibility. As a result, the media coverage that we had hoped for never materialized. National media organizations (and especially the CBC) ignored our Party – failing in many circumstances even to acknowledge that Greens existed in much of their election coverage.
The polling companies followed up with polls that showed Green support was not growing, and a vicious circle was created. Voters were ultimately offered little in the way of reason to vote for Greens – and that allowed the NDP’s strategic voting narrative to resonate with voters in many of our “to win” ridings (and especially those on Vancouver Island). Eventually, even those like-minded organizations who support environmental progress, are against pipelines, and who are demanding action on climate change either refused to endorse the Green Party (think here about the Leap Manifesto people) or told their members and supporters to vote for other parties (think here about anti-Kinder Morgan group Forces of Nature - see: "Kinder Morgan pipeline protesters back NDP and Liberals over Greens," CBC, October 14, 2015).
Look, we knew that a number of things had to break our way in 2015 if we were going to experience even the modest successes that we were hoping we might. We were at risk of being squeezed out by an NDP in Official Opposition and a third party led by a charismatic young leader. We knew the challenges, and anticipated some of the curveballs that might be thrown at us.
Debates and Media Coverage
Our first order of business was to get Elizabeth May into the debates – something we almost achieved until Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair opted out of the Broadcast Consortium’s debates, which ultimately killed the nationally televised debates.. Being in the debate would have garnered us more mainstream media attention – both before and (especially) after the debates. It was critical that May be seen to perform well on a national stage, so that the media could continue to speak well of her performance. In this election, the national stage never materialized - and the smaller, off-broadway debate productions mostly opted to exclude her.
The second order of business would be moot if we didn’t accomplish getting our leader in the debates. Getting the message out that a vote for a Green MP was a safe, progressive anti-Harper vote just didn’t matter if voters didn’t believe that Greens were electable in the first place. That we had star candidates in Roberts, Martin, Quarmby and Miller – that didn’t matter. That our policies were at least as good or better on important issues just didn’t matter. That we had the best leader in the race – didn’t matter. Voters were told that voting for the Green Party was a wasted vote. This was proved correct, as every single vote for a Green candidate outside of Saanich-Gulf Islands DID NOT MATTER.
Looking Ahead to 2019 - Wild Cards
Will these challenges be any different in 2015? There’s a chance they might be. It is within the realm of possibility to think that there may be a concerted effort made to establish some integrity and actual rules around the broadcast leader’s debate process. If Green members and supporters want to take up any task over the next four years, this is one that we ought to focus on. Let's ensure that a real process for the debates is established – one that provides us with some certainty that our party leader has a presence as of right at all of the debates.
A bigger wild card, of course, is whether Justin Trudeau and his Liberals follow through on their commitment to change our electoral system. I think that they will – but I also think that they’ll do it in such a way that won’t benefit the Green Party. Trudeau is already on record as favouring a ranked ballot process over more comprehensive reforms which move us toward some form of proportional representation. Ranked ballots will not help elect Greens. Instead, the old three parties will simply tell their voters to preference one another in order to shut Greens out of the running. Although these decisions regarding preferences are ultimately left to individual voters, the mainstream media narrative will again be “the Green Party just isn’t serious. Even a second place preference for a Green candidate will be a wasted vote”. It will become another self-fulfilling prophecy.
If the Liberals, however, do bring in some sort of proportional representation, that will be a game-changer – and it will benefit our Party significantly. Along with advocating for rules to leader’s debates, Greens ought to get involved in whatever grassroots initiatives spring up which advocate PR. Trudeau is going to be lobbied hard by right-wing anti-democracy extremists to abandon needed electoral reforms. It's already happening (see: "Tasha Kheiriddin: Why proportional representation will be bad for Conservatives," the National Post, October 28, 2015). Canadians should be prepared to be bombarded by illy, counter-factual arguments against PR in our media - arguments like "PR is less democratic" and "PR is radical" or "PR leads to a lack of national vision". In this hostile environment, will Trudeau ever seriously entertain real reforms to our anti-democratic system?
Unfortunately, I just can’t see the Liberals opting for PR over a ranked ballot. There's too much risk - for the Liberal Party. I've not given up hope on Justin Trudeau yet. But I still don't think it's likely to happen.
The Green Party - Next Steps
Where then do we go from here?
Short answer: Right now, nowhere. Let’s let Elizabeth May get through Paris, and then let’s let the rest of us get through Christmas before we do much of anything. Although some (not many - and the most vocal aren't Greens. see: "It's time for Elizabeth May to go," Maclean's, October 27, 2015) are calling for May to step down as leader, I think we all know that if she were to do so right now or in early 2016, that would be a death-blow to our party. We don’t have a “leader in waiting”, and a leadership contest after our dismal 5th place/1 MP finish isn’t going to generate much in the way of media interest for the Party. Unless some hugely impressive leadership candidate crawls out of the woodwork (like a David Suzuki or a, well, I don’t know who else), for the sake of the Party’s health, May better not step down.
It may be in all of our collective interests to do a little more wait-and-seeing, too – to wait and see what form of electoral reform the Liberals adopt. Trudeau’s plan is to have something in place in 18 months. That’s a good timeline for us (although even sooner would be better). If proportional representation is on the table, well, it’s game on for the Greens in 2019. But anything other than some form of proportional representation should cause our Party significant consternation – and in those circumstances, I think we should re-evaluate the need for our existence.
What Will New Democrats Do?
Another wild card that could be thrown at the Green Party comes from the New Democrats. Although Tom Mulcair has vowed to stay on as leader, there remains a possibility that he might still step down – or be forced out by his own Party’s members at a mandatory leadership review scheduled for the new year (see: "NDP Leader Tom Mulcair promises to stay 'for the long haul'," CTV News, October 21, 2015). If Mulcair quits/is forced out as leader, the NDP will have a real opportunity to begin a rebuilding process along the lines of what the UK’s Labour Party recently went through. If the NDP opts for a positive, progressive leader who talks like a Green, well, that could be it for our Party. In the UK, many Greens supported Corbyn’s leadership bid (see: "Corbynite Greens beware: Corbyn-led Labour is unlikely to benefit the Green Party," Psycho Politico, August 4, 2015). The same could happen with the NDP under, say, Nathan Cullen, or Naomi Klein. If such a leader arose in the NDP - and actually managed to move the party towards a more sensible course, what relevance would there be for a Green Party?
In all seriousness, what are the policy issues which currently differentiate us from the NDP? I think there are a few, but most are more of a question of nuance and degree than anything else. We have a better policy for the climate crisis, for sure. But with a new leader who talks like a Green, the NDP could certainly play catch-up. Arguably, the NDP already has better health care and education policies. And as for fiscal responsibility, what does that even mean any more after both the Greens and the NDP ran the last election on “no deficit spending”?
We party insiders might have our own specific issues with NDP policy (I really despise the Sherebrook Declaration, for example), but in the mind of the average voter, where’s the difference? Maybe they think that Greens are a little better on the environment, and the NDP a little better on everything else. Whatever they think is influenced by the pitiful amount of media coverage our party generates, along with simplistic voter identification tools like the CBC’s Vote Compass, which placed the NDP and the Greens in almost the exact same position on its two-axis chart.
In the minds of voters, the biggest difference between the NDP and the Greens is this: the NDP is electable, and the Greens are not.
Electoral Success - Worth Pursuing?
Policy and quality local candidates have little to do with electoral success at this time in Canada’s history. As the NDP proved in 2011, you don’t have to campaign in a riding to get elected. As the Liberals proved in 2015, you don’t have to have much in the way of concrete policy proposals to get elected. For electoral success, it's the debates, the polls, and media mentions – that’s what matters. I realize that may be a difficult message for many in my party to hear, but even those who rebel at the notion of electing a government on the basis of spin and PR (in this case, 'public representation') know in their heats that this is true – and that the past few federal elections, outside of a handful of ridings, have laid a firm foundation for this assessment.
Indeed, if Greens are seriously to contest the next election, whatever else we do, we should focus only on between 3 and 5 issues/messages, period. And we should do so in an easily understood, positive, media-friendly way. Our candidates throughout Canada should talk about nothing else, other than these 3 to 5 points. If we truly want to leave voters with an impression of what the Green Party is all about, 3 to 5 succinct talking points from the 5th Party is likely the best that we can do.
Think back to what message we may have left with voters during this past election. Other than supporting free tuition and opposing pipelines and fossil fuels, what were our key messages? I can think of maybe one more: Electing more Green MP’s – and that’s hardly an earth-shattering message that’s going to resonate with voters. All of those other good things we had to say about free trade agreements, carbon pricing, pharmacare, seniors and cities – nothing. No one remembers them today – probably including many of my readers.
Of course, the strategy that I've outlined here really goes against a lot of what led many of us to join the Greens in the first place. We like having good policy. We don't care for the PR side of campaigning. We really don't like being told what to say. If a strategy like this is implemented, will we even recognize our Party any longer? But if we are to experience success at the ballot box, it's pretty clear to me that we have to get serious about message control. The question that we should reflect on as a political party is whether we want to experience success at the ballot box. And that's been an existential question facing our Party long before I became a member.
Greens Can't Wait for the Green Party
Unless the electoral system is changed in such a way that every vote in 2019 is made to matter, it may be that the best vehicle to achieve the policy goals that are important to grassroots members of our party will be one that is built outside of the Green Party.
As someone who joined the Green Party because of my concern with the climate crisis, I can’t help but recognize that we are rapidly running out of time to take real and meaningful action. I don’t believe that Canada’s new Liberal government is serious about the climate crisis, and had Canadians elected Tom Mulcair’s NDP last Monday, I don’t believe that they would have taken the climate crisis seriously either. To me, climate change is far more important than party politics. I just want something to get done – and I know that many of those reading this blog feel the same way.
If Greens can’t wield influence inside of parliament as Greens, maybe we need to think about becoming something other. Of course, at the present moment, there does not appear to be any legitimate options for Greens in our parliament, other than to continue to support Elizabeth May. We must do what we can to ensure that there are real rules in place for the next leader’s debates, and we must advocate for PR. That’s what we can do ourselves.
If, however, circumstances within the NDP change – meaning, should the NDP finally get serious about climate change, ditch their neo-liberal austerity policies and abandon their culture of spin and fear-mongering in the process, by electing a Corbyn/Sanderson-type leader, than it may be time to admit to a re-evaluation of our circumstances.
I’ll leave you with this final, unlikely thought - one which no one in their right mind would dare think. What if New Democrats reject Tom Mulcair’s leadership next year? What if a grassroots movement within the NDP starts to seriously call for new, green leadership, and what if the person that they turn to is Elizabeth May? Could May cross the floor and run for leader of the NDP? If she did, would you go with her and help her with that task? It wouldn’t be easy – but nobody in their right minds think Bernie Sanders will get the Democratic Party's nomination, and nobody in their right minds thought Jeremy Corbyn could become leader of the UK Labour Party, either - much less on the first ballot.
I know, I’m dreaming in technicolour here – but what if Orange really did become the new Green?
(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the Green Parties of Ontario and/or Canada)
Green Party of Canada "To Win" Election Night Results
“Fortress” Vancouver Island
- Saanich-Gulf Islands. Incumbent: Elizabeth May, Green. Green Candidate: Elizabeth May. Finish: 1st Place, 54%
- Victoria. Incumbent: Murray Rankin, NDP. Green Candidate:Jo-Ann Roberts. Finish: 2nd Place, 33% Winner: Murray Rankin, NDP, 42%.
- Nanaimo-Ladysmith. Incumbent: None. Green Candidate: Paul Manly. Finish: 4th Place, 20% Winner: Sheila Malcolmson, NDP, 33%.
- Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke. Incumbent: Randall Garrison, NDP. Green Candidate: Frances Litman. Finish: 3rd Place, 20%. Winner: Randall Garrison, NDP, 35%
- Cowichan-Malahat-Langford. Incumbent: None. Green Candidate:Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi. Finish: 4th Place, 17%. Winner: Alistair MacGregor, NDP, 36%.
- Courtenay-Alberni. Incumbent: John Duncan, Conservative. Green Candidate: Glenn Sollitt. Finish: 4th Place, 12%. Winner: Gord Johns, NDP, 38%
- North Island-Powell River. Incumbent: Laura Smith, Conservative. Green Candidate: Brenda Sayers. Finish: 4th Place, 8%. Winner: Rachel Blaney, NDP, 40%)
- Vancouver Centre. Incumbent: Hedy Fry, Liberal. Green Candidate: Lisa Barrett. Finish: 4th Place, 6%. Winner: Hedy Fry, Liberals, 56%.
- Vancouver East. Incumbent: None (held by Libby Davis, NDP, at dissolution). Green Candidate: Wes Regan. Finish: 4th Place, 9%. Winner: Jenny Kwan, NDP, 50%.
- North Vancouver. Incumbent: Andrew Saxton, Conservative. Green Candidate: Claire Martin. Finish: 3rd Place, 8%. Winner: Jonathan Wilkinson, Liberal, 57%.
- West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country. Incumbent: John Weston, Conservative. Green Candidate: Ken Melamed. Finish: 4th Place, 9%. Winner: Pam Goldsmith-Jones, Liberal, 55%.
- Burnaby-North Seymour (Lynne Quarmby) 4th Place, 5% (winner: Terry Beech, Liberal, 36%)
- Thunder Bay-Superior North. Incumbent: Bruce Hyer, Green. Green Candidate: Bruce Hyer. Finish: 4th Place, 14%. Winner: Patty Hajdu, Liberal, 45%.
- Guleph. Incumbent: None (held by Frank Valeriote, Liberal, at dissolution). Green Candidate: Gord Miller. Finish: 4th Place, 11%. Winner: Lloyd Longfield, Liberal, 49%.
- Ville Marie-Le Sud-Ouest-Iles des Soeurs. Incumbent: None. Green Candidate: Daniel Green. Finish: 5th Place, 5%. Winner : Marc Miller, Liberal, 51%.
- Fredericton. Incumbent: Keith Ashfield, Conservative. Green Candidate: Mary Lou Babineau. Finish: 3rd Place, 12%. Winner: Matt DeCourcey, Liberal, 49%.
- Charlottetown. Incumbent: Sean Casey, Liberal. Green Candidate: Rebecca Viau. Finish: 4th Place, 6%. Winner: Sean Casey, Liberal, 56%.