Getting banned from the leaders’ debates was probably the best thing that could have happened to Green party Leader Elizabeth May. It gave her serious national media attention for the first time since the writ was dropped and earned her the support and sympathy of pundits across the political spectrum. It also allowed May to strike her favourite pose as the innocent victim of our first-past-the-post electoral system—which, face it, is the issue May and her party care most about, certainly more than they care about the environment.
There are basically two ways you can influence the way policy gets made in this country. The first, and most direct, is by working within a large political party to gain political power so you can make policy yourself. The second is by lobbying politicians to implement the policies you want. Since it was formed in 1983, the Green party has been an ineffective hybrid—a single-issue lobby group that also happened to run candidates in federal elections, finding no great success by either measure.
Elizabeth May’s victory in the 2006 leadership race was supposed to change all of that. Electing the popular and charismatic May was the party’s attempt at becoming a serious political party, with the overarching goal of an environmentally sustainable economy served by a broad electoral platform promoting smart jobs, green energy and fair trade.
But almost everything May does seems calculated to confound that ambition. Yes, in the 2008 election the Greens became only the fourth party in Canadian history to run candidates in all 308 ridings, suggesting that electing MPs to the House of Commons would be a priority. They also got their first MP, thanks to Liberal floor-crosser Blair Wilson, which helped May’s case for inclusion in the leaders’ debates. The party ended up winning almost a million votes, a 41 per cent gain over 2006.
But May also made bizarre choices, beginning with her suicidal decision to run against Peter MacKay. She also repeatedly advised Canadians to vote strategically and support Liberal candidates against Conservatives (and ahead of Greens), and she stopped barely short of outright endorsing Dion for prime minister, with her as minister of the environment. So much for getting elected.
In other words, it was business as usual for the Greens: half political party, half lobby group, and it is hard to see how this helped anyone except the Conservatives. Certainly it didn’t help the Greens’ eponymous cause. While May’s obvious affection for Dion and his policies was annoying the hell out of her own party, those 308 Green candidates were bleeding votes from Liberals. According to a custom analysis of 2008 electoral results by punditsguide.ca, while the Green vote alone didn’t cost the Liberals any seats, it certainly contributed to their demise in a number of ridings. And so in the end, the Conservatives got re-elected, Dion lost so badly he got chased out as party leader, and the Greens elected zero MPs. Lose, lose, lose.
The same scenario looks to repeat itself, except this time there isn’t even a decent green Liberal platform to support, with Dion—and the environment—playing no noticeable role in the campaign.
Yet none of this seems to bother Green party supporters. When May was told she would not be invited to the leaders’ debate, did the party hold a national “rally for the environment” or “protest against climate change”? Nope. Instead, they sponsored an online petition protesting her exclusion, and staged five “rallies for democracy” across the country aimed at corralling enough support to get the media consortium to cave, as it did in 2008.
In fact, what is remarkable about this election campaign is how little interest the Green party seems to have in pushing environmental issues onto the national table. Instead, their overarching campaign narrative is of the party’s ongoing suffering at the hands of our broken, obsolete, unjust and undemocratic electoral system. If only we had proportional representation, goes the plaintive cry, the Greens would be serious players in Parliament.
But we don’t have proportional representation, and the Greens wishing that it were otherwise is like a million young girls desperately wishing for a pony. Except in this case, the stakes actually matter, and pining for electoral reform while the planet burns is pure political narcissism.
In retrospect, the 2008 election was a glorious opportunity for the Green party to have entered into some sort of formal merger with the Dion Liberals. By the standards of big-tent politics, there were almost no serious policy differences between the two parties. With climate change now a completely moribund issue in North America, the Liberal “Green Shift” platform is starting to look like the last good hope to have done anything about greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.
But that would have been a sign the system works, and if we’ve learned anything, it is that what the Green party is most invested in proving is that the system doesn’t work. Instead of working within a political party to advance its number one cause, it is doing everything it can to remain on the outside; all the better to serve up its leader as a martyr to a hopeless and misguided theory of democracy.