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Why you just may vote Green this time

Anne Kingston: Elizabeth May’s party has emerged as the potential sleeper at an increasingly polarized political moment
Green Party leader Elizabeth May speaks to supporters during the Walk for the Salish Sea in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, May 25, 2017. The walk started at Mile 0 and will make it’s way to the Kinder Morgan Westridge terminal in Burnaby to protest the pipeline and tanker expansion. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

On May 29, 2018, the day the government announced it was buying the Trans Mountain pipeline, lifelong Liberal David Merner joined the Green Party of Canada. “It was the final straw,” says the lawyer who had been active in the federal Liberal party since he was a University of Alberta student in the ’80s. He ran in the 2015 election, placing second to the NDP in Vancouver Island’s Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke riding. He’s running again there in 2019, but this time for the Greens.

“I couldn’t stay in a party that serially broke its promises,” Merner tells Maclean’s, listing other abandoned vows, foremost being electoral reform. Merner was at the Fairmont Château Laurier when Justin Trudeau announced that 2015 would be the last “first past the post” election: “He repeated it a thousand times during the campaign; I did the same in my riding.” Trudeau spoke at his campaign office, Merner recalls. He told the enthralled crowd he’d fix the Kinder Morgan mess and would engage Indigenous people. He attacked Stephen Harper’s greenhouse gas emission targets, and promised to cut $3.5 billion in fossil fuel subsidies. Instead, Merner says, “The Liberals adopted Harper’s targets and aren’t meeting them.” Spending $4.5 billion on an old pipeline that requires an additional $10 billion to $15 billion to twin it isn’t ‘Real Change,’ ” he says. “It’s investing in the past. It’s going backward when we should be investing in the future—helping GM build electric vehicles.”

Merner is not an outlier. According to an Angus Reid poll released in early May, more than four-in-ten (44 per cent) who voted for Trudeau’s party in 2015 now disapprove of the prime minister; more than half (51 per cent) now plan to vote for a party other than the Liberals – or are undecided. That, we’re already seeing on the ground. Luke Krayenhoff, who ran for the Liberals in B.C.’s Cowichan-Malahat-Langford in 2015, is running for the riding’s Green nomination. Merner has heard from other Liberals who ran or played management roles on 2015 campaigns who now want to do the same for Green campaigns. Henry Wright, who held senior roles for the party federally and in Ontario, is now working for the Greens in Ottawa.

READ: A Green-NDP merger? It could be a big hit.

With the federal election months away, the Green Party, with its one federal seat held by leader Elizabeth May, has emerged as the potential sleeper at an increasingly polarized political moment, one defined by the global rise of authoritarianism, fear politicking, unprecedented concern about climate change and a rejection of “politics as usual.” The Green Party of P.E.I. made history and headlines in April when it formed the country’s first Green official Opposition under its popular leader, Peter Bevan-Baker. The party won eight seats—and 30.6 per cent of the popular vote—in a province that has alternated between Grits and Tories for more than a century (the Conservatives won a minority this time). In 2017, the B.C. Green Party’s three-person caucus under Andrew Weaver came to hold the balance of power in an NDP government. Last year, New Brunswick elected three Green MLAs, and Ontario elected its first Green MPP, Mike Schreiner.

The numbers are tiny, but they represent what could be a looming battle with the NDP for the Canadian progressive vote, one that also risks benefitting the Conservatives, the party least concerned with climate change. (The May Angus Reid poll found the Conservative Party with 38 per cent support, the Liberals at 25 per cent, NDP at 18 per cent, Greens at 11 per cent, Bloc Québécois (Quebec only) at 5 per cent, the People’s Party at 3 percent, and “Others” at 1 per cent.

Other polls indicate higher Green support. In the last week of April, the Greens polled ahead of the NDP for the first time in 20 years, says Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based Ekos Research Associates: “Greens were at 14 with the NDP 1.5 points back. It could be within the margin of error, but the most likely explanation is that the Greens might be slightly ahead.” His earlier polling had the Greens at a historic high of 10, Graves says. “The Greens at 13, 14 is terra incognita.” Such numbers also represent a radical turnaround for a party whose support has actually declined federally since 2006, when it won 4.5 per cent of the popular vote; it fell to 3.9 per cent in 2011, and to 3.4 per cent in 2015.

The only groups currently seeing upward momentum are the Conservative base and the Greens, says Graves, tellingly entities diametrically opposed in size and ideology. The Greens exist as an ideological hybrid—rightward-leaning in endorsing marketplace solutions and tax-shifting from income to fossil fuels, more to the left on social issues that include national pharmacare, guaranteed livable income, basic dental plans, free tuition and skills training, restoring tax incentives to build energy-efficient affordable housing, and electoral reform. The Conservatives, under Andrew Scheer, oppose the Liberals’ carbon tax, have yet to release a climate change plan and embrace social conservatism.

That leaves 60 per cent of the electorate who aren’t feeling a tremendously strong connection to current choices up for grabs, says Graves, as well as for a group he dubs the “promiscuous progressives” people who vote any way but Conservative. Many defected from NDP to Liberal in 2015.

The rise in Green support in polls also reflects the fatigue with mainstream parties seen in Europe, Graves notes: “A lot of traditional centre-right and centre-left parties are losing the far right and left, including to Greens.” The difference is that Europe’s proportional representation (PR) systems allow the Greens electoral traction. Under a PR system, for example, the 3.4 per cent Green popular support in 2015 would have translated into 12 seats, rather than the one May holds.

READ: Where in Canada will the Greens win next?

Green support at polls could also signal a rejection of the current fear- and anger-stoked political discourse. The P.E.I. election was heralded for its collegial, respectful tone,  seen when all parties ceased campaigning for a day after Green candidate Josh Underhay and his six-year-old son died in a canoeing accident. May, a lawyer and former environmental activist known to champion civility in the House of Commons, currently ranks as the “most trusted political leader in Canada,” says Graves, polling in the upper 40s; Scheer is in the low 40s; Trudeau’s in the mid-30s; Jagmeet Singh, named NDP leader in 2017 but only elected as an MP in February, barely registers.  (The Angus Reid poll showed a variation on that theme: May was the only party leader with a higher approval rating than a disapproval rating (45 per cent vs 34 per cent). The other leaders all had negative net approval scores: Scheer (40 per cent approve, 46 per cent disapprove),  Singh (34 approve, 45 per cent disapprove) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (28 per cent approve, 67 per cent disapprove).)

According to the Green Party of Canada, membership has risen 15 per cent since December, to hover around 20,000. Fundraising also tells a story. In the first quarter of 2019, according to Elections Canada, the NDP raised $1.2 million, down from a year earlier. The Greens hit a record high, bringing in $783,279—up markedly from the $487,000 the party has averaged in the first quarter since the 2015 election. That support comes disproportionately from B.C., where May represents Saanich-Gulf Islands, and where polls show Green support is highest. (As a measure of contrast, the Conservative Party also had a record first quarter of fundraising, bringing in $8-million versus $3-million for the Liberals.)

Historically, poll support for Greens doesn’t play out when votes are cast. The Green majority predicted in P.E.I. didn’t materialize. Graves blames lower voter turnout: “The Greens didn’t have the same ground game as the Conservatives and had fewer recognizable candidates in a province where the emphasis is on the local candidate.” There’s also the fact that the Liberals’ failure to follow through on electoral reform thwarts smaller parties like the Greens, leading people to vote for the least objectionable candidate or party likely to be elected. Voters also are propelled by self-interest and pocketbook issues—taxes, jobs, affordability. That’s a problem for a party promoting policies to curb climate change, says Graves: “A lot of the desire to walk the talk fades when people are told: ‘It’s going to cost you money.’ ”

Yet the P.E.I. example bucks the trend, Graves notes. “And that thinking might change as Greens move into the position where they are actually going to win some seats.”

The party will run candidates in all 338 ridings, says Green Party of Canada Deputy Leader Jo-Ann Roberts, who radiates optimism. “We’re going to break through this time,” she says. “I get voting based on fear, and I’m not going to say it won’t happen again in 2019, but P.E.I. gives me hope.”

Whether the Green party lineup will include former marquee Liberals Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, now Independents, is uncertain. May’s invitation to them to join the party remains unanswered, at least publicly. A spokesperson for Philpott told Maclean’s that the MP hadn’t “made a firm decision about running” and will make an announcement in the coming weeks. Wilson-Raybould, who attended May’s recent wedding to John Kidder and received a standing ovation at the reception, did not respond to Maclean’s inquiry. Kidder, a co-founder of the B.C. Green Party, will run in B.C.’s Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon riding.

The Greens’ plan is to strategically micro-target ridings, says Roberts. Resources will be focused on B.C. and 10 ridings where Green support has topped 10 per cent, among them Thunder Bay-Superior North, Outremont, Fredericton and Guelph. (The outcome of the May 6 federal by-election in B.C.’s Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding, currently held by the NDP, is viewed as a portent.)

Roberts, a former journalist who placed second in the Victoria riding in 2015, is running in Halifax, a former NDP stronghold won by the Liberals in 2015. Her campaign manager, Bill Matheson, is a former president of the Nova Scotia NDP who quit the party he’d voted for since 1974 in September 2018. His issue was internal governance of the provincial party, not policy, Matheson tells Maclean’s. But he also expresses frustration with the NDP’s failure to position itself as the clear progressive alternative to the Liberals. Joining the Liberals wasn’t an option: “If you’re concerned about your children or grandchildren, we need to change the path we’re on. It won’t happen with the Liberals.”

The party’s fully costed platform will be released by summer’s end, says Roberts. “The Greens’ success will hinge on producing a plausible blueprint for the economy,” Graves says.

Another key variable is whether climate change will become a primary election issue, as expected. A sense of urgency looms; a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have 12 years to significantly cut carbon output. Merner reports a sea change in his riding since 2015 as he goes door to door. “Last time, people were mad at Harper. This time, they’re worried about the future for their kids.”

Roberts speaks of the party’s spirit of engagement resonating with voters. “Greens are about co-operating­, we’re not about the negative stuff,” she says. That said, expect the Greens to take aim at the environmental records of NDP premiers John Horgan in B.C. and Rachel Notley in Alberta. “Notley has made it clear [that] you can vote NDP and not vote for the climate,” May has said.

Whether the Green spirit of co-operation could extend include formal or informal coalitions with other parties remains to be seen. If so, electoral reform could be back on the table, says Graves: “If the Green party held a balance of power for the government, the price of admission for support could be a PR proposition or mechanism. That would change the landscape in Canada dramatically and permanently.” That’s already happening, says Merner: “For the last three summers in Victoria, the sky has literally turned orange from forest fires; the smoke keeps people inside.” And from the way the 2019 electoral race is already shaping up, the desire for change is clearly in the air.

This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Green shoots.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.