Canada’s centre-left voters face a ‘traffic light’ choice

Note: This article originally appeared on Policy Network’s Political Observatory.

In her time as party leader, Elizabeth May has turned the Canadian Greens into a respectable political force. While the party may not have much legislative power, its activism on environmental issues and democratic reform plays an important role in political debate

As the October general election approaches, it is natural that many commentators are focused on the power play between the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democratic party (NDP). They may be the central figures in this political drama, but the Green party’s role is not to be underestimated. With a 51 per cent job approval rating, its leader, Elizabeth May, is essentially tied as Canada’s most popular leader with the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair (who registers 52 per cent). Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is not far behind at 45 per cent and prime minister Stephen Harper trails at 39 per cent.

While these numbers do not necessarily translate into voting intention, they nonetheless indicate two things. First, for many Canadians, May’s name carries a certain level of recognition. More importantly, the poll shows that people like her. Her recently published autobiography, Who We Are, is currently being reprinted. In 2012, her colleagues in the House of Commons voted May ‘Parliamentarian of the Year’; in 2013, ‘Hardest Working MP’; and in 2014, ‘Best Orator’.

Her position as a well-liked politician, outside of the government and official opposition, gives May the liberty to be truly outspoken. Last November, she did not hold back in declaring: “We are a democracy only in theory. In practice, we’re an elected dictatorship… Unless we change the system, the next elected dictator could be Trudeau or Mulcair, and we might like the decisions better, but it’s still not a democracy.” She was particularly harsh on Harper, arguing that: “[he] doesn’t have any real respect for Westminster parliamentary democracy. I don’t think he is working in the interest of Canada.”

The Greens’ policies on democratic renewal are thus unsurprisingly extensive. Specifically, they decry the Harper government’s use of non-democratic practices such as omnibus legislation andprorogation. They want to reduce the power of the Prime Minister’s Office and of political parties themselves. The Greens advocate electoral reform to replace the first-past-the-post system with proportional representation. They also promote collective bargaining as a human right and a Charter right. The party is equally critical of the media, proposing an independent review of media ownership to develop recommendations of how it can be diversified and how to deepen the breadth of reporting in Canada.

More recently, May took the leading role in standing up for Canadians’ civil liberties. A few weeks ago, the Green party leader wrote a blog about Bill C-51, the Harper government’s anti-terror bill that, she argued, would convert “Canada’s spy agency into a secret police state with virtually unlimited powers … Passing it means [the] death of freedom”. Once again, May did not limit her criticism to Harper’s government, writing that: “It’s not enough for better citizen oversight as one opposition party urges. And it is certainly an egregious cowardice for the other opposition party to support the bill.” Mulcair finally took a stance against the bill, after an open letter denouncing the bill came from four former prime ministers, five former Supreme Court justices, seven former solicitor generals and ministers of justice, three past members of the intelligence review committee, two former privacy commissioners and a retired RCMP watchdog.

Besides fighting for democratic reform, the Green party’s popularity is clearly linked to its environmental stance. This is particularly the case in British Columbia (BC). Recent anti-pipeline protests against Kinder Morgan on Burnaby Mountain highlight tension in the area over pipeline expansion by big oil companies and the environmental repercussions of the Conservative government’s agenda.

The Green Party is a social democratic party, focused on environmental issues, but certainly not limited to being a one-trick-pony. They describe themselves as standing for “six global green values: participatory democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom, non-violence, sustainability, and respect for diversity.” On all of these matters, their policies come closest to the NDP’s. Both parties appeal to younger, female and university-educated voters. The Greens and the NDP thus find themselves competing in similar political territory. Their biggest hurdle is that 44 per cent of Canadians believe that restoring middle-class progress is the most important issue facing the country. Only 19 per cent see it as issues related to the environment and climate change, and a mere 12 per cent consider it to be democratic renewal.

Despite this fact, the Greens are not completely irrelevant electorally. In the latest EKOS poll, the party is at 8.5 per cent nationally, and 16 per cent in BC (where it polled as high as 21 per cent in November 2014). The Green party’s best chances in the upcoming election thus lie in BC, and that is precisely where it is concentrating their resources. Although it currently holds only two seats, the party is a strong contender in at least six this time. EKOS president Frank Graves notes that: “If they move up a couple of points, another 10 seats could be in play for them.” May’s goal is to win 12. If that does happen, her party would be officially recognised in the House, entitled to additional resources and participation in Question Period (the Canadian equivalent to the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions).

While a stronger Green presence in parliament could be a good thing, it is also true that in certain seats the party splits the vote on the left, aiding the Tories. While voters on the centre-left need to decide between the Green party, the NDP and a tactical vote for the centrist Liberals, right-leaning voters have only one choice: the Conservatives. Which is why candidates can win with as little as 30 per cent of support in some seats.

As it stands, neither of the three main parties is projected to win a majority government. It will be close, however, and the Greens could certainly hold the balance of power if  the Conservatives emerge as the largest party after the election. Another possible, though much less likely, scenario is that, together, the Liberals and the NDP are just a handful of seats short of a majority. A “traffic light coalition” of the three opposition parties, as Graves called it, could happen. Right now it looks more likely that the Liberals and NDP could manage the numbers for a strong coalition without the Greens. However, Trudeau has said he is against this, while Mulcair is open to the possibility. Although this does not necessarily rule out another form of accord between them, it does leave open to questioning whether Trudeau is trying to encourage tactical voting in his favour, or if he would go back on his word if push came to shove. In any case, we are still nine months away.

In a first past the post electoral system, the Greens are not one of the central parliamentary players in Canadian politics. However, given the Harper government’s constant attacks on the quality of Canadian democracy, the Green party’s cry for democratic reform and action on climate change is not just welcome, but incredibly important.

[Image source: The Hill Times, photograph by Jake Wright]

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