Few see it now, but that is the way the media will cover the next federal election campaign — after it is over.
Dismiss it as wishful thinking, but no national media coverage anticipated that I would win a federal seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands, nor that Dr. Andrew Weaver would win a provincial one in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, nor that David Coon would win a seat making the New Brunswick Greens the third party in that province.
Recent green wins in municipal races on Vancouver Island have begun to get some attention, but, for the most part, stories that note that Greens are rising in the polls tend to be attached to questions about “blips” and “parked votes.” It will dawn on political pundits slowly that Green votes are actually being cast to elect Green representatives.
We still face a near hysteria against voting Green from NDP and Liberal supporters who strangely seem to think those parties are sufficiently aligned with Greens that we should just dry up and die. Of course, if the NDP and Liberals had ever put the climate crisis ahead of their narrowest short-term political advantage, Stephen Harper could never have formed a minority parliament in 2006, nor in 2008. (In fairness, a caveat. Stéphane Dion did try, but the NDP reaction to any cooperation with Greens was swift and vicious). The pre-occupation about “vote splitting” relies on tapping into voter fear and anxiety so effectively that the thinking process becomes paralyzed.
Thinking it through, it would be obvious that the real problem is not how many people voted Green in recent elections, but the monstrously large number of people who did not vote at all (in 2011 this was 10 times as many as those who voted Green.) The single largest voting bloc in the last few elections has been the 40% of electors who opted to stay home. That number dwarfs those who actually chose to mark an X next to the name of a Conservative candidate – 39% of the 60% who voted– or approximately 24% of those with the right to vote. Our problem is not vote-splitting; our problem is vote abandoning.
Empirical support for this argument comes from the fact that in constituencies where Greens succeed, voting turn-out soars. In 2011 in Saanich-Gulf Islands, we had nearly the highest voter turn-out in Canada. Just shy of 75% (only PEI ridings were higher). In 2013 when Dr. Andrew Weaver became the first Green MLA in BC, Oak Bay-Gordon Head had the highest voter turnout in BC. And in New Brunswick when David Coon’s victory made NB Greens an officially recognized party in that province, Fredericton South had over 70% voter turn-out. In other words, Greens don’t win when the voting public is turned-off, disgusted or cynical. Greens win when voters are turned-on, hopeful and inspired.
What makes voters disgusted?
The nastiness and ad hominem attacks of Question Period contribute to voter disgust and thus reduced voter turnout. I believe this is the motive of those in PMO who script the contemptuous responses for Question Period. To be clear, these responses are not merely contemptuous of the questioner; such “answers” are contemptuous of parliament.
Our perverse and archaic voting system– “First-Past-the-Post” (FPTP) — the winner-take-all variety of distortion of the wishes of the electorate, contributes to this malaise. Belief in the effectiveness of a vote begins to wane when the majority of votes in riding after riding is essentially discarded once the “winning” candidate has rung up a minority of the total — putting him (or her) over the top.
While looking at the evidence of recent elections, it should be noted that in the election in which the Green Party won the most votes (nearly one million in 2008) the Harper Conservatives were held to a minority. When the media and the larger parties succeeded in excluding a Green voice in the 2011 debates, our vote plummeted and Harper got his coveted majority. The Green Party went to Federal Court to argue that the public interest and fairness in the use of the public airwaves demanded our inclusion in the debates. Our argument was rejected by a little known Federal Court judge – Marc Nadon.
There is a lot of irrationality inspiring “strategic voter” panic.
Nevertheless, the kernel of legitimate grievance is attached to the FPTP voting system. No other voting system allows for the election of a majority of seats with a minority of votes. The fear of strategic voting fuels the nastiness of hyper-partisan spin. For the average Canadian, it is counter-intuitive, if not irrational, that parties generally on the same side of the Left-Right spectrum reserve their harshest attacks for each other. Demonizing the party with the closest policy overlap to your own party is a routine tactic to spike strategic voting panic. In the early ‘90s stopping a Conservative from voting Reform was assisted through the two step plan – threaten that voting Reform will “split the vote” and elect a Liberal and throw in some attacks on Reform. Once the Right consolidated, the NDP and Liberals followed the same plan: threaten the voter and demonize each other. If Canada voted using any form of Proportional Representation, the tenor of political discourse would be more respectful. The debate could focus on real policy differences – not exaggerated or imagined failings of another party.
The key issue in the next election should be the declining health of Canadian democracy. We – collectively, all parties – should knock ourselves out to inspire Canadians to understand that every vote counts. We – collectively all citizens – should demand to know how the invented central agency called “PMO” became the sole decision-maker and enforcer. PMO has centralized power – reducing Parliament to an anachronistic vestige in which MPs pretend to debate legislation whose outcomes have been predetermined by PMO. Restoring fundamental principles of our system of government requires first naming them. Core concepts such as that all MPs are equal and that the Prime Minister is first among equals, that the Prime Minister reports to Parliament, not the other way around; that Parliament controls the public purse, have been hijacked by the trend toward presidentializing the role of Prime Minister. Canadians need to push the leaders of both large opposition parties to commit to dismantling the PMO as an instrument of total control. We need to restore the fundamentals of Westminster Parliamentary democracy. We need to insist that Members of Parliament be restored to our Constitutional role – representatives of our constituents – not robotic enforcers of the party “brand.”
The Green Party already walks this talk. Our policies prohibit whipped votes. We demand transparency. That’s why I was the first Member of Parliament to post all my expenses on line. The Green Party already limits the powers of a leader through our by-laws. While other leaders can use the threat of withdrawing their signature on the nomination papers, only a super-majority of Green federal council can do that for Greens. And Bruce Hyer and I work for our constituents. We attempt to determine the will of the majority of our voters. We work to be of service. We believe MPs work for their constituents; not for their political party.
To inject these issues into the campaign, the leaders’ debates are critical. Assuming there is any integrity to the process, I will be participating in 2015. Preston Manning was in the 1993 debates even before he had won a seat after the first reform MP, Deborah Gray, won in a by-election. So too were the Progressive Conservatives in the subsequent election debates with only two MPs – as the Green Caucus is now. The Bloc Quebecois was included when its leader had won a seat as an independent before the party was officially established.
It is in the interests of democracy that I be back at the table to raise these issues and press Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair to commit to addressing the democracy deficit. We need to ensure the next occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office is committed to rejecting the powers consolidated by Stephen Harper. Our system of government is based on the supremacy of Parliament. We have never before been controlled by an elected dictator. Sure, Jean Chretien had a “Friendly Dictatorship” as Jeffrey Simpson’s book was titled. But never in our history has PMO felt empowered to script parliamentary committees and block amendments – even those designed to fix drafting errors. Never before has legislation been drafted knowing that it will likely fail a Charter challenge. We have never passed laws primarily designed to provide slogans in an election campaign. Never before has a PMO harassed and gagged scientists. Should we have confidence that the NDP and the Liberals reject those reins of power?
This must be the key issue in the next election.
The Green Party goal in the next election is simple, practical and ambitious. We seek to elect enough Green MPs to be the balance of power in a minority parliament. We will insist on moving to proportional representation. We will demand a meaningful, aggressive climate plan. This we can do. It won’t happen because the pundits believe us. It will happen because Canadians do.
Originally published in Policy Magazine.