It’s time for people in this town to sit up and take notice of Elizabeth May and the Green Party. She has brought the Greens to the doorstep of respectability, and could well cross the threshold to become a serious player should the October election return a minority House – or even a hung Parliament.
Consider, for openers, her poll numbers. In a January EKOS poll for iPolitics, the Greens were running at 9 per cent nationally, and nearly 17 per cent in British Columbia, where they’ve been as high as 21 per cent in November.
Those are real numbers – especially on Vancouver Island, where May now holds the lone Green seat in B.C. But if those numbers hold she’ll likely have company from the Island, which is getting two of B.C.’s six new seats, to give it nine out of 42 from the province in the new 338-seat House. And the Greens have been trending on the Lower Mainland and the B.C. interior as well.
Then there’s her job approval rating, which at 51 per cent nationally in the January EKOS poll puts her in a statistical dead heat with the NDP’s Tom Mulcair at 52 per cent, followed by Justin Trudeau at 45 per cent, and Stephen Harper at 39 per cent.
Her approval numbers don’t translate into voting intentions – far from it – but they do indicate two things: She has name recognition and people like her. It’s no coincidence that her new autobiography, Who We Are, is in a second printing.
“She’s being very well received out there right now,” says EKOS president Frank Graves. “She’s basically tied at the top in approval numbers, and that’s a big plus.”
She also enjoys a comparative advantage over Mulcair and Trudeau in that she can be completely outspoken on civil liberties – while Trudeau is forced to triangulate awkwardly on the anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, by saying the Liberals would support it now but improve it if they formed government.
May is against it. Really against it. She posted a blog Monday for TheTyee.ca in which she says that Harper “is now planning to concentrate the powers of a police state in his own hands, while converting the Canadian spy agency into a secret police with virtually unlimited powers.”
That was just for openers. Her personal comments about Harper peeled paper off the wall.
Well, there’s no prospect of May forming a government or official opposition, or even a third party in the House, so she can be honest about Bill C-51 offending civil liberties.
Meanwhile, she’s got money – lots of it. In 2014, the Green Party raised $3 million. That’s a very impressive sum; nearly $1 million of it was raised in the month of December alone. She’s going to spend it, and millions more raised in 2015, in ridings where the Greens are reasonably competitive. “We are going to concentrate the resources where we have a chance to win,” May says.
She starts from a donor base of 22,000 voters. “These are not people chained to fences,” Graves says of Green voters. “They’re very middle-of-the-road.”
Green supporters, Graves notes, “are identified by a commitment to climate change and a post-carbon economy, and they also care about democracy. And she does very well on democratic values.”
May spent most of the January recess on the campaign trail in B.C., with a flurry of events that included the nomination of several locally prominent candidates.
A game plan on climate change for the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, and a promise to replace the FPTP system with some form of proportional representation, would be the price of doing business with May in a weak minority House.
Lynne Quarmby, running Green in suburban Vancouver, is a professor and chair of biology at Simon Fraser University who has been leading opposition to the twinning of the Kinder-Morgan pipeline into Vancouver Harbour. In Victoria, the Green candidate is former CBC Radio host Jo-Ann Roberts. In Nanaimo, the Greens are running filmmaker Paul Manly, son of former NDP MP Jim Manly. In the Langford area of the Island, the Green candidate is Fran Hunt Jinnouchi, a former First Nations chief and director of Aboriginal studies at University of Victoria. Up in Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky country, the Greens are running Ken Melamed, a two-term mayor of Whistler, where the world-renowned ski resort has been built on the principles of sustainable development.
These Green candidates are all local brand names, and proven communicators. The test of their ground games is still to come, but it’s received wisdom in politics that a strong local candidate increases a party’s vote by 5 to 10 per cent. In competitive races, that can be the difference between winning and losing.
In B.C., May “will have a shot at a few ridings, maybe more,” says Graves. “If they were to move up a couple of points, another 10 seats could be in play for them.”
What Graves is saying is that if May and the Greens were to break into double digits nationally, their prospects for more seats would be enhanced, particularly in B.C.
For example, if May were to put in a strong performance in the leaders’ debates, more voters would take the Greens seriously. It’s unlikely the three main parties would argue that she should be excluded from the TV debates. When Thunder Bay MP Bruce Hyer crossed from the NDP, the Greens became a caucus of two members. Jean Charest, as Progressive Conservative leader, was in the 1997 leaders’ debates with only two MPs. And look again at those poll numbers; she’s not leading the Rhinoceros Party.
May’s challenge is to sustain and grow her numbers in a campaign, and avert the kind of strategic voting that has hurt Greens in the past. In B.C. politics – famously volatile and notoriously difficult to predict – there are historic cleavages between the Conservatives and Liberals on the centre-right and the NDP on the left.
In Ottawa recently, May was sitting with some friends over a glass of wine at Hy’s, hardly a hangout of the loony left. “My goal,” she said, “is obviously to win at least 12 seats.”
In which case, the Greens would become a recognized party in the House, entitled to the staff that goes with party status and standing in question period.
May’s goal is to punch above her weight in a divided House, to force the national conversation onto Green territory. “We seek to elect enough Green MPs to be the balance of power in a minority Parliament,” she wrote in the current issue of Policy magazine.
If that happens, she says, “we could get a real climate plan and get rid of (first-past-the-post).” A game plan on climate change for the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, and a promise to replace the FPTP system with some form of proportional representation, would be the price of doing business with her in a weak minority House. And both commitments would have to be in a November throne speech following the election.
What kind of minority House? Well, what if the Liberal and New Democrat caucuses combined were just three seats short of a majority, and May had four?
If that happens, we’re looking at what Graves calls a “traffic light coalition – red, orange and green.” And Liz May would be calling her share of the shots.
L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy, the bi-monthly magazine of Canadian politics and public policy. He is the author of five books. He served as chief speechwriter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney from 1985-88, and later as head of the public affairs division of the Canadian Embassy in Washington from 1992-94. The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.