Policy Magazine: A Green Balance of Power in BC

Elizabeth May
May 15, 2017

At a moment in politics when it seems positive firsts are few and far between, the news that the BC Green Party — the BC cousin of the federal Greens — will be forming its first-ever caucus in North America and in my home province was a rare blast of blessed good news.

The results of British Columbia’s May 9 election remain uncertain and will be uncertain until at least May 24. The seat count is tentative, as the one-seat difference between a Liberal minority and majority government is the riding of Courtenay-Comox, currently held by the NDP with a margin of nine votes. Elections BC rules dictate that mail-in ballots are not counted until May 22. As well, adding further uncertainty, even after the mail-in ballots are counted, a mandatory recount will occur if the margin of victory remains narrow.

One thing that is not in doubt is the election of three community leaders as Green members of the BC legislature – returning MLA and BC Green party leader, Andrew Weaver, Tsartlip First Nations member and former Central Saanich councillor, Adam Olsen, and Sonia Furstenau, a member of the Shawnigan Lake regional council who fought over four years to close the toxic waste site next to the lake – a project approved by BC’s Liberals.

Also not in doubt is the popular vote. Only due to the perversity of our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system could the election results be unclear when the popular vote is unlikely to change. The voters of B.C. delivered roughly even support to the two main parties, 41 per cent each for the Liberals, 40 per cent for the NDP and an unprecedented 17 per cent of the vote to the BC Greens. But FPTP famously separates the seat count from the popular vote. With 17 per cent of the popular vote, a proportional system would deliver 15 Green seats – not three. With a proportional system it would be obvious that we would have a minority government. Christy Clark’s Liberals got 40 per cent of the vote and a near majority of 44 seats in the 87-seat BC Legislature. It is a teachable moment about the absurdity of FPTP that 10 votes in Courtenay-Comox could deliver a majority to a party with minority support.

It is also an occasion to revisit the benefits of minority parliaments. One of the most successful governments in our history was that of Lester B. Pearson. Pearson never had a majority. Still, with an informal cooperation agreement with the NDP, Canada benefited enormously. That government wove most of our social safety net – our universal health care system, unemployment insurance, pensions, student loans (without interest payments) and the flag! Not to mention the Canada-U.S. Auto Pact.

As the election results sink in, it is clear the BC Greens have accomplished something extraordinary. Seventeen per cent of the popular vote is a breakthrough in any democracy using FPTP. My colleague Caroline Lucas in the UK Parliament, like me, sits as the sole Green. Meanwhile, another global green friend, Green Party Swedish co-leader Isabella Lövin, serves as Deputy Prime Minister with five other Green MPs in cabinet posts. Fair voting matters.

It is, however, not unprecedented for Greens to hold the balance of power. In 2010, the Australian Greens, with a winner-take-all system of preferential voting, managed to win a first seat in the lower house. That sole Green seat, Adam Bandt’s in Melbourne, became critical as Labour leader Julia Gillard cobbled together a majority in parliament. She needed a few additional independents, but the formal agreement with the Australian Green Party included many concessions – for indigenous rights recognition, for campaign finance reform and for climate action, among many other reforms.

Greens have been part of coalition governments in many countries around the world. German Greens served in durable coalition in the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005. The popular Green politician Joschka Fischer served as foreign minister and vice-chancellor for the duration of the coalition. Greens currently are in coalition governments in Luxembourg and Sweden, recently were in Finland and Ireland, and have been historically in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Currently, in New Zealand the Green Party and the Labour Party have already forged a cooperation agreement, even as they prepare to compete against each other for seats in the fall 2017 election. Thanks to the decision to jettison FPTP for proportional representation in the mid-1990’s, politics in New Zealand has adjusted to a new political culture within which parties can benefit from cooperation. Voters in New Zealand will know in advance that the MPs elected under both the Greens and Labour are already prepared to share the role of governance to defeat the current ruling right-wing party.

The B.C. election cliff-hanger will continue to fascinate Canadians. This is, to put it mildly, an interesting result. But it is also offers an important education in the benefits of minority governments, the potential for proportional representation and the truth that you can get what you want, when you vote for what you want. At its best, May 9 gives oxygen to a debilitated democracy.

This article was originally published in Policy Magazine.