Last election, the Green vote was strangled by wide-spread fear that Stephen Harper might be reelected. Are voters thinking differently this election?
MISGIVINGS ABOUT THE FEDERAL LIBERALS reached the point of no return for David Merner in May last year with the announcement that the government was buying the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Merner had previously tried to overcome his disappointment at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s failure to follow through on electoral reform, despite the promise that 2015 would be the last election with first-past-the-post rules, but the pipeline purchase was too much to swallow.
“I thought it was such a terrible mistake, obviously environmentally, but also economically, and I haven’t looked back since. That was the culminating point of a long slide…There was just a series of broken promises that led me to believe I could not stay with the Liberal Party,” said Merner, who volunteered for the Liberals for 34 years, served on the national executive, and ran as a Liberal candidate in 2015.
The day the pipeline became the property of Canadian taxpayers, Merner joined the Green Party. He is now standing as the Green candidate in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, the riding held by New Democrat Randall Garrison, where four years ago, Merner ran as a Liberal.
Merner’s a great catch for the Greens. He’s a lawyer, with degrees from Harvard and the Universities of Alberta, Oxford and Toronto. He advised ministers at the Department of Justice and Privy Council Office in Ottawa for 15 years before moving back to BC in 2006 to transform the province’s justice system.
It was an easy transition to a new political home, said Merner, who discovered the Green Party is made up of people with similar concerns about traditional-style politics, who switched allegiances from all shades of the political spectrum. “It’s gaining its strength from all these other folks like me, who have spent their time in other parties and are saying, ‘We just have to do politics differently. We can’t have the same-old, same-old type of politics.’”
Merner finds the Green message of civility and collaboration appeals to confrontation-weary voters. “I have been knocking on doors since December, and the number-one message I have been hearing on the doorstep is people are tired and cynical and disappointed,” said Merner, who is predicting the October federal election will see the upset of long-time political allegiances, giving the Greens a chance to increase their numbers and, possibly, to wield influence in a minority government.
Crises such as climate change, soaring housing prices, and the opioid epidemic have shaken BC communities, and the Greens offer an alternative to the lack of solutions, said Merner, who will be running against Garrison, Liberal Jamie Hammond, Conservative Randall Pewarchuk, and candidates for the People’s Party of Canada and Libertarian Party of Canada.
In 2015, Garrison won with 23,836 votes. Merner—as a Liberal—received 18,622 votes, and the Green candidate ran third with 13,575 votes. The NDP’s Garrison, being the incumbent, will be Merner’s main competitor. The two have platforms that seem to overlap. Garrison was first elected in 2011. He’s been an environmental activist since his student days and, in 2008, as an Esquimalt councillor, was the first elected official in Canada to move a motion against the Kinder Morgan pipeline.
Garrison was not available for an interview but said in a written statement that he has been one of the most active MPs on the environment and climate change. “I have continued to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline, to call for an immediate end to all fossil fuel subsidies for the oil and gas industry and to ban all single-use plastics and non-recyclable packaging,” he wrote. “As an MP I have also worked hard to build support for a rapid de-carbonization of our economy, but through a transition that leaves no one behind. We can create thousands of new jobs in renewable energy and energy retrofits.”
Garrison said he is aware that there have recently been some false statements about his commitment to fighting for the environment and against climate change. “No, I have never supported fish farms, the Site C dam, fracking or building and subsidizing LNG,” said Garrison, adding that his personal life reflects a commitment to reducing his carbon footprint and includes living in an energy-efficient home and buying carbon offsets for all his flights.“We must all do what we can, but the challenge is so great that only collective action will get us where we must go. Our very survival depends on it,” he wrote.
IN THE 2015 ELECTION many voters headed to the polls with single-minded determination to vote for the party with the best chance of throwing out the Stephen Harper Conservatives. Without that type of strategic voting, this election could re-draw the map.
Both the NDP and Greens have dreams of holding the balance of power in a minority government, and Vancouver Island is promising to be a major battleground in the fight for the progressive vote. Michael Prince, University of Victoria political scientist and Lansdowne Professor of Social Policy, said, “This is very different from 2015. That was a different type of campaign, and the Greens got pushed aside as the third or fourth party…Now it’s interesting times for the Greens.”
In BC, the coastal narrative plays well for the Greens, explained Prince. “It’s very much about the natural environment, the pipeline, shipping, the whales, and coastal protection, and that’s [Green Party of Canada leader] Elizabeth May’s strength. The more that narrative is on the minds of voters here, the more they will be inclined to vote in numbers we haven’t seen in the past,” he said.
Across Canada, there is growing evidence that Greens are no longer regarded as fringe candidates, with the Green Party of PEI forming the official opposition, three Green MLAs elected in New Brunswick, and one Green MPP in Ontario. In BC, the three-member Green caucus, in an alliance with the NDP government, has seen pet policies and Green input included in legislation, showing British Columbians that power does not necessarily rest solely with the number of seats; the balance of representation is important as well.
Merner feels “BC is the model. We have done it in BC, and we can do it nationally. We want to hold the big parties’ feet to the fire and make sure that, this time, they follow through on their election promises.”
POLLS IN JULY AND AUGUST showed a minority Liberal or Conservative federal government is the likely outcome of the October federal election, with the CBC poll tracker projecting the Liberals with five seats more than the Conservatives. According to the mid-August poll tracker analysis, “The Liberals are favoured over the Conservatives to win the most seats, but it’s a toss-up whether or not any party can win a majority. The New Democrats are stuck in third and on track to lose potentially more than half of its caucus, while Green support has levelled off after reaching new highs across the country.” The poll tracker shows 13.7 percent of the vote going to the NDP, with the Green vote climbing slowly but steadily to 11 percent.
Fundraising tells a similar story, and Elections Canada’s website shows that between April and June the Green Party raised $1,437,722, narrowly beating the NDP’s $1,433,476. Both parties remain far behind the Conservatives, who raised about $8.5 million, and the Liberals, who brought in more than $5 million in the same quarter.
Currently, the tiny Green caucus, known for punching above its weight, consists of Elizabeth May, who has represented Saanich-Gulf Islands since 2011, and Paul Manly, who won the formerly NDP riding of Nanaimo-Ladysmith in a by-election earlier this year.
May is optimistic that this election is going to see a breakthrough, and that instead of having second thoughts in the voting booth, as has happened in the past, the Green vote will carry through. “The ground has absolutely shifted. This is going to be quite different…We have real strength in ridings across the country,” said May.
She agrees that a minority parliament is likely. “This is going to be a very interesting election where we are much more likely, ironically, to have a Parliament that looks as though we have proportional representation—even though Trudeau broke his promise—where many parties have to work together, and that is very exciting for us,” she said.
“In this election, anything is possible and, for me, it’s much less about the seat count and more about it being a minority and holding what [BC MLA] Adam Olsen so brilliantly calls ‘the balance of responsibility,’” said May. She also noted that she is delighted that in most media stories there is now a recognition of four main parties.
May won her riding in 2015 with over 54 percent of the vote. This time she’ll be running against New Democrat Sabina Singh, Conservative David Busch, Liberal Ryan Windsor (mayor of Central Saanich), and Ronald Broda for the People’s Party of Canada.
Across the country, candidates of all stripes are finding that climate change is a real and present worry among voters who have faced floods, windstorms, and wildfires. May noted, “To make the changes needed to hold on to human civilization, which is my goal, it’s pretty essential that this election be about preserving human life on Earth. We don’t have anything like years; we have 18 months.” Still, she noted that the Greens are not a one-issue party, pointing to a platform that envisions democratic reforms and a sustainable jobs plan—and collaboration, rather than confrontation.
Daniel Westlake, a post-doctoral fellow in political studies at Queens University, said an increasing interest in environmental issues, compared to other concerns, bodes well for the Greens and, in some Vancouver Island ridings, they appear more competitive than the Liberals and Conservatives. “There are issues that don’t fit nicely along the left/right spectrum—the more traditional divides in Canada—and that’s creating opportunities for some of these smaller parties, and particularly the Greens,” Westlake said. However, he cautioned, “We shouldn’t overstate this. They are still only polling around 10 or 15 percent, but it is enough to make them more competitive than they have been in the past.”
New Green voters are likely to come from the NDP and Liberals, Westlake predicted. “It will not just be the NDP; there are a lot of pro-environmental Liberal voters, particularly in Quebec,” he said. Westlake also noted that “the Greens are not a traditional left-wing party in the same vein as the NDP, which has a lot of support among low-income and working-class voters.” The usual NDP mix can create a divide, he said, as it is difficult to please both the environmental and blue-collar wings. “They are never going to be able to take a position that doesn’t alienate some voters, and the Green Party doesn’t have to worry about that because they are a pro-environmental party,” he said.
A challenge for the NDP across Canada is that more than one-quarter of NDP incumbents are not running again—including Murray Rankin in Victoria—meaning New Democrats lose the incumbent advantage of name recognition.
New Democrats in BC, where the NDP holds 13 of their 41 federal seats, are looking over their shoulders at the Greens, but emphasize that any surge in Green strength will not necessarily come from NDP ranks. All parties will likely be looking to attract votes from Liberals since many who may have voted Liberal in the past are disappointed (or furious) over their about-face on ending the first-past-the-post electoral system, as well as their embrace of the Trans Mountain pipeline, and the evident misbehaviour of the PM’s Office involving SNC-Lavalin and former Attorney General (and West Coaster with a new book on the way) Jody Wilson-Raybould. But those votes could be divided up amongst all of the other parties.
IN VICTORIA, NDP candidate Laurel Collins does have name recognition from her short time on Victoria City Council, and is hoping her municipal record will help win the seat. It’s not a clear advantage though, as some Victorians have expressed discontent with her declaring federally so soon after getting elected to council.
The fact that the seat has been solidly NDP since 2006 should work in Collins’ favour, though both the Liberals and Green Party are putting forth strong candidates.
In late August, the Liberals nominated Nikki Macdonald, former executive director of government relations at the University of Victoria. She had previously worked for an international pharmaceutical company and before that served in a number of senior roles in the federal government, including as appointments director for former Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Macdonald has deep roots in the federal Liberal Party and is the daughter of long time Liberal politician Donald Macdonald, a cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
Though the Liberal vote dropped to 8,489 compared to 30,397 for New Democrat Murray Rankin in 2015, the Liberals have held the riding in the not-too-distant past: From 1993 to 2006, it was held by former Liberal cabinet minister David Anderson.
In 2015, the Green Party, with candidate Jo-Ann Roberts, was second with 23,666 votes. But Roberts has moved east. Still, Collins acknowledges that her main competition is likely to come from new Green candidate Racelle Kooy who was nominated in February.
Collins feels that disillusionment with the current Liberal government does not extend to the NDP, which is offering a platform of solutions. The housing crisis, climate change, the opiate crisis and inadequate access to health care are among issues that voters want the government to tackle, and the NDP offers an integrated plan, Collins said.
Voters in Victoria care about climate change and the environment—and both concerns are reflected in the NDP platform, she said. “Environmental protection is really the reason I got involved in politics.”
Collins also noted that one major difference between the Greens and the NDP is that the NDP’s New Deal for the Climate acknowledges that there must be interconnected policy responses that leave no one behind. That means rapidly transforming to a low-carbon economy while also looking at inequalities of the current economy. “Environmental justice and social justice go hand-in-hand,” she said.
The Green’s Kooy is also finding climate change at the top of the list of concerns, but affordability, housing, homelessness, mental health and addictions follow close behind. “For many people, it’s not about themselves. It’s about their children,” she said.
Kooy will enjoy less name recognition than Collins. Born in North Vancouver, she grew up in the Lower Mainland and has worked for organizations and First Nations across Canada, including a stint as the bilingual co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations. She moved to Victoria from the Xat’sull First Nation in the Cariboo.
“It was the wildfires of 2017 that prompted my move to Victoria,” said Kooy. “I have enjoyed the city in the past…and I knew that I could continue my other work from Victoria.” When asked if she could be regarded as a parachute candidate, Kooy laughed and asked how many candidates could genuinely claim to be from Victoria. “Prior to my nomination, I did go to Songhees and Esquimalt (First Nations) and asked permission to run in their homeland,” she said.
Both Kooy and Collins will likely be campaigning against the Liberal Party’s record on proportional representation, the Trans Mountain Pipeline Extension, and the SNC-Lavalin affair, with the recent scathing Ethics Commissioner’s report on the subject. Liberal candidate Macdonald, only nominated at the end of August, as Focus went to press, will have to defend her party’s role on those fronts. Conservative Richard Caron, and Alyson Culbert for the People’s Party of Canada are also running in the Victoria riding.
ALISTAIR MacGREGOR, NDP incumbent in the sprawling Cowichan-Malahat-Langford riding, agrees that the NDP strength is marrying environmental and social issues, and he believes NDP numbers will improve once people get into election mode and take a serious look at the platform. “Our party has always been in the vanguard of social change, pushing against the status quo and trying to fight for disadvantaged Canadians, and I think that is still our strength today,” MacGregor said, pointing out that the NDP was pushing the envelope on climate change before the Green Party elected any MPs.
“When you are talking about climate change, you have to have a serious plan for workers, and show that there is going to be opportunity in the transition, especially for people in businesses that depend on fossil fuels or who are working in the fossil-fuel industry. You have to have a concrete plan that shows there are reliable jobs in the clean economy of the future and that we have a transition plan,” he said.
MacGregor, first elected in 2015, has served as the NDP’s agricultural critic. He has lived in the Cowichan Valley for 25 years, working for former MP Jean Crowder for many of them. In the 2015 election MacGregor received 22,200 votes, followed by Liberal and Conservative candidates in the 14-15,000 range, and the Green Party at 10,462.
MacGregor is unsure whether his main challenge will come from the Greens or Conservatives. “My riding has always had a very strong Conservative base,” he said.
The Greens have nominated the former chief of the Cowichan Tribes, Lydia Hwitsum, a highly credentialled lawyer and human rights advocate. MacGregor’s Conservative opponent is former Calgary MLA Alana DeLong, who is emphasizing her experience during 14 years in the Alberta Legislature. “I am running because the current federal Liberal government is doing irreparable damage to our country and our children’s future,” DeLong says on her website. Delong was born in Nelson and now lives on Thetis Island. Others running in the riding are Rhonda Chen for the People’s Party of Canada and Liberal Blair Herbert, who was nominated August 22.
WITH THREE OF THE FOUR AREA RIDINGS held by the NDP, and the other by the Green Party, the election battle in this region will be very different than many other ridings across Canada where Liberals and Conservatives are the main contenders.
Green Party deputy leader Jo-Ann Roberts, who ran for the Greens in Victoria in 2015 and is running in Halifax where she now lives, is watching with interest. She thinks that fear of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives led the voting in 2015. This time, while people may be upset with the Liberals, there is not the visceral need to get rid of the Harper government. She told Focus, “What I heard on the doorstep last time was, ‘I would love to vote for you, but maybe next time.’ They felt the NDP was the safest way to defeat the Conservatives. Now, if you look at the numbers in Victoria and Vancouver Island, we are 15 percent ahead of the NDP. I would have loved to have seen those numbers.”
There is no guarantee, however, that people won’t get cold feet about casting a ballot for a non-traditional party once they get into the voting booth. “The Greens can’t take anything for granted,” Roberts admitted. “We know we have to get people to the polls, and we have limited resources compared to other parties, so we are going to have to pick ridings where we think we can do well.”
Daniel Westlake agrees that Victoria and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke might well qualify as some of those ridings. They appear to be more competitive than the Liberals or Conservatives in these ridings, said Westlake. “So I don’t think, at least on Vancouver Island, that it is going to be strategic voting that hurts the Greens,” he said.
That does not mean there won’t be swings in public opinion before election day, he said. “It could be a last-minute event that makes voters think about different issues or persuades them to move to another party,” he said. “We have to be careful looking at polls. So much can happen between now and October,” warned Westlake.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith