What happened to the Green party on Vancouver Island?

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Image: Green Party of Canada/Twitter

This year's federal election campaign looked like a perfect storm for the Green party to make substantial gains, particularly on the party's home turf of Vancouver Island. However, on election night, the Greens only managed to hold on to their two seats in British Columbia, while winning a third in New Brunswick.

At the start of the campaign, the political landscape looked favourable for the Greens. The Liberal party called the election with Canada on course to miss its greenhouse gas-reduction targets (which were set under Stephen Harper), the continuation of fossil-fuel subsidies and with a $4.5 billion diluted bitumen pipeline project in the federal government's possession. The NDP, meanwhile, initially struggled to articulate a clear position on fracking, particularly in regards to the B.C. NDP government's liquefied natural gas projects. That issue, observers said, was partly to blame for the NDP losing a byelection to the Green party's Paul Manly in Nanaimo-Ladysmith.

All the Green party had to do, it seemed, was champion its flagship commitment to reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent below 2005 levels, while offering a coherent set of proposals to address other major issues, such as the lack of affordable housing, the urgent need for a national drug-coverage plan and the shortage of childcare spaces.  

As the campaign got underway, the Green party came out with some positive proposals: it promised to introduce universal pharmacare, in addition to dental care for low-income Canadians. The Greens also pledged to work with provinces to create more childcare spaces, and was the only party that said it would expand access to safe abortion services.

However, several policy areas could have been much more ambitious. For example, the Green party's housing platform, while promising to build 25,000 new units of dedicated affordable housing per year, offered half the equivalent supply proposed by the NDP. The Greens pledged to work towards zero-carbon public transportation, but made no mention of working towards fare-free transit. The party has also faced criticism over its approach to Indigenous issues, and for lacking concrete policies for combating racism (like abolishing carding).

By the Greens' own admission, they are a political movement that actively disavows ideological categorization, running instead on what the party calls "evidence-based policy." They celebrate cross-partisanship, and recruit voters and candidates from all major political parties: Manly is an ex-NDP member; the party's Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke candidate David Merner ran for the Liberals in 2015 and leader Elizabeth May once served as a senior policy advisor to former Progressive Conservative environment minister Thomas McMillan. 

The Greens' pan-ideological approach might partly explain why the party struggled to establish itself in an NDP-dominated area like Vancouver Island as a solidly "progressive" force capable of synthesizing a comprehensive program for tackling the climate emergency with struggles for economic and social justice. Or, to put it another way, the Greens had difficulty shaking off the charge that they remain a single-issue party.

"I think what gets exploited is their focus," said Alexander Netherton, a political science professor at Vancouver Island University. "The Greens had a good start. It was aided by international social movements, and the Extinction Rebellion and so forth. But the danger of that is that they get painted into, as they always do, no matter how comprehensive they are, a one-act show, a uni-dimensional party."

In the last days of the campaign, the NDP distributed thousands of leaflets across southern Vancouver Island quoting May saying she was open to working with a Conservative minority government, and highlighting the Greens' confusing statements on whipping votes on the issue of abortion. While criticized as a dirty tactic, that strategy may have may have spoken to some voters' preconceptions of the Greens as "conservatives on bikes," and cost May's party votes in some key ridings.

"May and the Greens strongly refuted [the leaflets] as incorrect or misleading, but it probably contributed to the perceptible last-minute decline of the Greens and growth in the NDP in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke and in Victoria," said Jamie Lawson, a political science professor at the University of Victoria. "Given the coverage of the B.C. Greens initial openness to talk with both the NDP and the B.C. Liberals after the last provincial election, given the historic pattern of the Greens being successful with former Conservatives and Liberals in wealthier constituencies, this probably struck some key constituencies as plausible, but unworthy of their vote."

Lawson also attributes the Greens lacklustre electoral performance to the party's comparatively limited resources, costing errors in the party's manifesto (which raised red flags with the Parliamentary Budget Officer) and the fact that the NDP won over ex-Liberal voters disillusioned with Trudeau's policy flip-flops over the last four years. 

"Their polling was going up in B.C. while Liberal support was going down. That would have reinforced their position against the Greens."

It's also fair to say that Green party was, once again, ripped off by first-past-the-post voting. Despite not making significant gains in terms of seats, the party more than doubled its popular vote share, and managed to increase its popular support in most ridings across Vancouver Island.

Notably, however, the party's support in May's riding, Saanich-Gulf Islands, slipped to 48 per cent (down from 54 per cent in 2015) -- the first time May's own vote-share decreased since she first won the seat in 2011.

Of course, Lawson notes, May still commands a majority in her riding that most MPs would "give blood for." 

"And that's without major party infrastructure of NDP, Conservative or Liberal scale to back her," he added.

Still, May's recent indication that she plans to step down as party leader before the next election might be a sign that the Green party's current approach to politics and ideology has run its course, and in need of a rethink -- especially if the party is to be taken seriously as part of a coalition in the fight against global warming and against social and economic injustice.

Alex Cosh is a journalist and PhD student based in Powell River, B.C. His work has appeared on PressProgressLeft Foot Forward and in several local B.C. publications.

Image: Green Party of Canada/Twitter​

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