After the B.C. election: Big Oil won a battle but they haven't won the war

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What makes me sad about Tuesday night's election in B.C. is that I know a lot of folks that really care about the people and the planet had their hearts broken. The candidates and their supporters that I saw at the BC NDP election night party were a group of people who I know wanted to make this province a better place -- it was hard to watch them leave the convention centre with sad faces.

When they came outside, they found a quote in chalk from Jack Layton, the former Leader of the Federal NDP, who passed away in August 2011. It read: "my friends, love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, optimism is better than despair." These were his beautiful, final words to Canada in a letter he wrote from his hospital bed. When he passed, those words were written in chalk all over the country.

It touched my heart to see this message outside the convention centre. I could see it pulling people out of their despair a little, as they discovered it outside.

Later that night, at home watching the final results, I found myself wondering what happened. B.C. is such a magnificent and creative place filled with progressive people—what went wrong? Why did so many people (like, almost 50 per cent of people) not even vote?

Well as Vancouver Canucks hockey fans, we are used to disappointment, and this month was not an exception. You could say in some ways the BC NDP played like the Canucks when they have the lead, circling around trying not to lose.

 As a pipeline opponent, I wanted the NDP to win because, of any party with a real chance of forming government, they were in the strongest position to stick up to Prime Minster Stephen Harper and stop the pipelines.

It seems to me that perhaps as an environmental movement some of our key tactics worked but not our strategy overall.

At ForestEthics Advocacy we picked five champions for the coast that we wanted to win and take the lead on the issues of pipelines and tankers. Almost all of them won, including David Eby, the candidate running against our province’s current premier, Christy Clark. David is a progressive lawyer who ran a strong campaign based on the issue of stopping tanker traffic expansion. He beat the premier in her own riding.

Other winners last night included George Heyman, the former Sierra Club Executive Director, Claire Travena and Jenn Rice -- all outspoken opponents of Enbridge and Kinder Morgan. Sadly, Janet Routledge in Burnaby didn't win; she was a real hero on this issue as well and will continue to be, I am sure.

The environmental movement successfully made pipelines an issue all the parties were fighting to show they cared about. At times during this campaign it seemed all the leaders were talking about was pipelines and tankers. We made these pipelines a massive election issue, and that’s no small accomplishment.

So where did we go wrong? As the old political saying goes, "it’s the economy, stupid." I think we failed to put the green jobs economy front and centre in what we were asking the future government to focus on. Dr. David Suzuki and Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour, wrote a great op-ed about the need to focus on green jobs. And yet our movement as a whole hasn't come together to paint a clear picture of where we want the jobs of tomorrow to come from. We should—we have the opportunity to tell the exciting story of healthier lives and local jobs that we can feel good about. This is a fundamentally important task for the years to come.

Another take away? Coalitions are critical. The provincial Liberals, which are the right-wing party in BC, are a successful coalition between federal Conservatives and federal Liberals. The provincial Conservatives at first seemed like they may have split the right-of-centre vote. By the time the election happened, the BC Conservatives weren't considered a threat in terms of votes. Perhaps their biggest contribution was making the BC Liberals, a party that has many federal conservatives in staff positions, as well as provincial candidates with ties to the federal conservatives, seem like a more moderate and centrist party.

By contrast, the conflict between the NDP and Greens was really hurtful. Our movements simply must come to together to solve the problem of Canada’s tar sands and to make green economic alternatives a reality. There are very real differences between Greens and the NDP in BC, but if we are going to learn anything from the BC Liberals success, it's that coalitions win.

For my part, I feel like I owe my Green friends an apology. I was very involved in the party for many years but chose to support the NDP in this election because I really wanted to make it clear that I believed we needed a new government. No one imagined that the Greens would form government in this election.

The "splitting" between the NDP and Greens wasn't just in terms of votes (although some great candidates like Janet Routledge paid the price and felt the sting of vote splitting); it was also a major split in terms of trust and clarity for progressive voters.

The Greens have proven they aren't going away. A few days ago, I had an illustrative conversation with a potential voter at his doorstep, while campaigning for George Heyman. This potential voter told me he wasn’t voting because he didn’t feel like the NDP was good enough after listening to the Greens, but he knew that the Greens weren’t going to be the government anytime soon. My guess is that many well-intentioned folks had a hard time knowing how to vote for similar reasons and it might have had something to do with why only 48 per cent of people in the province voted.

I'm happy we now have an elected climate scientist in the legislature, Professor Andrew Weaver. And as Elizabeth May, who I love dearly, has proven, one person in elected office can make a huge difference.

I also feel bad for BC Green Party leader Jane Sterk and the 84 other BC Greens who lost in every riding other than Andrew Weavers; they had a similar night to a lot of my NDP friends. The concerns the Green Party rose about fracking and other key issues were totally valid, but we need to find a way to have this conversation amongst progressive before the election instead of fighting amongst ourselves mid-election. This sort of negativity between progressives turns everyone off, and distracts attention from the bigger threat from politicians more likely to support bad projects. We need to work harder to find common ground.

I think both the NDP and the Greens owe it to the public to make a peace treaty and find a way to show everyone that we can work together for solutions that are good for people and the planet. This is an important lesson for us to learn before the upcoming federal election, while we still have time to find ways to work together.

Big Oil won a battle today but they haven't won the war.

The 2015 Federal Election is right around the corner, and our fight against Enbridge and Kinder Morgan in BC is still far from over. Real change comes from social movements. During this election, we achieved stronger commitments from all parties to address these issues. No matter who won our motto will still be "no let up no let down."

The BC Liberals have told us that they have five conditions that must be met before any pipeline is built in the province; it’s our job now to hold them to that. We all know those conditions cannot be met. In fact the condition around First Nations support is already clearly not being met, with over 100 First Nations saying ‘no’ to pipelines and tankers across their long-held territories.

Let’s focus on continuing to build our movements, especially in the areas where a progressive message did not elect a progressive MLA. We can and must come together and stop these pipelines in B.C., and work together to defeat Harper in the federal election.

Jack's words -- "my friends, love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, optimism is better than despair" -- hold true.

Now more than ever, we need to work together.

Big Oil won't go down without one heck of a fight.

We have won before and we will win again, because that's what our planet and everyone on it needs to have happen.


Ben West is Tar Sands Campaign Director at Forest Ethics Advocacy.

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