Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On Canada's Green Party

A few years ago, a friend decided he wanted to run for the Green Party in the federal election. Up to that point, the riding we lived in had never had anyone run federally for the Greens (one person had tried at the provincial level). There was no party organization, no instructions on how to do it, no one to look to for guidance. My friend figured out on-line how to register as the Green candidate and how to establish an Electoral District Association (EDA), an entity that needs to be registered with Elections Canada. He set up a very professional-looking website. He did all this at his own expense.

The first meeting of the EDA consisted of him, me, and his secretary (he operates his own business), and took place in a restaurant. We decided that if we wanted to be taken seriously, we needed to act seriously. So, we put an announcement in the community newspaper, rented a room in a community centre, and hoped someone would show up for our next meeting. A couple people did, including a really nice retired fellow who became the treasurer (not that we had any money, but an EDA needs one). With word of mouth, a few other people started to come out to meetings. One sunny Saturday, we organized a river cleanup, some people with canoes showed up to help, we hauled several bags of trash out of the river, and got our picture in the paper.

We also hauled a bicycle out of the river. A friend who is a bike mechanic offered to fix it up so that we could raffle it off to raise a few dollars for the EDA. This turned out to be a no-no; city hall told us we could not have a raffle license, because EDAs do not qualify as charities, and only charities can hold raffles for fundraising. This has always struck me as amusing: the person at city hall warned us she would call the police if we raffled off a salvaged bicycle without a permit, while at the same time the party in government was handing out millions in sponsorship money to party cronies.

In any event, bit by bit, a team slowly coalesced, and in that year’s election my friend got over 2,000 votes. It made enough of an impression in the community that Green Party meetings thereafter attracted a regular turnout. An online newsletter was started, and members showed up at community events wearing Green Party t-shirts. We hosted the provincial Green Party annual general meeting, which brought a couple hundred visitors to our community’s historic downtown, and got us some more media attention. The next federal election (they started coming fast and furious at this point, for there were minority governments) my friend received over 4,000 votes. We were disappointed by this; we were hoping (perhaps naively) for closer to 8,000, and to knock off at least one of the bigger party candidates. Still, when I look back I am impressed this was accomplished in a community with no natural Green Party constituency: no university, no yoga studios, no bookshops selling fair trade coffee, no hemp clothing stores: just your average Tim Hortons-swilling southern Ontario city where everyone drives to work.

It’s been a few years now since I moved away, and my friend no longer stands for elections. I am not active in politics nor a member of any political party, Green or otherwise. My core interest is in seeing that environmental issues receive an appropriate amount of attention by policymakers, regardless of political stripe. Needless to say, I was a bit dismayed by the federal election campaign that ended Monday, during which hardly a word was spoken by any party about the environment. The Conservative party under Brian Mulroney used to be progressive on environmental issues, but now avoids them as much as possible. The Liberal Party, having run on the “GreenShift” platform last time and lost, this election breathed not a word about the environment and got clobbered. Suddenly Stephane Dion doesn’t look so bad after all (Dion won his seat, the man who replaced him as party leader did not). Jack Layton spoke a few times here and there about a cap-and-trade system for managing greenhouse gas emissions, but mostly stuck to other topics. Who knows or cares what the BQ had to say about any issues, environmental or otherwise - certainly Quebeckers didn't.

To the advantage of all three big federal parties, Green Party leader Elizabeth May was excluded from the televised debates. Which is a shame, because it’s pretty clear from voter turnout and the results that a lot of people were looking for alternatives to the same-old, same-old. Then again, her performance on the French-language debate last time was excruciatingly bad, and probably did the party more harm than good in Quebec. Even so, she finally won a seat for herself in the House of Commons, third time around, and in doing so knocked out the former Minister for Natural Resources. Ms May had to win, or else she was pretty much finished as party leader. The Green Party HQ spent a lot of resources getting the leader in the House, something they felt is essential to being taken seriously, and that may be true.

Meanwhile across the rest of the country, the number of votes for other Green Party candidates fell precipitously. Where my friend was disappointed with only 4,000 votes, the candidate didn’t reach 3,000 this time. Same thing in other ridings. This costs the party money ($1.75/vote from federal subsidies last time I checked) but, more importantly, it troubles me that the grassroots work done in ridings across the country is withering. It’s an expensive gamble to hope that the presence of Ms May in Parliament will get actions on environmental issues in Ottawa and win broader support for the party, especially when it's unlikely the media will treat her as anything more than a curiosity to be interviewed only on slow news days.

David Suzuki argued a while back that having the Green Party as a viable political choice would allow the other parties to ignore environmental issues, and was therefore maybe a bad idea. I questioned this logic, figuring we were going to be locked into minority governments for a long while, where every party would be willing to hog-trade for a Green MP’s vote. After Monday, I’m thinking maybe Suzuki was right.

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