Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s announcement that she will run in the British Columbia (B.C.) riding (district) of SaanichóGulf Islands in the next election has sparked a renewed sense of optimism and enthusiasm among Greens in Canada, raising hopes and expectations that the party will win its first seat in the House of Commons. May had previously run for a seat in her home province of Nova Scotia ñ on the Atlantic coast, thousands of miles away from B.C. What prompted her move to the other side of Canada? The answer lies in the party’s successes and failures in the last national election, and the reshuffling of Green priorities that has ensued.
By many accounts, the 2008 federal election was momentous for the Green Party of Canada (GPC). The party achieved a number of milestones, including May’s favourably reviewed participation in the televised leaders’ debates, an unprecedented number of candidates earning more than 10 percent of the vote, and a record seven percent of the overall national vote. But disappointingly, the GPC failed to accomplish a particularly critical goal: electing its first Green Member of Parliament (MP). With this weighing heavily on the minds of the GPCís Campaign Committee and Federal Council, a substantial review of the party’s election performance resulted in one new overwhelming priority: electing the leader of the Green Party to Parliament.
The first step in electing the first Green MP was determining which of Canadaís 308 ridings is the most fertile ground for a Green breakthrough. where Green support has been strong and after an exhaustive examination of the results and the political climate in these ridings, one conclusion emerged: SaanichóGulf Islands offers the best shot of electing a Green. Why?
SaanichóGulf Islands is one of the small-g greenest ridings in the country, comprised of several municipalities on Vancouver Island and a number of small islands located in the Straight of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland, accessible only by ferry.† Home to many warm communities of progressive-minded citizens, the islands are known for their amazing natural beauty, wealth of artistic and musical talent, homegrown organic and artisanal food, community markets and festivals, and environmental consciousness. SaanichóGulf Islands voters in particular have given serious thought to the Green Party since 2004 when the riding was touted as the party’s best chance to elect a Green. That year, Green candidate Andrew Lewis won 17 percent of the vote ó the best Green federal result to that date, and provincially, Lewis won over 25 percent in 2001. In recognition of the Greensí popularity there, the Liberals and New Democrats (NDP) both recruited former Green Party activists as their candidates in SaanichóGulf Islands in the 2008 election ó a clear indication that voters there hold Green values near and dear, and that Green issues are campaign issues.
At the same time, B.C itself is one of the greenest provinces. If the Green Party itself can be said to have a geographical base in Canada, itís in B. C. Back in 1983, Green Party of British Columbia (GPBC) was the first Green Party in North America, in recent years the GPBC has consistently brought home 8-12 percent of the vote ó more than in any other province ñ and B.C. voters have elected many Greens to municipal governments, all of which means that British Columbians are used to considering the Green Party as a viable alternative. With many seasoned Green campaigners in the province, May will be also able to count on an influx of high-quality, experienced campaign volunteers coming into her riding.
Paradoxically, due to the regressive nature of the winner-take-all electoral system, the current MP for SaanichóGulf Islands is Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn, who has held on to his seat since first being elected in 1997 because the ridingís progressive vote is split between the Liberals, NDP and Greens. Progressives have long acknowledged this problem and have gone so far as to launch a Shun Lunn campaign, encouraging voters to rally around one of Lunnís opponents in order to vote him out. In the last election, the Liberal candidate came close, losing 43% to 39%, with Lewis also receiving 10.5% and the NDP candidate 5.7%. Clearly many voters want to rid themselves of Lunn, but have been unable to rally around a single opponent. But now when a star candidate like May enters the equation, a natural rallying point can emerge.
May’s electoral history, while brief, is nonetheless impressive and demonstrates that she naturally builds support among voters who usually vote for traditional parties. In November 2006 after a mere three months as Green leader, May pulled in 26 percent of the vote in a by-election (special election) in London North Centre in† Ontario, surprising the nation with her second place finish. And while running in her home Nova Scotia riding (seen by many as Green-hostile territory) in 2008, May brought home another second place finish against a Conservative cabinet minister incumbent, increasing the Green vote there from less than two percent to over 32 percent.
As a former GPC press secretary, I worked day and night on Mayís previous campaigns. Elizabeth May is a star candidate and a dynamic and tireless campaigner. I watched first hand as she won over voter after voter with her charm and wit, solid grasp of complex policy ideas, and inspiring vision for Canada and its communities. With her solid electoral record in ridings that are not seen as especially Green-friendly, May has a great chance at pulling off a victory in SaanichóGulf Islands ñ a riding that is incredibly Green-friendly.
There remains a great deal of uncertainty over when Canada’s next federal election will be called. The current minority parliament situation in Canada means the governing Conservatives must rely on support from opposition parties to avoid losing key confidence votes and stay in power. The Liberals and NDP have propped up the Conservative government on key votes to date, because the Liberals have desired more time to organize before an election, and the NDP is in no financial shape for an election and is down in the polls. Recently the Liberals declared their intention to vote against the government at every possible opportunity and it’s unlikely support from the NDP will continue indefinitely. Many analysts expect the Conservative government to expire by spring 2010.
Despite this uncertainty, the GPC will not be caught off-guard as was the case in 2008, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper violated his own fixed-election date law and called a snap election for partisan advantage. May’s campaign has already kicked into high gear. She has relocated to the riding, has already received an overwhelmingly positive reception. But thereís little doubt the GPC will still have to fight tooth and nail to win this seat. With this in mind, the party is focusing its resources to run the most effective campaign in GPC history, with a massive effort to identify every possible Green voter, and a clear strategy to counter the expected dirty tricks from other parties to prevent the Greens from gaining a Parliamentary foothold. With such focus, commitment, and dedication, there’s a strong chance that Elizabeth May’s campaign in SaanichóGulf Islands will send her to Ottawa and, thus, finally give a voice to the more than one million Green supporters who have been left without representation in Parliament.
Other coverage of the Green Party of Canada in Green Pages:
New Canadian party leader gets Greens noticed – Elizabeth May has doubled party enrollment by engaging Parliament Hill
Coming of age in Canada – 2006 Convention bigger and better than ever
Canadians determined to gain representation – 2006 marks best election results ever