A Modest Proposal for the Future of Canada’s Green Party
It’s times like this that I wish Canada’s Green Party would disband.
Wait; before you start sending me furious emails written in all caps, let me explain.
I have tremendous respect for what the Green Party has done in championing an important set of issues, securing a place for the environment on the national political agenda. It has been instrumental in making Canadians think hard about the causes, the effects, and politics of climate change. It has also provided a place for like-minded people to come together and pursue meaningful political change. Their cause is one that I personally identify with.
So, what’s the problem? Last month, the Conservative Party held Calgary Centre in a by-election, and did so by a very narrow margin. Joan Crockatt won by 4.2% over Liberal candidate Harvey Locke. Meanwhile, the Green candidate, author Chris Turner, finished third with more than 25% of the vote. In other words, had the Liberals and Greens somehow found a way to work together, they might have taken the riding. Vote splitting rears its ugly head once more.
The results drive home two key points: 1) green voters are a political force in the country; and 2) Canada’s current political structure continues to place a hard cap on what the Green Party can accomplish as a political party in the vast majority of the country’s ridings. There are a few places, like Victoria, where it can compete directly against the other major parties, but the outcome in Calgary Centre demonstrates that whatever success the party achieves at the polls tends to come at the expense of its natural parliamentary allies, rather than of parties that oppose action on climate change. In cases where the race is tightly contested, the result will often be that the latter wins.
As serious a problem as vote splitting is however, it is not my focus here. There are other consequences resulting from the Green Party’s presence that are both more subtle and possibly even more detrimental to the cause of progressive environmental policy in Canada; indeed, it may in fact be the case that the party’s presence in Canadian politics may have actually reduced government action on environmental issues over the last decade.
I will focus here on two in particular: one relating to the ideas of the party, and the other to its people.
The “ideas” problem relates to the fact that Green Party is an issue party. Notwithstanding references to the party’s comprehensive platform in its campaign literature, the party remains fundamentally defined by a specific family of issues its membership feels should receive more attention than it currently does.
Unfortunately, in first-past-the-post political systems such as ours, most people vote for solution parties. The parties that win elections in Canada—be they Liberal, or Conservative, or NDP—are defined above all by an identity, a broad philosophy of governance. The details change from election to election, but it’s that solid identity that gives voters the confidence to grant them control over the central institution in our public lives.
The Green Party, in contrast, has no consistent governing philosophy that voters easily identify with. There is no way to know how the Green Party would (or should) approach issues of gun crime, or education, or aboriginal rights. Moreover, to the extent that such a philosophy does exist—a focus on the environment in all facets of policy, combined with broader concerns regarding social justice and a modest, environmentally centred interest in improving economic efficiency—it is difficult to distinguish from Canada’s other two national opposition parties.
More fundamentally problematic, there is no way to know what philosophy Green Party ought to use to deal with the problems of climate change, or any other environmental issue. In order to tackle carbon emissions, the party could opt for a cap-and-trade system, or enhanced regulation, or feed-in tariffs, or a carbon tax, or a federal ban on certain types of activity, any other of a dozen potential approaches. Many of the above strategies, whether singly or in combination, could prove successful, but the Green Party is better equipped to handle a debate about whether to do something about the environment, than what should be done about it.
As it happens, we are now entering that second phase of the debate in Canada. Polls consistently show that a significant majority of the population, often upwards of 2/3, believe climate change is real, and that Canada should be doing more to address it. Even in Alberta, 65% of respondents to one major poll, conducted by Hoggan and Associates in 2009, agreed with the statement “it’s embarrassing that we are not doing more to curb emissions.”
No such consensus exists regarding what should be done about climate change however, and the Green Party must think about how it can contribute most constructively to this discussion. It is not clear that it is in the party’s interest – from the perspective of achieving meaningful change in Canada’s environmental policy – to endorse any particular strategy. I will return to this point below.
What about the “people” problem created by the Green Party? In essence, a significant portion all of the politically committed, experienced, and talented Canadians who care about environmental issues are gathered together in a political party that, at least in terms of determining who controls the government, doesn’t matter very much.
Consequently, while there are still pro-environmental activists in the other major political parties, they are not nearly as numerous, and consequently are far less influential, than they otherwise would be. As a result, environmental issues receive less emphasis in the other parties’ internal discussions over policy choices.
Greens who advocate market-based solutions could be helping Preston Manning found a green caucus within the Conservative Party. Greens who favour a mixture of market and government-led initiatives could be pushing the environment back on the Liberal party agenda. Greens who prefer direct government intervention could be helping Megan Leslie and Linda Duncan bring environmental issues to the very forefront of the NDP’s platform.
So what is to be done? Here is my modest proposal for the future of the Green Party: it should embrace a new role in Canadian politics: part pressure group, part social network.
Imagine a future election where, instead of a Green Party competing with the Liberals and NDP for votes, there was a “Green Network,” working with any candidate willing to put together the strongest possible green platform. The network could constructively influence every phase of the political process. Members of the network who joined their favourite traditional party could participate in local nominations to get pro-green candidates on the ballot. They could also work hard within their respective parties to create strong green caucuses that would ensure that environmental issues were treated seriously and comprehensively within the party platforms.
Then, during the election, the Green Network could work with members across the country to evaluate candidates in each riding, considering both national party platforms and personal candidate commitments. In each riding, the network could endorse “Green candidate,” and possibly even anoint a “greenest candidate” in each election, and encourage network members to vote for green candidates. As the results in Victoria and Calgary Centre makes clear, in many ridings green voters control the balance of power at the riding level; getting the “Green Bump” could be the key to winning dozens of contested races.
In between elections, the network could coordinate activities to hold elected members to account, ensuring that they work together, in good faith, towards the development and implementation of a practical and comprehensive environmental strategy.
There could even be other ancillary benefits to such a strategy. Many commentators bemoan the lack of collegiality in contemporary Canadian politics. The establishment of a pan-party network, committed to finding the most effective solution to shared problems, could prove a powerful mechanism to counteract this trend, and a possible model to deal with other thorny problems confronting Canadians today.
Finally, should the country ever transition to a proportional representation system in which a Green Party could compete electorally, it would a relatively simple process to reconstitute the party formally on the basis of the institutional memory preserved in the network.
The Green Party prides itself on encouraging creative thinking regarding the environmental problems that currently confront us. It’s time to starting thinking creatively about the political problems we face as well.