Are the Greens an “issue based” party?

(Note: what follows is premised on the idea that Canada will not be adopting proportional representation any time soon. If Canada were to switch to PR, much of what follows would go out the window.)

In response to my recent op-ed in the Citizen, one of the negative responses I heard concerns the question whether the Green Party of Canada (GPC) is an “issue-based” party or not. Obviously, it’s an issue that’s been debated elsewhere; for my purposes, I think it important to to draw a line between two different ways to understand the assertion.

The strong version of that statement, that the Greens have positions on environmental issues and nothing else, is clearly false. The GPC have long shown a willingness and ability to stake out positions on issues other than the environment. However, a second understanding, the one that I am focusing on, concerns what I would refer to as the party’s core identity, particularly in the minds of voters.  Here I think the statement is true. That is, in the minds of voters, the Green Party remains associated with environmental issues, with no clear associations on other key issues.

To the extent that this is the case, it’s easy (and I would argue incorrect) to blame this on voters’ lack of understanding. Again, to me the base problem is structural: to win an election in a first past the post (FPTP) system like ours, the Greens essentially have to come to embody a distinct way of thinking about the world, one that is a) relatively easy for voters to grasp, giving them a clear idea of what the Greens would do on any given issue WITHOUT having to refer to the most recent platform, and b) relatively stable from election to election.

Not only that—and this is a key point—the identity they create must be viewed as better than that of existing competitive parties for all issues that concern would-be supporters. Electoral politics, particularly in FPTP, is zero-sum. Your success comes at the expense of (indeed is synonymous with) someone else’s failure. (For instance, it is no accident that the Reform Party emerged in the wake of a Conservative collapse, or that NDP’s current strength comes at a time of historic Liberal weakness. Even those cases are not great models for the Greens; despite its regional popularity, the Reform Party eventually felt compelled to merge with its competitor on the right, and the jury clearly remains out on the NDP-Liberal competition to become champion of the centre-left.)

Greens can’t do either of those things better than their direct competition for base voters (the Libs and the NDP). A typical voter who cares about the environment and a lot of other things isn’t likely to know what the Green Party is likely to do on health care, or day care, or treaty rights—or for that matter even on the environment—without checking their platform, and is equally unlikely to have a strong sense of the positions the Greens will adopt a similar position four years from now. For all she knows, a different leadership might take the party in a very different direction. So long as there are other options with longer track records that the voter feels more familiar with—and again, for the Greens’ target audience, that’s still the Libs or the NDP—she is going to prefer to stick with those parties more often than not, and hope they get more serious about the environment, rather than adopt a new party that clearly cares about the environment, but remains fuzzy to her on all the other issues that she care about, particularly the key questions of who gets what, and how.

Party identities and voter trust in them can change over time, but it’s a very slow process, with no guarantee of success. The NDP have been a party in waiting for two generations now, and still have not clearly become Canadians’ preferred non-Conservative option.  Given the current and mounting pressures on the environment, I don’t feel comfortable wait for the Greens’ turn, if it ever comes. Far better, to me, is to pursue a strategy that pushes all parties in the direction of a greener policy, and holds the possibility of immediate returns in the form of green-committed MPs, regardless of the party they represent. Given the choice between that, and a faint hope of a Green Party in government (or heck, even in Parliament with any significant presence) some time in the distant future, I’ll choose the former.

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