Op-ed: Green Party Can Win, by Giving Up

[Update 23/5/14: With the disappearance of the original from the Ottawa Citizen’s pages—a perennial problem with the recently replaced website—I have reproduced the original article in its entirety here. Oh, and speaking of the new site, go check it out if you haven’t already. It’s a beaut, and the associated apps are something as well. SP]

My op-ed from last week’s Ottawa Citizen:

More than 80 per cent of Canadians believe there is “solid evidence” that the Earth has got warmer in recent decades, according to a survey released recently by think-tank Canada 2020 in co-operation with the University of Montreal. The same study found that 77 per cent of Canadians are concerned about global warming/climate change, and that nearly nine in 10 agree that the federal government ought to play a leading role in addressing the issue.

These results are at once a vindication and a repudiation of the Green Party of Canada. It is a validation of the idea that Canadians are concerned about climate change, and want to elect representatives who will act decisively on the issue.

Just as clearly however, it’s a rejection of the idea that the Green party can fulfil that need within the confines of Canada’s electoral system. Even as Canadians achieve consensus on the need for action on climate change, the party remains mired at about five-per-cent support nationally. The Greens have been utterly unable to leverage nearly universal concern about the environment into increased electoral support.

It’s not their fault, of course. The challenges facing the Green party are structural, and unlikely to be overcome absent a change in Canadian electoral law. In first-past-the-post political systems such as ours, only a small number of parties can achieve success at any given time. Moreover, competitive parties almost always identify themselves with a broad philosophy of governance applicable in general terms to any political issue, which in turn constitutes part of the bedrock of trust on which broad electoral success is built.

The Green party defines itself by an issue of concern, rather than a governing philosophy. In a proportional representation system, that can be enough to attract significant support. In a system like Canada’s, it is demonstrably not. Outside a small handful of ridings in the country, a vote for the Greens remains a protest vote, and that’s simply not good enough any more.

As Postmedia has reported, Canadians have moved from a debate about whether we should take action on climate change, to what kind of solutions we ought to pursue. Accordingly, the Green party must think hard about how it can contribute most constructively to this new phase of the discussion.

Here is my proposal: the Green party should abandon the pursuit of electoral victory, and embrace a new role in Canadian politics as a Green Network dedicated to support competitive candidates who have made credible commitments to act on climate change, regardless of party affiliation.

I call it the Kenobi Option. (Stay with me here.) Long story short, in the original Star Wars movie Obi-Wan Kenobi recognized that with his own personal flaws, he could never accomplish his goals (i.e. defeating the evil Darth Vader and more generally saving the galaxy). He decided his best option was to give up his own struggle, but did so in a way that granted him a different sort of power. He gained the ability to influence, to work with, to teach someone who had a chance to carry out that greater mission.

The Green party could do something similar. It could recognize its inherent limitations, and agree to abandon its current party form, in exchange becoming the backbone of a powerful movement in Canadian politics.

At base, this Green Network would work with its members in each riding in the run-up to each election to: 1) push all candidates to more progressive environmental positions and then; 2) work with local voters to select and support one candidate in each riding as a “green champion” for that riding around which green voters could coalesce. To be a champion, a candidate would: a) be judged to have made credible commitments to pursue meaningful action on climate change; and b) be highly competitive electorally.

This change would achieve a number of effects. By removing one name from the ballot, it would by definition reduce the likelihood of vote splitting among pro-environmental candidates. The selection of a green champion would further ease voter co-ordination among the remaining candidates. The result? The mandate—indeed a responsibility—to push for action. Between elections, the network would be well positioned to ensure MPs elected with its support honoured their pledges, since those that did not would risk the loss of the “green bump” in subsequent elections.

There are secondary benefits as well. Former Green party members—a dedicated and resourceful group of politically active citizens—would be free to join other political parties, and could work to strengthen existing environmental caucuses there. Rather than encouraging Canadians to elect the Green party, they would instead be working to ensure that whichever party Canadians ended up electing was greener – an approach analogous to effective lobbying campaigns. Finally, a pan-party network would provide a new space for communication and co-operation within our polarized political institutions.

So come on, Greens! Strike yourselves from the ballot and become more powerful than you (or we) could possibly imagine. You rightly pride yourselves on encouraging creative thinking in the face of the environmental challenges that confront us. It’s time to start thinking creatively about the political problems we face as well.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Follow him at Twitter.com/StewartPrest.


I’ve also turned the article into a call for dialogue between environmentally-sensitive voters within and outside the Green Party. Please read, sign, and share it here if you’re interested.

photo credit: like, totally via photopin cc

Breast Practices, revisited

[This is an expanded version of an earlier post. It was kicking around unpublished and unloved, so thought I might as well post it.]

Some weeks back Amanda Watson made an impassioned plea in the Ottawa Citizen against the Ontario government’s decision to promote of breastfeeding as the most effective way for a mother to feed her child. Watson argues that there is no scientific consensus in support of what she terms the “myth” that breastfeeding constitutes the best way to feed children.

However, health authorities around the world have concluded just the opposite: while there are studies that question some of these findings, the preponderance of evidence points to breastfeeding as the best way to feed infants. As Watson herself points out, in undertaking this campaign Ontario joins a host of other government agencies: Health Canada, the United States’ National Institutes of Health, The United Kingdom’s National Health Service, Germany’s Ministry for Health, UNICEF, the World Health Organization… the list goes on, each one adopting a stance similar to Ontario’s.

To clarify why such support cannot be so lightly dismissed, it may be helpful to recall a key adage of politics (and we are talking politics here): follow the money. Assume for a moment that these health agencies are wrong, that there is no robust scientific evidence in support of breastfeeding. Why would they all claim that there was, and use that claim to push the same wrong-headed policy? The most likely explanation would be the presence of an effective and well-funded pro-breastfeeding lobby campaign: governments under the sway of Big Breast, as it were. Basically, someone would have to be making a buck off breastfeeding.

In reality, of course, it’s just the opposite. Formula is a multi-billion dollar industry, whereas aside from a few pillow and pump makers, no one makes a dime off of breast milk. Accordingly, the recommendation to breastfeed comes in spite of, not because of, industry lobbying. Agency heads in country after country believe that it helps them fulfill their mandate: ensuring a healthier population. If anything, the question to ask is why the Ontario government took so long to announce a program like this, given how many other places already have something similar in place.

Having said all that, I hasten to add that children who are bottle-fed generally end up fine too, so long as parents have access to necessities like clean drinking water (a key caveat). While my wife breastfeeds our young son, I was bottle-fed, and I turned out all right. I’m told I’m nice enough, and good fun at parties. Well, I was before I became a young parent. Now I’m usually in bed before the party starts.

One can hold the position that breastfeeding carries distinct advantages, without also holding the position that bottle-feeding is inherently wrong in all situations. In some cases, it’s exactly right.

Some of the greatest collateral damage from the so-called Mommy Wars has resulted from the stigmatization of anything other than a “best” parenting technique. The damage is all the more widespread given that conceptions of best practice vary over time, and across jurisdictions and cultures. Moreover, the level of vitriol in such debate is often out of all proportion with the actual difference in outcomes resulting from various parenting choices. As in many things perspective remains as important as it is elusive.

In the case of infant feeding, some mothers simply don’t want to nurse. Others can’t. Their kids will still turn out all right, again assuming things like access to clean water. On issues like this, parents should be free to make such choices from a position of knowledge and support, but also tolerance.

Any campaign of the sort Ontario is now undertaking should have three basic goals:

First, give new and expectant mothers and fathers the best information available regarding the different feeding options available to them. Clarify what we know, and where the evidence remains inconclusive. In the case of breast feeding, we know that there are a variety of benefits, both nutritional and otherwise for both child and nursing mother; we also know that formula is another viable option, assuming the presence of certain requisites like purified water, even if it doesn’t provide all the same benefits as breast milk.

Second, provide parents with the resources needed to follow through on their informed choices. For all the talk of breastfeeding as the natural choice, nursing is a skill, and (so I’m told) often a tricky one at that. Many women give up on it, not for lack of knowledge or desire, but simply out of frustration or (much worse) the fear that their baby isn’t gaining weight quickly enough while mother and infant work together to first learn and eventually master the process.

In the days and months following the birth of our young son, we—admittedly, I’m using that word somewhat loosely here—worked with a fantastic lactation consultant at Vancouver Women’s Hospital’s breastfeeding outpatient clinic, a service the hospital provides free of charge without referral. Nurses at the hospital and community centre drop-ins were knowledgeable and supportive as well. That kind of accessible institutional support was incredibly important to our young family, and is vital to the success of a state-led breastfeeding campaign.

Other kinds of resources are important, too. Watson in her article quite rightly brings up the issue of mothers in conditions of working poverty. It’s a serious problem in Canada, bigger than many of us realize. However, for me the solution is not to push mothers towards more work-friendly parenting choices, particularly relatively expensive ones like formula feeding.

In my view, the right approach is to provide better financial and social support for young mothers both in and out of the workplace, to enable them to make the choices they are most comfortable with. Family allowances, progressive federal and provincial support for maternity leave, publicly funded daycare… these are the kinds of programs that help keep young mothers and their children out of poverty.

Finally, ensure the acknowledgement of, and support for, diverse parental choices.  Any government health campaign to some extent renders public what were previously solely private life choices. Whenever that happens, caution ought to be a guiding principle. In the case of infant nutrition, once parents have been informed of the options and resources available, they should be free to choose the path that best suites their particular circumstances, so long as their choices don’t endanger the child.

Parenting is hard enough without dealing with stigmatization from those who would do some things differently—a group that, as new mothers and fathers quickly learn, includes just about everyone.

photo credit: detail from genibee via photopin cc

Thoughts on Refugees, Sweden, and Margaret Wente

The following is a guest post by Alex Fielding. Alex is a human rights lawyer from Camrose, Alberta (and a good friend of mine), who is currently living in Stockholm with his family. — SP

While Margaret Wente’s editorials are thought provoking and initially appealing to read, they are also frequently and disappointingly misleading whenever you dig beneath the surface, particularly with her June 1 piece in the Globe and Mail (“Sweden’s immigration consensus is in peril“). I am a Canadian living in Sweden taking Swedish classes with immigrants from Iraq and Syria and have followed the immigration debate closely. It has been frustrating to see much of the media’s portrayal of the violence in Stockholm’s suburbs, particularly the international media, which inevitably fails to mention how older refugees in those suburbs have denounced this violence by young, angry men.

The biggest problem with Wente’s editorial is her conflation of immigration and refugee policy.  She seems to be critiquing Sweden’s admittedly generous refugee policy (which accepts many Somalis, Afghanis, Syrians and Iraqis regardless of skills and education), but then lumps it together with their immigration policy, which in fact only accepts “economic immigrants” (as opposed to refugees or family-class immigrants or EU citizens) if they have a letter from an employer that has been vetted by the migration board to ensure the wage is appropriate.

For example, Wente states that “Unlike Canada, Sweden doesn’t select for skills, education or the potential to succeed.”  This is simply wrong.  Like Sweden, Canada doesn’t accept refugees based on skills, education or the “potential to succeed” but rather the risk of torture and violence if they were to return to their country of origin.  And like Sweden, Canada restricts economic immigrants based on employment needs. Sweden requires a letter of employment as mentioned above. It is hard to fathom a better indicator of the “potential to succeed” for economic immigrants than a job offer.

Yes, there are problems with Swedish immigration and integration, which cannot simply be solved by more benefits.  But these problems, in contrast with Canada, have much to do with the previously very homogenous nature of Swedish society, the fact that immigrants need to speak fluent Swedish not English (which most of them already speak), and an unspoken suspicion of certain immigrants amongst employers who use the same kind of logic underpinning Wente’s article.  For example, in a recent exercise reported by The Local, an English-language newspaper in Sweden, a Romanian student sent 20 CVs out with his name, and 20 more with common  Swedish names. He received zero responses from the first 20, and 13 interview offers from the second set. And he was Romanian, so presumably a few steps above the “semi-literate people from the tribal cultures of the Middle East or Africa” on Wente’s hierarchy of immigrants.

Refugee policy is different from immigration policy and must be assessed differently. Sweden is significantly more generous than Canada in accepting refugees from places like Somalia, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, who would otherwise face a high risk of violence, torture or even death, an issue that Wente conspicuously fails to mention. Shutting the doors to Syrian refugees when 80,000+ civilians have already been killed, most of them by a brutal dictator, is not such an easy, cut-and-dry solution. Sweden has taken in a disproportionate amount of refugees relative to other countries like Canada because the doors of these countries are often closed.  In 2012, Canada took in 5,412 refugees, a 26 % drop from 2011. Sweden took in 12,576 refugees that same year, more than double that of Canada in a country with less than 1/3 of its population.

Of course these refugees have more integration issues than educated and skilled economic immigrants, and Sweden must continually try to improve its program of integration in an open yet respectful dialogue. That said, asylum-seekers should not be judged on their skills and education, but the risk to their lives and their families’ lives.  Sending them back to daily sectarian attacks in Iraq, chronic instability in Somalia, civilian attacks in Afghanistan, or Syria’s humanitarian disaster and civil war is not the answer to the violence by a small minority of angry young men. We are lucky to have been born in Canada, but instead of misconceiving that luck as something we have earned and must protect against outsiders, we should recognize that privilege and carry it with some humility, generosity and respect.

Oh, Split!

So, did the Greens really split the vote in last night’s BC election? That’s the claim being made by many today. There are a couple of ways to consider this question. The simplest is to examine the margin of victory in the election, and compare it to the Greens’ result. The GP captured just over 130,000 votes, or 8% of the total; in comparison, the margin of victory was about 80,000 votes, or 4.9%. If we simply take the GP total and add it to the NDP, the Dippers come out on top.

Click to make bigger.

We can get a little fancier and repeat the exercise on a district-by-district basis. There were 61 districts with Green candidates running, and in 23 of them, their vote share exceeded the margin of victory. 12 were won by Liberals, 10 by NDP, and 1 by the GP itself. (Congratulations Dr. Weaver!)  If we repeat the process from above and add the Green votes to the NDP totals, the revised result has the NDP gaining 13 seats, narrowly winning the election with a total of 46 seats to 38, with one independent. Again, vote splitting seems to be at work, right?

Not so fast.

Both the above approaches assume that, absent a Green Party, all Green voters would simply move en masse to vote for the NDP. This seems unlikely, however. Green parties at both provincial and federal levels regularly tout their ability to attract support from across the political spectrum, and to activate voters who have no strong ties to any of the other parties.[1] Accordingly, while some Green supporters probably would vote NDP, others would likely vote for the Liberals, and some might stay home.

Absent good polling data on BC Green voters’ second best options (and frankly, we don’t seem to have good polling data on anything right now), we can’t know for sure what percentage of Green supporters would do what in an alternate Green-less reality. What we can do, however, is calculate how many would have had to switch in order to make a difference.

For instance, let’s assume for a moment that the Green Party disappeared on the eve of yesterday’s election, and that all Green voters in fact either voted NDP, or else stayed home (or ate their ballots, or voted for the Work Less Party, or basically did anything but vote for the Liberals). This amounts to the easiest case for the vote splitting argument. In that case, what percentage of former Greens would have had to switch over to the NDP to flip the result? By my calculations, it’s right around 62%.[2][3] That is, three in every five Green Party partisans would have had to vote NDP, with none voting Liberal, to get the NDP to a 43 seat majority.

Conversely, we can assume that every single Green voter who doesn’t switch to NDP bolts instead to the Liberals. Under those conditions, obviously, a higher percentage of Green voters would have to vote NDP to make a difference. How high? My results indicate that more than 80% would have had to vote Orange to get the NDP to a majority.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between those two numbers, but at least we have a range in mind: somewhere between 60 and 80% of Green voters would have had to defect in order to tip the balance. While possible, it seems unlikely. Figure 1 illustrates.

As a final exercise, it’s worth thinking about the above in the context of vote splitting on the right. Had the Liberals and the NDP been the only two choices, with Conservatives siding with the former, and Greens voting with the latter. In that case, the Right would have won last night, 45 seats to 39.

So what’s the bottom line? While we can’t say anything definitive, we have clarified what we’re assuming when we talk about vote splitting. We are making assumptions—potentially strong ones, at that—about why voters vote, and how they view the options available to them. It may be the case that voting has tipped elections in the past (ahem), but it’s hard to argue that that’s what happened in British Columbia last night.

[1] Indeed, I’ve written elsewhere that this tendency is tantamount to a fatal flaw for Green Parties in a majoritarian system like ours, where voters depend upon a stable political “identity” in parties to guide their choices. To the extent that voters remain unclear what the Green Party’s governance “philosophy” is, they are unclear on what the party would do if actually elected to power. Would they raise taxes? Fund health care sufficiently? Devolve power to the provinces? Absent a reliable way to impute answers to such questions, most voters remain unlikely to trust Green Parties sufficiently to grant them even a share of power. That’s an argument for a different day, however.

[2] Basically, I’m assuming a constant rate of defection from Greens to NDP, with no counter-defection to the Liberals. This approach ignores regional variations, in that there are probably some areas of the province much more likely to break for NDP absent a Green option. In my defence, modeling that would be really hard, and this is just a blog post.

[3] Being satisfied with a minority would not have helped much at all. In fact, under these assumptions, there’s only one possible scenario in which the NDP could have achieved a minority: by winning exactly 42 seats. If they had done that, the Liberals would also have been reduced to 42. In that case, the tie-breaking Independent, Vicki Huntington, would have wielded the real power. As it happens, this would have been exceedingly unlikely outcome under this model, given that both Burnaby North and North Vancouver-Lonsdale flip between 61% and 62%.)

photo credit: pfos via photopin cc

The Kenobi Option

A PR Problem

For many progressives in Canada—particularly those without membership in an actual political party—the Holy Grail of Canadian political reform remains proportional representation. When unaffiliated progressives are sitting around on a Thursday night at their local tiki bar, whatever the conversation to that point, one of them invariably drains their craft IPA, looks around at the others, and declares, “of course, we wouldn’t have to worry about any of this if we could just get PR.” (Before you accuse me of picking on a certain demographic, let me say that as often as not I’ve been the guy holding the IPA in this particular vignette. It’s a 150 IBU ale, called Velhopciraptor, from a small Oregon brewery you probably haven’t heard of.)

The others solemnly nod their heads in agreement. “So true,” another says sadly, before flagging down the waitress to order a third ironic Mai Tai.

The problem, of course, is that Canadians thus far have stubbornly refused to embrace any form of PR, at any level. To date at least, it has been a non-starter each time it got onto a ballot.

“But the campaigns were handled badly!” shouts the progressive hipster in the corner, spilling a bit of his PBR in the process. “The BC Liberals totally didn’t give it a chance!”  Loud and angry calls of agreement threaten to drown out the Tegan and Sara’s newest. “McGuinty totally undermined the campaign’s education effort. It never had a prayer in Ontario!”

Hope continues that one day, Canadians will have the chance to vote on PR, without the influence of politicians (or, to be more specific, with exactly the right kind and right amount of influence from them). After that inevitable moment, Canadians will finally be able to vote their conscience, without having to squeeze their complex, nuanced political positions into the tiny boxes currently available under Canada’s majoritarian first-past-the-post (FPTP) partisan politics.

Until that happy day, progressive Canadians do the best they can. Some vote for the NDP, some for the Greens, some for the Liberals, and in Quebec, a some for the Bloc. Many others eschew the practice of voting altogether, channeling their considerable passion and knowledge in other directions entirely, opting out of the formal political process entirely until they can make a choice that reflects what they truly believe.

The problem with this kind of make-due/wait-it-out strategy is actually twofold. First, Canadians, by and large, really do seem to like their system the way it is. On issues of radical change, at this point in time at least, it’s probably fair to say Canadians really are small-c conservatives; the surprisingly strong (to me at least) disapproval of a coalition among so many Canadians provides some evidence of that. There are always those willing to tinker, and more who would go along with whatever system we end up with, but for many the question is, “why mess with a good thing? Our system has served us relatively well so far; we’ve fared better than most other countries have around the world. Sure it has its quirks, but who’s to say that a change would be a change for the better?” There’s no guarantee that Canadians will ever agree to make such a profound change, even if they get all the information they could use, and get it presented in a sufficiently impartial, yet authoritative manner.

Second, it’s no accident that parties with a strong chance of winning or holding a majority to-date have been less than enthusiastic about promoting a change that would render future majorities virtually unobtainable.  Why settle for a lifetime of tedious negotiation and coalition-building, when it’s possible to win it all? The complaint that sitting governments do less than they could to promote a switch to PR may be valid, but it misses the point that it’s actually unreasonable to expect them to do otherwise. They’ve won; why would they do anything to make it harder to win in the future? Even parties that lost might think along similar lines: if they have (or even think they have) a reasonable chance of forming a government some day in the near future, why make life harder on themselves? Why make compromise inevitable, when the possibility of winning outright remains?

There may even be an aspect of political culture at work here. Professional Canadian politicians know no other system than the majoritarian first-past-the-post model. That’s a confrontational style of government. Parties are rewarded for sharply disagreeing with each other, and generally enjoy little or no benefit—indeed, among ardent supporters they may even be penalized—for any act of compromise or conciliation with respect to the opposition. The very idea of moving from such a system to a new and unknown one that demands constant interparty cooperation to function must be a daunting one.

Worse, even if it does arrive, proportional representation might not provide the solutions so many hope for. While a PR system would give a new lease on life to the Greens and the presently stuck-in-third-place Liberals, there’s no guarantee we would end up with more workable system of government as a whole.

The Belgian example is an instructive one. Like Canada, it has a majority and a minority region, with the minority French population routinely returning separatist representatives to Brussels. Unlike Canada, its electoral system routinely forces different parties to forge governing coalitions, a common feature of virtually all PR systems. This has created significant instability in government; in 2010 and 2011, following one particularly contentious election, the country’s leaders took 541 days to form a new government. A significant sticking point was that no party could form a coalition without working with a separatist party, and no party was willing to take such a step. Sound familiar?

Simply put, separatist parties and PR systems can be a dangerous mix.[1]  Belgium was to some extent bailed out of this situation by its strong civil service, as well as the additional stability that comes to small states deeply integrated into the broader European governance networks. In that unique situation it has proven possible for a country to exist with little or no national political leadership for an extended period of time. Canada, conversely, has no such safeguards.

Taking all the above into consideration, maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the system to change, and find ways to make the current system work better.

So, what now? My proposal is to stop focusing on parties, whether new or existing, as the agents of change, and turn our attention to the creation of issue-based cross-party political networks that can influence all parties.  Specifically, I would like to see the Green Party transform itself into a “Green Network,” one encompassing voters from every party.

I’ve written about this before, but I think the idea is sufficiently important to warrant another treatment, so here goes. Stop me in the comments if you disagree with any point of the argument:

The Diagnosis:

  1. Let’s assume that Canada will retain a first-past-the-post system of government for the foreseeable future.
  2. Theory and empirical research on the subject suggests that over the long run, FPTP systems tend to support no more than two major parties capable of forming a government, along with at most one anti-system party. The finely balanced nature of the two main parties often results in a collapse towards the middle of the political system, as both parties compete to capture decisive centrist voters. A deviation from that centrist position is inevitably punished at the polls. (Think Tea Party here. The Republicans could have won back control of the Senate last year in the US elections; however, the radicalness of some of the candidates pushed through by the more radical Tea Party wing of the GOP were rejected by many Americans, even those inclined to oppose the Democrats during this particular electoral cycle.)
  3. Meanwhile, Canada currently features no less than four national parties, along with a fifth regionally based one.  The result has been a series of short-lived minority governments, stability achieved only with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s successful consolidation of right-leaning parties and voters. All other national level parties these parties tend to draw their support from the centre or centre-left of the political spectrum. The Conservatives sit alone on the right.
  4. With the inexorable effects of vote splitting (trust me, they’re real, and they’re spectacular significant), the Conservatives inevitably win many ridings where the majority of residents actually oppose their policies, leading to a kind of political inefficiency insofar as the government Canadians get is significantly to the right of the one that the typical (more precisely, the median) Canadian desires, a situation different than what one expects in such a FPTP system, with its typical two-parties-collapsing towards-the-median structure.
  5. Historically in Canada and elsewhere, this situation is eventually resolved through the consolidation of parties on the non-dominant side either through mergers or the outright victory of one over the others; once a two-party system is re-established, the collapse towards the median resumes.
  6. However, a constellation of factors seems to be preventing such a process from occurring among centre-left parties at the moment. the deeply entrenched mutual opposition of committed Liberal and NDP supporters prevents sustained cooperation between the country’s second and third biggest national parties. The presence of the separatism issue prevents cooperation between progressives in that province, and the unusual salience of environmental issues maintains the Green party’s existence, despite that party’s inability to win, rather than simply compete, in the vast majority of ridings across the country.
  7. Unless and until such a consolidation occurs, the Conservatives will not face a unified opposition capable of punishing them at the polls for deviating from the centrist position, and will be free to “govern to the right”, in closer accord with the true preferences of leading Conservatives and their strongest supporters than with wishes of the median Canadian voter.

So far, so good. There’s a logjam on the centre-left of the spectrum, and the Conservatives, so long as they are not gripped by scandal, get a free pass to go govern significantly to the right of centre because of it.  So, how to break the logjam?  This requires another bit of analysis:

  1. Again looking at the history of majoritarian systems in Canada and elsewhere, it’s fair to say that most successful parties are “answer-based” parties. They espouse a particular philosophy of governance, one that makes it easy for voters—most of whom lack both the time and the inclination to thoroughly read each platforms, (a perfectly defensible position incidentally, given how bad platforms are at predicting how a party will actually govern)—to figure out what that party would do on any one of a range of issues. This makes it easy to create and maintain a bond of identity between voter and party. There’s a reason that so many countries have a more “conservative” party, and a more “liberal” party.
  2. The Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives are all “answer parties.” Each has a reasonably coherent philosophy of governance, and if one includes provincial politics, all parties have some track record to provide bonafides for their adherence (or at times the lack thereof) to that philosophy. Indeed, they have been sufficiently successful in crafting an independent identity that leaders and party faithful in both Liberal and the NDP camps remain extremely resistant to any kind of long-term cooperation, much less a merger, despite the fact that for virtually all of them such a merger would give them a far greater chance of forming a government of the centre-left, one much closer to their respective ideals than the current rightist Conservative one.
  3. The Bloc and the Greens are different. The Bloc is actually something of a hybrid. It exists only because of a single issue, but it has managed to craft a reasonably stable identity as a leftist, progressive party.[2] However, barring some significant change in the sentiment of most English Canadians, so long as it continues to espouse a separatist agenda, it will remain impossible for other progressive parties to work with in any kind of formal alliance type of arrangement, particularly one that rhymes with pole position.

That leaves the Green party. It is not an answer party. It remains difficult to ascertain exactly what the governing philosophy of the Greens would be, scaring away all but the most passionate environmentally-motivated voters. Worse, it remains difficult to even say what the Greens would do on environmental issues. It’s clear they would do something, if elected, but there’s no clear guide to what that something would be, beyond the party’s electoral platform (again, worth paper it’s printed on), and the positions adopted by the leader (subject to change the next time the leader does.) So, if I’m an environmental voter, but feel strongly that a Carbon tax is a terrible idea, I don’t actually know whether to vote for the Greens or not. Basically, the way the party is constituted is virtually unelectable in large numbers within the context of a majoritarian FPTP system.

The Obi-Wan Solution

To some extent this may look like it’s leading to a call for the Green Party of Canada (GPC) to disband. The fact that my last piece began with the sentence, “it’s times like this I wished the Green Party would disband,” probably does little to dispel the impression.

So, it’s a fair cop. The initial burden of what I’m about to propose falls heaviest on the GPC. Even so, I think it’s also fair to characterize my impending proposal as a step away from the quest for power, in favour of a quest for real influence over the way our country is governed.

Obi-Wan Kenobi provides a useful comparison. (Bet you were wondering when I’d get around to that! It’s what they refer to in “the business” as a tease.)  Stay with me… you’ve made it this far. In the Star Wars movies, Obi-Wan died, and in so doing, gave up his earthly form. However, he saw his death as serving a greater purpose. He recognized that with his own personal flaws (i.e. advanced age), he could never accomplish his goal of defeating Vader and the Emperor, and generally saving the galaxy.  In dying however, he gained a new and greater power to influence — to work with, to reason with, to teach — another who had a real chance at accomplishing Kenobi’s ultimate objective.

This is analogous to what I think the Green Party should do: recognize the inherent limitations of its current structure and agree to abandon its party form. In exchange however, I think it can become the backbone of a powerful new kind of entity in Canadian politics: a network of supporters committed to action on issues related to the environment. Green party candidates and supporters essentially remain connected with one another and committed to coordinating on issues of environmental action, but would move to support whichever “answer party” aligns most closely with their own political philosophy.

The Green Network, which would retain a formal structure and central decision-making ability, would then work with its members in each riding in the run-up to each election to 1) push all candidates to more progressive environmental positions and 2) anoint one candidate in each riding the “Green candidate” based on a) their own, and their party’s, commitments to environmental action, and b) the candidate’s own intrinsic electability, independent of Green support.

This would have a number of effects:

First, it would immediately reduce the likelihood of vote splitting. The recent by-election in Calgary Centre is instructive. The Liberal candidate finished second to the Conservative, who gained about 36% of the vote, supported by roughly 1 in 3 voters. The Liberal lost by less than 1200 votes, out of a total of more than 27,000 casts. The Green Candidate, author Chris Turner, finished a strong third, with more than 7,000 votes cast. Had the Liberal candidate attracted one Green supporter in five, he would have won.

Second, it would make it more likely that the candidates who are elected—particularly among progressive parties already nominally committed to action on environmental policies—will actively pursue a green agenda in office. Imagine that by-election happened, but instead of a Green candidate, there had been a Green Network. The network would have worked hard to extract commitments from all candidates made strong and clear commitments to take action on environmental issues. They then would have picked one; it probably would have been Locke, given his own very convincing bonafides on environmental issues, combined with his strong support in the polls prior to Election Day.

That signal then gives all progressive voters, including not only Green Network members, but potentially all voters torn between Liberal and NDP candidates, a way to coordinate their votes. In this case, they know that Locke would be getting the “Green Bump,” and could vote accordingly.

Had he been elected, Locke would have owed a portion of his success to the Green Network, which could then use that fact, combined with Locke’s own prior commitments on the issue, to push him to support strong action on green issues. If he fails, the Network can always make that fact well known in the next election.

Third, it would push all parties to make stronger commitments on environmental issues.  It would do this through both an electoral mechanism, and an organizational one. The electoral mechanism works as follows: currently, there is a strong disincentive to take too strong a stance on the environment for all parties without the word “Green” in their name. The presence of a Green candidate ensures that voters who care about the environment will likely not be convinced to switch allegiance; there is thus little payoff to make an appeal to them. Conversely, there remain many voters (a clear minority in Canada, but a significant one) who are suspicious of action on climate change, and any strong commitment to such action threatens to alienate those voters. There is thus little to win, and much to lose, in staking out a strong environmental position. Obviously, this effect disappears in the absence of a Green party.

The organizational effect is a little more subtle, but possibly even more important. The Green Party is currently the political home to the majority—possibly the vast majority—of politically active Canadians who care about environmental issues.  They are currently pushing for political change in a party that is, as we have already discussed, unelectable. There is a cost to that concentration. If the Green Party stopped competing for votes, each of those politically active Canadians, committed to seeing the country take stronger action on environmental issues, would be free to join another party, one that matches their own political philosophy. They could strengthen whatever environmental caucus exists among long-time members, and push their adopted political home to stake out stronger positions on the environment, and follow through on those commitments if elected.

Fourth, the move would help move the discussion from “whether Canada should do something about climate change,” to “what should Canada do?” We are currently still largely stuck on the former position, despite the fact that polls consistently show that a majority of Canadians believe we should be doing more, indeed that they are “embarrassed” by our country’s current position on the issue. As discussed above, the Green Party is very good at forcing Canadians to think about whether we should do more, but is ill equipped to take part in a discussion about what should be done. Conversely, this is a form of debate that comes naturally to Canada’s traditional “answer parties.” After an election in which the parties have been forced, through the above mechanisms, to stake out clear positions on the environment, the winner will be in a much stronger position to follow through on the specific commitments they made; and if they do not, the Green Network will be there to follow up, and ask them publicly, “why not?”

Fifth and finally, the presence of a network crossing party lines, one that encompasses grassroots members along with elected MPs, would open up new avenues of communication and cooperation in our stubbornly confrontation, anti-cooperative political system.  To quote from my previous article, “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.” Our system currently rewards intransigence, and punishes cooperation; a Green Network could be a powerful force reversing those incentives, at least on issues related to the environment.

So come on, Obi-Green Kenobi! Do the right thing. Strike yourselves from the ballot, and become more powerful than you (or we) could possibly imagine.

photo credit: mac_filko via photopin cc

[1] This does not even consider the long-running debates regarding the relative advantages of PR and majoritarian systems with regard to government effectiveness. It’s at lease conceivable that a PR-governed Canada would have a more representative, but ultimately less-effective government, one hamstrung by the efforts to build and maintain coalitions among the many fractious fault lines in this unique country.

[2] As an aside, I think this has actually both helped and hindered their quest for sovereignty. On the one hand, it has made both them and the Parti Quebecois much more electable; on the other, to the extent that they are a reliable party of government, it has been difficult at times for them to claim that their support is support for sovereignty. Even when they have been successful, to many Quebecois they have simply represented the best progressive option available.

Legends in Our Own Minds

Separating the Myth and Reality of Canada’s Position on Climate Change

In what we hope will be a recurring feature at PATWD, this is a guest post written by Kate Neville, a recent PhD graduate in political science at the University of British Columbia, and Jennifer Allan, a PhD candidate in the same program. It offers a clear-eyed appraisal of the contradictions that exist between Canadians’ environmental politics and our national self-identity.


“No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert
the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for
humanity immeasurably diminished.”

~World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, 1992 (as quoted by David Suzuki)

Two decades later, at the opening of 2013, the warning penned by over 1700 scientists in 1992 seems to have been largely ignored by the political leaders of the world. At best, our collective responses to climate change seem to be small, incremental changes in regulatory limits. Economic penalties linked with emissions are paltry. The conversation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the world’s negotiating platform on climate change — seems to focus more on capturing and sequestering carbon than reducing emissions.

So what has been Canada’s response? Unfortunately, our attitude towards the environment is riven by contradictions Continue reading

Making it Easier to Be Green

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.


Help take a bite out of Canada’s enviro-political problem!

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.

photo credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE via photopin cc
photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc