Canada and the US: Global Laggards?

So, the chastisers become the chastisees.

In an odd coincidence of timing, the US and Canada both came in for significant critique from senior UN actors on separate issues today. The US was on the business end of a statement statement from experts at the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the grand jury acquittals in the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called out Canada for its particularly poor performance on climate change in an interview with CBC’s Peter Mansbridge released today. Neither is a sight one would not have expected even a decade ago, but both incidents suggest that the two countries have, in their own way, fallen far behind on on issues of global significance, and are hearing about it from the key representatives of the international community.
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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


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

Green Network, Plan B

As I discussed in a recent op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen, I have an idea about how to change Canadian politics on the environment. The problem is that don’t have a lot of spare time on my hands. I’ve got two young sons to take care of, a PhD dissertation to finish, mercenary research-for-hire to conduct, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped!

So I need some help. The original idea for the Green Party to shift in form and method from a formal party encouraging people to vote for an all-too-often marginal Green Party, to encouraging Canadians to vote for the greenest electable candidate.

Needless to say, I’m waiting by the phone for a call from high ranking Green Party officials to ask for advice on how best to wind down their party, and wind up the Green Network. Somewhat mysteriously however, no such call has come just yet.

Luckily, I have a Plan B, to tide us over until the Greens come around. The goals are still the same as that previous scheme, namely to mobilize “small-g” green voters to vote for candidates that can actually win, and send representatives to Parliament willing and able to change Canada’s unacceptable legislative and diplomatic record on the environment. The means are different, however: a little less institutionalization, a little more grass roots organization. This is how it goes (though obviously every step is open to debate):

Step 1: a national campaign, prior to the election, encouraging Canadians concerned about the environment to pledge to become “small-g voters.” It would be a commitment along the following lines:

“I am a small-g green voter. I will vote for a green champion in my riding, supporting the most competitive candidate that I believe will make a real difference in Canada’s approach to climate change.”

Step 2: a crowd-sourced effort—an obvious format for organizing this step would be a kind of wiki—to identify green champions in each riding in the run up to the election. The key question to answer is this: among candidates who can actually win (to my mind this generally means polling first or second, or perhaps third in close contests), who do we think has the most credible commitment to support strong federal government action on the environment? Put differently, who is the most environmentally conscious and committed candidate among those who are actually electable?

As election date grows closer, each riding could have its own page, on which contributors could debate the merits of the candidates. There would have to be some way to police overt partisanship, but this should be manageable with the right safeguards in place for contributor registration. There could also be separate discussions of each party platform, since the party’s positions are obviously an important consideration in assessing any given candidate’s environmental credibility. Candidates for some parties can claim to have credibility on environmental issues given previous actions and current positions; others cannot.

Step 3: Promotion of both the pledge and the consensus green champions prior to and especially during the next election. While the pledge is worded to empower each voter to select their champion themselves, obviously the more that every small-g voter agrees in a given riding on who that champion is, the more likely their votes are going to result in an environmentally friendly outcome.

This process should have a number of effects. First, simply by mobilizing green-conscious voters as an identifiable (and woo-able) group within the population, it incentivises all parties to compete for those votes by adopting more aggressive environmental policies. The result ought to be that all (or at least most) parties become more committed to quick and definitive action on climate change.

Second, the selection of “green champions” at the riding level helps to coordinate voters at the level that matters most for choosing our government. Elsewhere I discuss how in many places in the country, green voters actually hold the balance of power at the riding level.

That’s it, at least for now. Once the election is over, new tasks would emerge, such as keeping tabs on promises made, kept, and broken—information vital for determining whether incumbents elected with green network support have lived up to their commitments, and ought to be supported in subsequent elections.

I think this is doable. It requires is a bit of help to get started—most importantly in setting up some sort of web presence, and giving the idea some sort of push into the internetal ether—encouraging as many people as possible to commit to being a small g voter (#smallgvoter for those of you on the twitter) in the next election.

Then, as election time draws closer, additional tasks would include assembling research on candidate positions on the environment. This could be done passively by relatively few volunteers using means such as parsing of candidate statements on relevant subjects, reviewing results in previous elections, and collating riding level polling data where available. With more help, it could also be done actively through the administration of short questionnaires to candidates, asking questions about policies they would support, their stances on Kyoto and Copenhagen, their willingness to reach across the aisle to achieve action on climate change, etc.

Comments below are welcome. If you think this so crazy it just might work, I’d like to hear that; if it’s too crazy (or not crazy enough!) I want to hear that too. If you’re interested in helping see where an idea like this can go, well obviously I’d like to hear about that.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc