The Green malaise

The leader of Manitoba’s Green Party quietly resigned at the party’s AGM in November 2013. The resignation of James Beddome wasn’t widely reported until about a week later. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is a lack of interest in a party that has never come close to electing a member to the Legislative Assembly.

The Green Party of Canada and any of its provincial counterparts have notoriously had a hard time gaining traction in Canada. The only province where Greens have found any success is British Columbia, where they were able to pick up their first seat in the provincial legislature in 2013. The BC Greens have actually maintained a relatively high percentage of the popular vote.  After a high of twelve per cent in 2001, they have captured over eight per cent in every election since, numbers that would make every Green in the country envious. Of course it was also in British Columbia where the Green Party of Canada won their first federal seat with leader, Elizabeth May, capturing a Vancouver-Island seat from a Conservative cabinet minister in 2011.

The election of the first Green Member of Parliament may have served as a sign of encouragement for the Manitoba Greens ahead of the provincial election later that year, but it didn’t have much effect on the voters of Manitoba. The party made its smartest strategic decision running the leader Beddome in Wolseley, the riding where it had placed second in 2007. Beddome captured a Green Party high of 1368 votes in the riding but was still defeated by nearly 3000 votes by NDP incumbent Rob Altemeyer.

May’s victory in BC was also a bit of shrewd politicking. Like the Manitoba Greens, the federal party prior to 2011 had run its leader in no hope ridings, which accomplished very little. The Greens instead focused much of their resources on getting their leader elected into the House of Commons. The strategy saw them elect an MP but led to a large drop in popular support throughout the country. Total votes were almost cut in half falling from almost 950,000 to less than 600,000. May’s time in the House of Commons has also done very little in enhancing the Greens political brand. At almost every opportunity May has tried her hardest to elect more Liberals than Greens. She decided the party should not run a candidate in the Labrador byelection, and also urged the NDP to do the same. More recently she entertained the idea of not running a candidate in the Brandon-Souris byelection, a riding which the Greens have had some of their stronger showings, placing third in 2008 and 2011.

It is hard to understand why Elizabeth May leads a political party and isn’t leading an environmental lobby group committed to electing members with strong environmental credentials and commitments to scientific evidence. Scientific evidence though, is also where May finds herself in a bit of trouble. May and her party have been questioned over its support for Homeopathy, effects of wi-fi on children, opposition to fluoridation of water, and genetically modified foods. Issues which may be in line with May and many Green Party supporter beliefs, but perhaps not fully in line with evidence-based public policy. It is these types of issues that have led the only provincial Green Party with an elected member, the Green Party of BC, to clearly state its opposition to any types of non-evidence based fringe movements almost in a clear rebuke of its federal counterpart.

In the first-past-the-post system we use in Canada, the Greens are at a clear disadvantage, which is why cooperation with other parties is so often considered. The party once led by a former Progressive Conservative had potential to cut across traditional party boundaries and appeal to Canadians of all stripes who believe in protecting the environment while maintaining fiscal responsibility.  With May’s constant flirting with the Liberals and New Democrats and embracing of questionable scientific policies she appears to only be appealing to stereotypical environmentalists and no one else.  The federal Green caucus was recently doubled when a former NDP MP decided to sit as a Green instead of an independent. A Former Liberal MP made a similar move in 2008 to become the first ever Green MP, before subsequently losing reelection just months later. So that precedent isn’t all that encouraging for the party.

Closer to home, one of the last times the Manitoba Greens made headlines was when the possibility of merging with the Manitoba Liberal party emerged. That idea was tossed aside emphatically by the Liberals and resulted in suspensions of two of their members for speaking out on the issue. Merger or cooperation between the two parties was never discussed during the recent Liberal leadership campaign so it wouldn’t appear to be a consideration for the new Liberal leader, Rana Bokhari. The possibility of a rejuvenated Liberal Party will be yet another concern for the woeful Greens as they will have to fight that much harder for the voters looking for a change from the NDP. The latest polls have shown the Greens to languish behind the Liberals and they have not appeared to gain any of the support the NDP has been shedding as of late. We can’t read much into the results of the recent by-elections as the Greens didn’t run candidates in Arthur-Virden or Morris in 2011.

A date for a leadership contest is yet to be set. The struggling Liberals were able to attract three candidates to challenge for their leadership so it’s entirely possible that a few will step up, but the Green challenges are much bigger than the Liberal’s and that says a lot. With all of the struggles the party has and will continue to face it’s hard to imagine the Greens ever becoming more than a party that is pushing a narrow environmentalist agenda to a small number of hardcore supporters.

Kelly McCrae is a former PC caucus staffer and is currently a public affairs consultant with Grey Owl Public Affairs. Follow him at: @kellymccrae