The Green Party
Are the Greens close to a breakthrough?
Last Updated Nov. 29, 2006
Green party leader Elizabeth May campaigns in London, Ont. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)
A loss, but a victory of sorts is how the Green party framed its second-place showing in the November 2006 byelection.
Its new leader, environmentalist Elizabeth May, hit the streets in London, Ont., with the help of independent MP Garth Turner (who, for a short period of time, was rumoured to be a Green party target). It was a street battle, with the Liberals hoping to keep a longtime seat, the Tories anxious to receive a quasi mid-term report card from the public and the Greens eying the seat with intentions of making history.
At the end of the day, the Liberals won, but the Green party, with 25.9 per cent of the vote, billed it as a coming of age. "We are electable," May said. "We have a full party. The Green party really has arrived."
Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political scientist, told CBC.ca he doesn't think the byelection result was historic, however. "I think it gives them a lot of energy but I don't see it carrying."
So where is the Green party, and when and how does it find its electoral breakthrough?
A long time coming
Over the years, the party has secured more votes and has gained more funding. It also been able to field a full slate of candidates in the past two elections.
Despite gains in popular support, the party still hasn't won a seat in Parliament and the trappings of prestige and media exposure that comes with it.
In 1984, the fledgling party ran 60 candidates and got 27,000 votes nationwide. It continued growth — albeit slow — over the next four elections. By 2000, the Green party got 104,502 votes, good enough for 0.81 per cent of the popular vote. It was the next election that would propel the party to national prominence.
In the past two elections, the party ran a full slate of 308 candidates and in 2004, more than 580,000 Canadians voted Green. With more than two per cent of the popular vote, the party qualified for election financing of $1.79 a voter.
The 2006 election saw more gains: 665,940 votes, 4.5 per cent of the popular vote. The Greens would have won as many as 14 seats if Canada used proportional representation.
The riding level
So, rather than on the national stage, the battles being fought at the riding level. May's share of the popular vote in the London North Centre byelection was the best the party ever had in a federal setting. The winning Liberal got 34.9 per cent of the vote. May won 25.9 per cent, followed by the Conservatives (24.4 per cent) and the NDP (14.1 per cent). Compared with the 2006 election, the Greens gained 20.5 percentage points while the three big parties lost ground, and the biggest loser, a 9.5 point drop, was the NDP.
The latest results highlighted a fact of life for the Greens: They will have to fight for votes against at least three established parties in all ridings.
Wiseman likens Green party support to thinly spread "jam on bread" in that it is not concentrated in strategic é winnable é ridings.
The NDP, for example, doesn't have as much support as the Conservatives and Liberals, but is able to do well in areas where the party's vote is strong.
Gains at the riding level
But the Greens are making more gains in individual riding battles. In the 2004 ballot, Elections Canada says that there were three ridings in which a Green candidate got between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the vote. In the last election, there were eight ridings in which the party did that: three ridings in Ontario, four in Alberta and one in British Columbia.
|Riding||Province||% of vote|
|Calgary Centre North||Alberta||11.8%|
|B.C. Southern Interior||B.C.||11.3%|
So what lessons can we take from the by election? Wiseman says we shouldn't read too much into the byelection result.
"The reality of a byelection is that people know that they are not going to change the complexion of the nation," he said. "It's a way to let off steam." He said voters knew they could send a "symbolic message" in sending a Green party member of Parliament and still did not send May. In the next election, if May doesn't run in London, he says there's a very good chance the Green party candidate would drop back down to single-digit support.
The next election, Wiseman says, will present voters with largely one choice: Which one of two parties will I support? He says third parties like the Green party would not fare as well in that type of an election.
"I would be surprised if the Green party gets six per cent nationally, and that it will get more than ten per cent in London North Centre if May doesn't run there," he said.
Is there hope?
Observers looking at the atmosphere that brought the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party to Ottawa can draw some conclusions. With the decline of the Progressive Conservatives, the new parties made major gains. The Bloc already had established a presence in the Commons as Liberal and Conservative MPs broke away to form the Bloc. Gilles Duceppe was the first MP elected as a Bloc member.
In Reform's case, it took a byelection in 1989 to make Deborah Grey a member of Parliament that helped usher the way for future electoral successes. Grey was elected in 1989 with an overwhelming 49 per cent of the vote. Just a year earlier, in the 1988 federal election, she came in a distant fourth place with 13.3 per cent of the vote.
In lobbying for a place in the national TV debates, the Green party has cited Preston Manning's appearance on the strength of one MP and how it helped the Reform movement. And it seems like the barrier is whether it can have a seat in the Commons.
Wiseman thinks that the best chance for the Greens to make gains — and ultimately, get a seat— is that the Greens be given a chance to take part in the national television debates. Alongside other leaders, the party could offer a "fresh face."
But he warns that since other parties have been sounding off on environmental issues, the environment is now, "everyone's issue. It's not clear that Greens own the environment issues."
Then, of course, there are other factors that the party can't control, Wiseman said.
"If other parties collapse then you have a really tight race and the potential to slip up the middle," he said. Case in point is the 1993 election that brought the Conservatives down to two seats and brought the full arrival of two new parties.
"Not all things are constant in politics," Wiseman said.
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