British Columbia·Analysis

Is the B.C. Green Party surge different this time?

If you’re a long-time B.C. Green Party supporter, Andrew Weaver’s schedule on Tuesday must have seemed like either a fever dream or a long-awaited utopian vision.

The party is at record levels of support but faces challenges in growing beyond Vancouver Island

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver with supporters at a party rally. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

If you're a long-time B.C. Green Party supporter, Andrew Weaver's schedule on Tuesday must have seemed like either a fever dream or a long-awaited utopian vision.

First, an hour-long interview on CBC's The Early Edition, with call lines jammed up with people wanting to ask questions.

Then, news that his party had taken the lead over the NDP on Vancouver Island among decided and leaning voters in the latest Mainstreet Research poll, with 38 per cent support compared to 34 per for the NDP.

And finally, far from his party's base of support on Vancouver Island, a packed rally in New Westminster, with 350 people jammed into a Douglas College auditorium to hear from celebrity environmentalist David Suzuki, local candidate Jonina Campbell and, to thunderous applause, Weaver himself.

"It's a historic year to be a B.C. Green," he said, comparing his party's position in the polls to Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP a month before their groundbreaking victory

"When people say it can't be done, I say 'that's a challenge, and we will do that.'"

Three weeks before the election, the B.C. Green Party is closer — in polls and perception, in finances and candidate strength — than ever in breaking through electorally and having real political power in this province.

But can they?

Andrew Weaver and David Suzuki at a B.C. Green Party event on Apr. 18, 2017. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

First we take the Island ...

There are a few reasons why the Green Party appears to be neck-and-neck with the NDP on Vancouver Island, says political scientist Hamish Telford.

The party with the most full-throated support for the environment will always get support from Port Hardy to Sooke, and Islanders have spent four years seeing Weaver's face on Island-centric newscasts and his name in Island-centric newspapers, with barely any negative publicity.

But there's another factor too: at a time when voters in so many countries seem eager to buck established political norms, the idea of becoming a first-time Green supporter holds more appeal.

"There are some, particularly younger voters, who don't identify with the established party system and will vote green out of principle. They'll stick with their guns and try and break this established party system, which they view as part of the problem," said Telford.

Laila Yuile, a popular blogger critical of the Liberal government, agrees.

"There's a huge push among millennials and youth to create different type of politics, where there's more talk of collaboration and more talk about solutions, rather than keep that entrenched power base in power," she said, admitting that she's struggling to decide who she's voting for this election.

"There's a bit of voter malaise, a bit  tired of the status quo, a feeling of unrest, and we're faced with the same two choices."

A Green Party rally at Douglas College attracts a crowd of approximately 375 people on Apr. 19, 2017. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Challenges on the Mainland

However, the Island only has 15 of B.C.'s 87 electoral districts, and Telford and Yuile agree that the Greens will be hard-pressed to be broadly competitive elsewhere.

"I don't think they're going to make great leaps and bounds in other areas of the province in areas outside Vancouver Island," said Yulie, who believes the Greens lack the casual familiarity with voters to the east of the Georgia Strait.

The party is trying to mitigate that by having Weaver spend significantly more time off the Island than former leader Jane Sterk did in 2013, while creating ample media avail abilities to highlight his gift for the gab.

But in Metro Vancouver, the Greens are up against the NDP and Liberals and their long-established relationships with municipal parties and other groups that contribute volunteers and expertise in voter turnout.

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver speaking at a party rally. (Pete Scobie/CBC)

And as Telford notes, data shows the Green coalition in B.C. to be made up of younger voters, older progressives and secular citizens — but not necessarily minorities.

"They don't have strong inroads with ethnic minority communities to date. We're talking about white voters [being their base]," he said. 

In fact, the party is fielding significantly fewer minority candidates than the NDP or Liberals in the Lower Mainland, and Tuesday's New Westminster rally had a demographic breakdown more evocative of a Republican Party convention than Metro Vancouver in 2017.

"It's certainly going to affect their ground game. They don't have the same type of operation and they don't have the inroads in the various ethnic communities to mobilize voters there."

Several of the Green Party's candidates in Metro Vancouver attended Tuesday's rally. (Peter Scobie/CBC)

Vote-splitting looms large

Of course, if Green support turns into an avalanche across B.C. to rival Alberta's Orange Wave, such organizational and candidate concerns become moot.

If the race has the same dynamics on May 9, with the NDP and Liberals seemingly neck-and-neck overall, with the Greens doing well on the Island, the party will be favoured to win three seats — Weaver's in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, plus Cowichan Valley and Saanich North and the Islands.

And in other areas where the Greens seem to have support — the rest of the Island, New Westminster, pockets of Vancouver and the North Shore, Nelson and Kamloops — is there a chance at a fourth seat, which would give them official party status?

It may depend on how many voters are more interested in a "new way of doing politics," to quote the party's own code of conduct, versus how many are interested in ending 16 years of B.C. Liberal rule.

"This is where I've been divided," said Yulie.

"It's very tough for someone who really wants to see a new government form, to suddenly try and encourage people to strategically vote, and I haven't done that, and I won't do that, because democracy does matter."

It's a sentiment Weaver hopes other voters follow, hoping people vote "for something" rather than "against something."

Otherwise, he wouldn't have brought it up a minute into his New Westminster speech.

"A vote for a Green is a vote for a Green, and we will show both those parties how we will work hard for each and every vote."


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