The ABCs of strategic voting. But will it work?

When moderator Steve Paikin brought the second of the two leaders' debates to a close on Thursday evening, Canada's pundits began sorting through the verbal jabs, and the instant polls to determine the winners and losers, and what it will mean for election day.

When moderator Steve Paikin brought the second of the two leaders' debates to a close on Thursday evening, Canada's pundits began sorting through the verbal jabs, and the instant polls to determine the winners and losers, and what it will mean for election day.

Polls and pundits seemed to agree that Gilles Duceppe and Stéphane Dion won the French-language debate the previous evening and that Elizabeth May of the Green party had a strong night in the English debate — with Andrew Coyne on The National's At Issue panel going as far as declaring her the winner.

But what does it all mean?

Regardless of how strong May performed in the debates, she won't form the government on Oct. 14.

The reality is that a strong showing by May and a clouded result between Dion and Layton as to who bested whom means that none of the so-called progressive parties came away as the consensus alternative to Stephen Harper's Conservatives. 

As a result, the crowded left departed the debate as divided as it went in and that has many in the environmental community increasingly concerned.

United in fear

No matter that the environment shouldn't be the domain of the political left and despite the current Conservative government's record (May noted the Conservative success in expanding Canada's national parks while criticizing its overall environmental record as a "fraud"), environmental organizations from coast to coast seem united in their fear of another Harper-led government — especially if it's a majority.

"The community is coming together over the very real reality Harper will form the government again," said one environmental advocate, speaking anonymously as his organization's charitable status prohibits these groups from being politically active. 

"The main concern is climate change and the fact that the Conservative's tactic to lower greenhouse gas emissions through 'intensity' targets simply will not work.

"Even Alberta's auditor general said so when reviewing their province's strategy, which mirrors the federal Tory plan."

Getting political

Despite this unified message that the Conservatives are wrong-headed on climate change — an opinion the opposition parties tried to demonstrate during both debates as well — the environmental movement is becoming more aware that to change the status quo, they must find ways to get political themselves.

"If you look at the record of the four other political parties — the NDP, the Greens, the Liberals and the Bloc — they're all substantially better than the position of the Conservatives," said Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada.

Hazell was joined by Greenpeace executive director Bruce Cox at a press conference last week to urge Canadians who care about the environment to "vote for any party but the Conservatives."

The environmental message from other involved groups isn't as overt as the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, but they appear to be finding ways of sending out the same message of strategic voting, albeit through proxies. 

In the Vancouver Sun, James Hoggan, a board member of the David Suzuki Foundation, argued why the ABC (Anybody But Conservative) campaign is a must for environmentally conscious voters. 

"Only one leader still stands against the international consensus [on climate change], Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper," said Hoggan.

Strategic voting

Still other environmental organizations are going so far as to create new, arms-length organizations, such as Conservation Voters of B.C. — a non-profit, non-partisan organization consisting of environmental leaders from different groups, albeit representing themselves, not their organizations. It is endorsing specific 'green candidates' in B.C. 

The biggest — and most comprehensive — push for strategic voting on green issues is the new website  

Looking at every riding in the country, the site uses the results from the 2006 election mixed in with recent polls and anecdotal information to try to determine the greenest candidate with the best chance of beating the Conservatives in any given riding. 

If every green voter followed the website's suggestions (as of Saturday), it says that instead of electing a Conservative minority of 141 MPs to 73 Liberals, 57 Bloc, 35 NDP, and no Greens, the electoral result would shift to a Liberal minority with 109 MPs to 97 Conservatives, 53 Bloc, 46 NDP, and one Green.

But why is the strategic voting mantra only now, in the days after the debate, catching on with the environmental community?

Before the debates, many conservation groups, privately, were torn.

Some wanted to back one of their own in former Sierra Club executive director Elizabeth May and her Green party so that the party would gain traction and firmly place environmental issues on the political agenda for the long term. Others felt it was critical to be pragmatic and actively back the Liberals who offered the best chance of advancing green issues in the short term.

So what changed?

"The realization that no party on the left is going to be able to win on their own — and that leveraging our base to ensure strategic voting succeeds is the only way we're going to get a government that gets climate change," another member of a leading environmental organization's executive told me, again on the condition of anonymity. 

Of course, as obvious a solution as strategic voting may be to many political observers, it must be remembered that this is a bitter pill to swallow for many in the green lobby because it flies in the face of the same democratic principals and messages that these groups rely on to advance their cause with their supporters.

It's hard to argue "forgo the party you believe in and choose the party with the best chance of winning" in one breath and then turn around and say "do the right thing and make your voice heard in support of policy X even though policy Y has more support." 

While talk of a Green-Liberal alliance persists (helped along by Elizabeth May's recent comment that "I'd rather have no Green seats and Stephen Harper lose, than a full caucus that stares across the floor at Stephen Harper as prime minister because his policies are too dangerous."), most believe it is just that — talk. 

As a result, strategic voting's best chance is in the hands of the national environmental movement and their ability to organize. Fast.

Will it work?

As Susan Riley in the Ottawa Citizen recently pointed out, it is a hard sell. 

"Some say strategic voting doesn't work because it requires disparate individuals to set aside their own first choices for the common good. This is doubly difficult when the most-electable alternative isn't clear," wrote Riley.

Similar efforts in the United States to mobilize green voters have had some success, but that pales in comparison to the impact of the religious right as a voting block. 

In Canada, while strategic voting helped the Liberals in both 2004 and 2006, it wasn't the result of a concerted effort on the part of environmental organizations, rather it was the by-product of the surprisingly successful last-minute Liberal scare tactics about Harper's so-called hidden agenda.

If a strategic green vote wave is to wash across the country, a prime test will be in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands — home to the country's largest base of environmentally inclined voters as well as Gary Lunn, a Conservative cabinet minister.  

Lunn has been the riding's MP since 1997 and won each election with one of the smallest percentages in the nation.

In the last election, if the green vote in that riding had united, the Conservatives would have been denied a cabinet minister — one who many environmentalists see as wearing the goat horns, at least partially, for the Tory's green plan. 

And if a similar unification of the green vote had occurred in fewer than a dozen ridings across the country, Paul Martin would have won.

This time, Liberal candidate Briony Penn — a high profile B.C. environmentalist — looks as if she just might be able to unify green voters and defeat Lunn.

Of course, this is not the result of a brilliant strategic-voting movement, but rather the byproduct of the NDP having been forced to drop their candidate, Julian West, in the riding because of skeletons in his closet.  

Still, beggars can't be choosers, according to many in the environmental community who are privately mobilizing their troops behind a concerted strategic-voting push in the election's final week.

Between perceived success in Saanich-Gulf Islands and an Angus Reid poll on Saturday that suggested a large majority of Liberal, NDP and Green supporters would switch their votes to stop the Conservatives, many conservation groups are hoping it will be the incentive needed to rally their troops. 

After all, many in the environmental community argue, if only a few thousand Canadians decide to make the environment their ballot issue in a few dozen ridings, it will be enough to deprive Harper of his majority, maybe even his minority.