Young, green and conservative, the new voting block

Election column from freelancer D. Simon Jackson.

There is an emerging, new demographic in Canadian politics that I like to refer to as Young Green Tories.

But don't be fooled by the moniker — they are neither traditional Conservatives nor Green party activists. Rather, they are young, multi-partisan, hard-green fiscal conservatives who could well develop into Canada's new must-have voting block — the modern-day soccer moms.

Young people have long been pegged as left-wing idealists. Even Winston Churchill once stated that if you're young and right wing, you have no heart.

Well, today's young people haven't lost their idealism or progressive views on social issues. Some would argue, in fact, that when it comes to environment issues, long held to be a bastion of the left (wrongly in my view, but that is for a future column), young people are not only more engaged than ever before, they are taking an active leadership role within environmental causes.

Just look, for example, at the number of youth-led green initiatives that are taking shape across the country — ranging from Lights Out Canada to, dare I plug my own organization, the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition.

Flirting with the right

However, what's especially interesting about the growing number of environmentally conscious young people in Canada right now is that many — certainly not all — are looking beyond the hard-line environmental activism of the past and starting to flirt with policies that have long been the staple of the right.

"There is no question that today's young people are embracing the environment like never before," says Olga Orda, principal of EQUO3 Strategies, an environmental communication company that works with both businesses and non-profits.

"But what's really interesting is that these young environmental advocates are gaining an appreciation for the capital market system and have a very pragmatic view of public policy implementation."   In essence, Young Green Tories are the perfect blend of environmental idealism and economic pragmatism.

Idealistic and pragmatic?

But wait, idealistic and pragmatic: isn't that an oxymoron? No, Orda argues.

"This demographic no longer desires to affect environmental change for the sake of environmental change, but seeks to create a better environment, be it conservation of endangered species or the reduction of greenhouse gases, by using the capital market system as the engine for change."

Moreover, young people in this demographic are neither partisan nor non-partisan. Rather, Young Green Tories are essentially multi-partisan, picking and choosing ideas from all parts of the political spectrum to concoct a platform of strong fiscal policy and bold environmental action. They do not see these two issues as mutually exclusive.

"I'm witnessing more young people who are taking this idea of blurring environmental and economic policy to a new level," says Mark Masongsong, an experienced political operative and a seasoned veteran of youth engagement campaigns within the environmental non-profit sector.

"Young people are refusing to be politically pigeon-holed," he told me. "They are not interested in stereotypical activism or the type of dogmatic partisanship that comes with belonging to one party"

But where to go?

As a result of these impulses, this is a group that is so far without a political home in our current party system, a fact echoed in Dominion Institute of Canada's 2008 Youth Election Study last week.

The results of its polling placed the environment as the issue of paramount concern among young people. But the numbers also showed an increasing interest in the economy among those aged 18-25, which was not always the case in the past.

While the Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives are all statistically tied (some would say surprisingly), given the margin for error, among young voters, the largest grouping, 28 per cent, are still undecided.

Now, I'm not suggesting that all undecided young voters fall under the banner of Young Green Tories. But it is interesting that the undecided number is a mirror of those young survey respondents who ranked a similar interest in the environment and, to a slightly less degree, the economy.

Then there is the fact that no one party seems to be galvanizing youth support, as has been the case in elections past.

Bits and pieces

All of the current parties have elements within their platforms that should be attractive to Young Green Tories.

Jack Layton's NDP has placed an emphasis on "green-collared jobs;" Stéphane Dion's Liberals have the Green Shift that marries a tax on pollution with massive income tax cuts; and the Stephen Harper's Conservatives have a strong emphasis in investing in green technology, such as capturing carbon, that would benefit both the environment and the economy.

Yet each party also appears to have a fatal flaw when it comes to attracting Young Green Tories: the NDP is still viewed as the party of old-school socialism; the Liberals are perceived to be suffering from a leftward retreat and sponsorship-scandal hangover; and the Conservatives are feared to be insincere in their support for the environment.

The Green party appears to have the best hope of rallying Young Green Tories — at least with their talk on the campaign trail of "catering neither to the left nor right but rather to those who believe in sound fiscal management and strengthening our economy while ensuring that it is sustainable."

Indeed, this purposeful approach of the Greens — reading correctly the mood of many of today's young activists — may be what is contributing to their surge in popular support in recent polls.

That said, as Andrew Steele of the Globe and Mail noted recently in his online column, when the Green platform is assessed closely, the party still has fringe elements of the old-school activist community that may ultimately be the stumbling block to an electoral breakthrough.

"I can't find one party that really represents my political beliefs — a balance, not compromise, between environmental policy and economic policy," says one influential young leader who embodies the Young Green Tory philosophy, but who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for fear of hurting her organization's work.

"If, however, one party strikes that balance for me, watch out. Not only will I become passionately engaged, I know many, many other young people, some who can't be bothered to vote, will as well."

NOTE: In my last column, it came across that Barbara Cartwright from the International Fund for Animal Welfare believes that the current Conservative government is against the seal hunt. Her comments were meant to suggest only that the seal hunt declined during the term of the former Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. The current Conservative government continues to subsidize the commercial seal hunt like the previous Liberal governments did. I apologize for any confusion.