When the environment replaced the economy and health care to become the top issue facing Canada in 2007, the highest level of concern was expressed in two provinces: British Columbia and Quebec. At the time, Al Gore was touring the world with his Power Point presentation, and many Canadians – clearly content with their financial status – were willing to make personal sacrifices in order to deal with global warming.
Then the 2008 crisis took hold. The environment dropped to single digits as the economy became the most important topic for three-in-five Canadians and British Columbians. While economic concerns have subsided in the past few years, the environment still doesn’t rank as the top priority for more than one in six British Columbians. That said, there are three factors that could make the environment a top-of-mind issue as we get closer to the May 14 provincial election: Northern Gateway, tanker traffic, and the apparent resurgence of the BC Green Party.
Last year, increased scrutiny on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project appeared to provide an opportunity for the governing BC Liberals. Still, Premier Christy Clark’s strategy of tough talk with Alberta did not lead to an immediate jump in support for her party. In our polling, the level of strong opposition to the project has outranked the level of strong support by a five to one margin. Fence-sitters were not swayed by the five conditions for support outlined by the Liberals. The sound bites – meant to establish the Liberals as a party that cared about both business and the environment – have not led to a substantial drop for the opposition NDP.
Along with pipelines, the presence of oil tankers in the north and central coast of British Columbia remains contentious. Most residents believe that these vessels should “definitely” or “probably” be banned from the area, even if world-leading marine oil-spill prevention and response systems are established.
The party most likely to benefit from concern over the environment is the BC Green Party, which could be on the verge of a historic breakthrough. In 2001, the Greens received 12.4 per cent of all cast ballots, but fell short of winning a seat in the Legislative Assembly.
Four years later, the Greens – still led by Adriane Carr – dropped to 9.2 per cent, and were once again left without a lawmaker. In the 2009 election, with Jane Sterk as leader, 8.2 per cent of all voters cast a ballot for a Green candidate. Again, no seats were won.
While the election-to-election trend for the Greens may seem negative, 2013 holds many similarities with 2001. The party in power has been struggling to generate momentum after a budget and a Throne Speech that failed to move the electorate. This makes the current “second choice” of voters extremely important, since it may move traditional supporters of other parties to the Green column based on the appeal of candidates in the riding.
This time around, the party has a new winning strategy, borrowed from their federal counterparts: focus on a few key ridings. In the May, 2011, general election, that focus on Saanich-Gulf Islands in particular helped get Green Party Leader Elizabeth May elected to the House of Commons for the first time ever. This was an extraordinary triumph that showed what allocating resources wisely can do. Ms. May went to a riding where the previous Green candidate had finished 33 points behind Gary Lunn – a cabinet minister – and delivered a victory with an 11-point margin.
In British Columbia, no area represents environmental activism more intensely than Vancouver Island. Voters there are paying attention to discussions on pipelines and tankers, and are starting to take a long, hard look at the Greens. The party is garnering the support of roughly one in five voters on the island – essentially tied with the governing BC Liberals.
While the Greens are hoping for breakthroughs in six Island ridings, two in particular look promising: Oak Bay-Gordon Head, where academic Andrew Weaver, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is challenging Liberal cabinet minister Ida Chong; and Saanich North and the Islands, where Adam Olsen, well known from his time at the Central Saanich Council, is trying to take Murray Coell’s old riding. If the Greens are able to knock on enough doors and explain the rationale for having a new voice in Victoria, the province’s staunchest environmental defenders may propel them to a momentous victory.
Mario Canseco is vice-president of Angus Reid Public Opinion. He will be providing regular analysis of the firm’s numbers throughout the 2013 B.C. election and writing a weekly column for Globe BC.