B.C. Green Leader Jane Sterk started this week on the podium in a televised election debate that drew 1.4 million viewers. Two days later, she was at a seniors' activity centre speaking in front of a room of mostly empty seats. But modest venues like Wednesday's all-candidates' panel, with only two dozen voters in the audience, are just as important to her political future.
These community forums matter because Ms. Sterk is trying her luck in Victoria-Beacon Hill, where she is running against a popular incumbent, New Democrat Carole James. Even if her Green Party finally makes an electoral breakthrough on May 14, Ms. Sterk isn't the most likely Green candidate to secure a seat.
In the 2009 election, Ms. James had little to fear from the Greens. But there is little doubt the New Democrats see the Greens as a threat this time. The abrupt decision to oppose increased oil tanker traffic, announced by NDP Leader Adrian Dix on April 22, was crafted in part to dilute a strong Green advantage, which has shown up mostly in ridings like this one on southern Vancouver Island.
While the New Democrats basked in plaudits from environmentalists who regarded the new oil tanker policy as a victory, Ms. Sterk could only express frustration. "I've always been flabbergasted by how quickly the environmentalists will take something that is in the direction they want as evidence of some sort of magical change," she said in an interview this week. She argues that only her party has been consistent on the topic of oil pipelines and transportation of oil off B.C.'s coast.
Although Ms. James is the NDP's co-chair for policy development, she was as surprised as anyone to hear Mr. Dix announce his position. It wasn't even in the press kit that was handed out at the announcement.
"I heard it that day, like everyone else," she said candidly in an interview. But there had to be some relief: She can now tell voters that her party has taken a stand on tanker traffic and the related Kinder Morgan oil pipeline proposal – a hot-button topic in the eco-conscious waterfront riding. "It helps make clear to people that we are concerned about the expansion of oil moving through our province and the expansion of tankers off our coast," Ms. James said. "It's an important issue in our community."
And she has been hearing about it on the doorstep. This is Ms. James's first campaign in more then a decade as a rank-and-file candidate, after contesting the 2005 and 2009 elections as the B.C. NDP leader. Instead of being at the centre of the leaders' tour, Ms. James is spending most nights at home. She is logging long hours knocking on doors in her own riding, something she hasn't been able to do since running for the party in the 2001 election. (In that election, the NDP was reduced to just two seats in the legislature, yet she was just three dozen votes short of victory.)
Ms. James laughed heartily when asked if she misses the spotlight. "I have the best of all worlds now," she said. She is an influential member of Mr. Dix's team, helping to shape and launch the NDP's campaign. If she keeps her seat and the NDP wins the election on May 14, she is expected to be named deputy premier. It is likely her concerns about the tanker issue would have played into Mr. Dix's Earth Day announcement.
Ms. James calls the Green Leader a formidable opponent, and believes this will prove to be the toughest race of her political career. But then in the last two elections, even without having much time to campaign at home, she won by very comfortable margins.
In Victoria-Beacon Hill, the Greens ran in third place with 16 per cent of the vote in 2009. So why did Ms. Sterk choose to move here? Her answer is swift: She spent five times as much money contesting the neighbouring riding of Esquimalt-Royal Roads in 2009 as the Greens did in Victoria-Beacon Hill, and got the same result – 16 per cent of the vote. So she calculated that Ms. James's riding was her best shot. "The base here is much stronger," she said. "Carole was not a factor in the decision. It was about where a strategic campaign could win."