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What Greens have wrought on centre-left politics

In the aftermath of this week's federal by-elections, much of the commentary focused on the message the results supposedly delivered to the Conservatives. This, despite the fact that Canada's governing party won two of the three contests.

It's more likely that Stephen Harper was rejoicing.

The Conservatives were a non-factor in Victoria (which was no surprise), easily won in Ontario and eked out a victory in Calgary Centre (which fuelled much of the "Conservatives should be worried" analysis).

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Fact is, the Conservatives hid Joan Crockatt during the Calgary campaign because the risks associated with her actually talking to the media or debating her fellow candidates were too high. She's an extremely polarizing figure whose small-c political views offended those in the riding who had supported the Conservatives in the past. Many of them decided to stay home rather than vote for a more moderate option.

In the end, the Conservatives still won. And two out of three usually isn't a bad night for a governing party when you're talking about by-elections, which give people the opportunity to register their midterm displeasure with the ruling institution.

The bigger story, of course, is the rise of the Greens, a party that could be changing the calculus of progressive politics in Canada as we speak. If so, it's a development with which the Tories must be thrilled.

The Greens ran plausible candidates in Calgary and Victoria, where they narrowly lost to the NDP. The party has attracted high-profile names, including respected climate scientist Andrew Weaver from the University of Victoria, to run under its banner in next May's B.C. election.

Not that long ago, a Green candidate was either a 19-year-old environmental studies student or a fiftysomething organic farmer. Not any more. Federal Green Leader Elizabeth May deserves much of the credit for this. She's made being Green respectable because of the notable work she's done in Ottawa.

It doesn't take much sleuthing to see the havoc that a surging Green Party could have on centre-left politics in Canada. Just take a look at the last federal election and some of the ridings the NDP won on Vancouver Island, where Ms. May claimed her historic victory.

In Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, for instance, the NDP beat the Conservatives by 406 votes. The Greens picked up 5,341. With the aid of some additional profile and perceived legitimacy, it's not difficult to imagine the Greens significantly adding to their vote total in Esquimalt the next time around – and it's likely going to come at the NDP's expense. All things being equal, this would hand victory to the Conservatives.

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Look at the 2011 federal election results and you can envisage that scenario playing out elsewhere, particularly in British Columbia. More often than not, the party paying the price is the NDP. Add to this the impact that a resurgent Liberal Party could have on the centre-left picture in Canada and things get even more muddled.

All of this is great news for the Conservatives, who don't have to worry about vote-splitting on the centre right. They now have that area of the political spectrum sewn up.

At some point, Canada's progressive parties are going to have to have a mature conversation about this. There have been some federal Liberals and New Democrats who've already urged such a discussion. But with the rise of the Greens – assuming it's for real and sustainable – the need for such a tête-à-tête takes on more urgency.

The great irony is that there are more liberal-minded Canadians than ones who hold conservative views. In the last election, far more people voted for a party on the centre left than on the centre right. Yet, the country is governed by the party on the centre right.

Canada's progressive parties need to ask themselves if there continues to be enough that separates them philosophically that it's worth abdicating power for. Other than a few issues, the differences between Liberals and New Democrats – and even Greens more recently – are difficult to find.

Eyes will now shift to B.C.'s spring election, where the Greens intend to mount a significant campaign. We may get a sense then whether the party's showing this week was a fluke or the canary in the electorate.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More


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