Skip to main content

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaking during a campaign event in Vancouver on September 9, 2015.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Elizabeth May is smart, personable, hard-working and passionate in her advocacy of environmental issues. But she is not succeeding at making the Green Party matter. The party has never mattered less. And the election results on Oct. 19 were a disaster.

There are people who believe the System, capital-S, has been unfair to the Greens and Ms. May, that she isn't given enough air time or treated with enough respect. Precisely the opposite is true.

Despite the extreme marginality of her party, the Green Leader participated in two of the four national leaders' debates. There are petitions going around urging incoming Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau to make her environment minister. Mr. Trudeau has asked her to join the Canadian delegation at the Paris summit on global warming.

On what basis?

In the 2006 federal election, six months before Ms. May became the Green Party's leader, the party earned 664,068 votes, or 4.48 per cent of the popular vote. Can you remember who its leader was? Exactly. That's how much attention people paid to the party back then. (It was Jim Harris, by the way.)

As the former head of the Sierra Club of Canada, Ms. May promised to make the Green Party a national political force. It would play a king-making role in minority parliaments, perhaps even becoming part of a coalition government, a role that Green parties play in some European countries. The Greens would make environmental issues, especially the issue of global warming, matter to Canadians.

In the 2008 federal election, the Greens took 937,613 votes, representing 6.78 per cent of the popular vote. Give or take, Ms. May increased the Green vote by 50 per cent, a respectable performance, though the party failed to win a seat in Parliament.

Winning that seat was Ms. May's top priority in 2011. She campaigned successfully in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. It was the first time the Green Party had elected an MP. But that victory masked the reality that the national vote actually declined, to 576,221 votes, or 3.91 per cent of votes cast. The party was actually doing worse under Ms. May than it had done under Mr. Harris.

That didn't prevent a storm of protest on Twitter over Ms. May's exclusion from two of the four leaders' debates during this election campaign. In the debates where she was included, especially in the Maclean's debate, Ms. May performed effectively, winning praise from viewers and pundits. She certainly couldn't complain that the Green Party was ignored in the election.

And how did the Greens do on Oct. 19? Although the number of votes cast for the party increased to 605,864, thanks to high voter turnout, the Greens' percentage of the popular vote fell yet again, to 3.45 per cent. That's lower than the Green vote for Mr. Harris in 2004.

Green supporters argue that the first-past-the-post system of electing MPs works against small parties such as the Greens. Under proportional representation, they maintain, people would be more likely to cast a Green vote. Maybe, maybe not. What we do know is that many countries that elect their legislatures using PR set a floor of 5 per cent as the minimum level of support required to earn representation. Under that system, the Greens would not be entitled to a seat in the 42nd Parliament, based on last week's results. Not only would Ms. May not have any colleagues in the House, she would not be in the House herself. Nor would she have won a seat in 2011.

Again, this is not to belittle the sincerity of Ms. May's beliefs or the importance of her cause. Mr. Trudeau has made combatting climate change a top priority.

But it's hard to understand why, with only one seat and just over 3 per cent of the vote, Elizabeth May gets so much space.