The Green Party made history this election.
Unfortunately, it was for smashing the record for the highest percentage of the popular vote without electing a single MP.
On Tuesday, the Greens got more than 6 per cent, setting a new record in futility. They also hold the silver and bronze in this race to frustration, given their 2006 and 2004 results. To put it into context, the next best vote total by a party that failed to elect a member was the Social Credit Party in 1958, which received 2.6 per cent of the national vote.
That does not make the entire Green campaign a dismal failure. The Greens will receive a significant amount of public financing that could help them build a professional political party. Their leader emerged with improved recognition and a net positive impression with the public.
But it's the electoral equivalent of a good-night slap on the arm when you were expecting a passionate kiss.
Frankly, it's time to call into question the mission of the Green Party in the long term. But it's first necessary to put paid to some myths that need to be debunked.
To begin with, there's the notion that the Greens are just a few votes away from winning seats; after all, their vote doubled this election.
The Greens are never going to have an easy time turning votes into seats. If the Bloc Quebecois had received the same total of votes, it would have elected at least a dozen MPs, and as many as twenty. But because the Greens lack any kind of regional base, they simply cannot thrive in a first-past-the-post electoral system.
Even the party leader could not truly challenge the incumbent in the riding of her choice, under ideal circumstances, with no Liberal to split the vote, and amid adoring national media coverage.
To make the decision to devote all resources to breaking through in a small band of seats - say in central Ontario - wouldn't work because the Greens' fundraising and volunteer base is spread too thin to artificially concentrate like that. And they're further hampered by an overly narrow ideological base that makes it difficult to attract a broad array of new Canadians, green Tories and progressives. Their national platform in this campaign was resolutely left-wing, and focused on comprehension instead of attracting a diverse coalition.
Second, there is the myth that by raising environmental issues, the Greens will force other parties to move to a greener position to counterbalance them.
The 2008 election provided a perfect case study of this theory. The Greens ran on a carbon tax, and the Liberal ran with a modified version of the same plank as the centrepiece of their platform. Yet the Liberal result was one of the worst in their history, in part because of vote-splitting with the Greens.
The Conservatives won re-election, despite an "F" grade from the Sierra Club, primarily because of vote-splitting among all three parties to their left. Meanwhile, the NDP took a position on climate change that the Sierra Club judged weaker than the Liberals'.
To argue that the boost of the Green vote by two per cent since 2006 is going to lead the Conservatives to embrace significantly more aggressive climate change policies is absurd.
Third, there is the myth that it's only a matter of time until the Greens' popular support will force a shift toward proportional representation - a reform that would give them and other small parties increased representation in the legislature, and thus a role in government and policy formation.
The problem with this theory is that PR is not universally popular. The 2007 referendum in Ontario saw a proposed partial PR system defeated 63-37 per cent. And there is an unsporting flavour to wanting to change the rules of the game because you can't win under the current ones.
To make matters worse, not only are some of the basic myths of the "Green Party" movement flawed - they are actually negatively impacting public policy on the environment.
By taking their votes out of the basic decision between Liberals and Conservatives, environmental voters make themselves less relevant to the two parties that can form a government in Canada. And by failing to win seats, they are not even part of the government formation games in a minority Parliament.
But the Green Party is just the most visible element of a movement-wide failure of environmentalists to think and act strategically.
The single largest reason for the failure of the environmental movement to punch its weight is its inability to coalesce behind a single party.
A good example was a press conference by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace during the campaign calling on voters to vote "Anything but Conservative."
With four options left on the table, and environmental voters dividing their support among them, such a plea actually diffuses the environmental vote. Perhaps the total number of votes for the four leftish parties increases, but the gains are scattered and most of them left on the table instead of electing MPs.
Ironically, such an announcement also signals to everyone who doesn't like environmental groups, "go vote Tory!" So these environmental leaders may actually be helping to increase the total votes going to the Conservatives. And because they are a single consolidated party fighting in close races across the country, those votes might have made some marginal ridings flip go Conservative.
This election provided the perfect opportunity for environmental voters to move into the mainstream. For the first time in history, there was a major party leader with a chance of forming a government who literally staked his political life to the environment.
But the best Stephane Dion could get from major environmental groups was "Vote Bloc, Green, Liberal or NDP."
If voters primarily concerned about the environment want to effect real change, here are five things they need to do:
1. Think pragmatically, not idealistically. If the climate crisis is to be addressed, there isn't time for the Greens to grow into a national force. And there certainly isn't time to hold out for perfection.
2. Think in terms of ridings. Seats, not votes, are the critical measure of success in Canadian politics. Rather than blaming the rules of the electoral system, consider how to get more pro-environment MPs elected.
3. Demand environmental leaders stop working at cross-purposes. You will find prominent environmentalists in the Greens, NDP, Liberals, Bloc, even a few in the Conservative Party. Stop letting them split the vote.
4. Consolidate behind a major political party that can form government. By becoming a significant portion of the governing party's coalition, your issues will take added precedence in decision making. You won't win every debate, but your ideas will often find their way into action.
5. Stop talking down to people. Prominent environmental politicians from Stephane Dion to Jim Harris have an unfortunate habit of adopting a morally superior tone when preaching to the unconverted. Attitudes, values and salesmanship matter, and no one likes to be blamed. Accentuating the positive as "bright greens" call for - and Elizabeth May typically does - is the ticket in a democratic society.
I really did want to write a positive prescription for the Green Party, but the more I thought about it, the more its fundamental flaws became too overwhelming for success to ever really occur.
Environmental voters are well-placed to influence policy. There are a lot of them, and they vote on their issue. The problem is that they vote for a whole bunch of different parties.
Unfortunately, until all environmentalists unite behind a party that can win, they won't get the policy action their numbers would normally grant.
Special to The Globe and Mail