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Green Party Leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May holds a post-election news conference in Sidney, B.C., on May 3, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Green Party Leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May holds a post-election news conference in Sidney, B.C., on May 3, 2011. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Radwanski

Elizabeth May's win, <br/>the Green collapse and our broken electoral system Add to ...

Coming down from the euphoria of finally winning a seat in the House of Commons, Elizabeth May is taking a bit of a kicking this week.

The Green Party, Margaret Wente wrote in Tuesday's Globe and Mail, was the " biggest loser" in the May 2 election - its declining popular vote indicative of the declining political currency of the environmental movement. On the National Post's website, Kelly McParland made reference to the Greens' " catastrophic showing" outside their leader's riding, accusing her of turning them into "the Elizabeth May Party."

There's some truth to these criticisms. But if we're going to dwell on this subject, it's only fair to acknowledge that the Greens' result says as much about our electoral system as it does about Ms. May.

In 2008, her first election as leader, Ms. May ran a truly national campaign. She spent much of the time on tour, did her best to compete with the other parties' communication efforts, and got lots of media attention. In so doing, she helped her party win nearly a million votes nationally - good for 6.8 per cent of the popular vote, up from 4.5 per cent in the 2006 election.

That vote total was also more than two-thirds of what the Bloc Québécois got en route to winning 49 seats. But because the Greens' support wasn't "efficient" - which is to say, it was spread broadly across the country rather than heavily concentrated in smaller areas - they were shut out of the House of Commons entirely.

Ms. May came into this year's campaign knowing that she could not afford to be skunked again, if she ever wanted to make an impact on federal politics. So this time around, she essentially gave up on running nationally.

There were a few whistle-stop tours, mostly ignored by the media. But for the most part she acted like a high-profile local candidate, pounding the pavement in the British Columbia riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands.

In return for her more modest strategy, Ms. May received a much greater reward. A single seat in Parliament isn't much; it's somewhat laughable to suggest, as she did on election night, that she'll be able to use it to change Ottawa's culture. But it will be enough to keep her party in the game for the next four years, and to get it taken a little more seriously in the next campaign - including, more than likely, getting included in the leaders' debates.

Of course, it helped Ms. May that the Liberal vote collapsed. It also helped that she chose a more sensible riding than in the previous campaign, when she ran against Peter MacKay in Nova Scotia (albeit without the Liberals running anyone against her). But more than anything, she won because she was a realist about the nature of a first-past-the-post system.

Of all the arguments to examine how we elect our representatives, the plight of the Green Party probably isn't at the top of the list. But just as it was beside the point to complain about Ms. May's exclusion from this year's debates, which was really just a reflection of her relevance within the current system, it's equally beside the point to criticize her for making the best of what that system dealt her.

Unless and until we provide parties with meaningful reward for seeking broad support, they really can't be judged too harshly for failing to do so.

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Follow on Twitter: @aradwanski

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