Adam Pankratz is a lecturer at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He is on the board of directors at Rokmaster Resources, and ran for the federal Liberal Party in the riding of Burnaby South in 2015.
There’s a truism about children: They always want to be bigger, taller and stronger. They want to be able to reach the cookies off the top shelf, feel the first raindrop and twist the cap of the pickle jar. They want, fundamentally, to be more important. But what they inevitably come to realize is that with size, height and power come scrutiny, expectation and, most unnerving of all, responsibility.
Elizabeth May’s Green Party seems to be at such a crossroads. Voters looking for an option other than Canada’s two main parties are steering away from Jagmeet Singh’s rudderless NDP, and some are considering the Greens. Ms. May has seen historically high polling numbers ahead of the 2019 election. For the Greens, these are auspicious times to be sure; finally, people are paying attention and considering them a real alternative in places beyond Ms. May’s riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands.
And it’s not just traditional NDP voters either looking elsewhere. On Vancouver Island, David Merner – a former federal Liberal candidate and the past president of the Liberal Party of Canada in B.C. – will be taking up the Green banner in Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke. That is no small candidate revolt, and it speaks to voter frustrations on the Island. The Greens are to be taken seriously across Vancouver Island in the next election; a seat-sweep is not out of the question.
The inevitable problem with being taken seriously, however, is that it is accompanied by an expectation of a certain level of seriousness. The Greens are currently in danger of squandering their opportunity by failing to recognize they can no longer behave like a plucky outsider. In other words, they need to start behaving like a serious, national political party, not a West Coast environmental movement.
The current Green-NDP fiasco in New Brunswick is an illustrative point. When the provincial Green Party announced that 14 New Brunswick NDP candidates reportedly changed allegiances in early September, it looked like a coup for Ms. May’s federal party. But conflicting information quickly raised new questions. Was this move discussed with the national Green executive? Was Mr. Singh’s turban a factor, as one defecting provincial staffer suggested, or was electoral gain the decider? Five NDP candidates have since said they were not actually part of the exodus, meaning their names were listed as defectors without consent, forcing a Green apology. It’s amateur hour in Fredericton; get your popcorn.
The Green Party turned a potentially big moment into a clown show, one with racial overtones, to boot. This is not how serious political parties behave. What’s next? A Green candidate in Quebec who publicly supports separatism? Well, actually, yes – welcome to the Green Party, Pierre Nantel.
This Green Party is still behaving like the one of elections past – one that technically ran candidates in all ridings, but did so by begging for just about any lukewarm body in most of them. Such strategies over the past few elections have thinly veiled the reality that the Greens have been little more than a Vancouver Island environmental movement. That can’t go on.
The Greens can no longer rely on black-or-white statements that sound good to a narrow base but rapidly fall apart in the real world. Last election, the Green platform included eliminating tuition fees for colleges and universities, forgiveness of student debt, a shutdown of the oil sands and all fossil-fuel projects, and a guaranteed livable income. These are all potentially laudable goals, but every voter who asks themselves if this is too good to be true is asking themselves the right question.
It’s impossible not to see shades of the NDP in 2015 here. As soon as the NDP went from lovable third-party to genuine contender, Canadians began scrutinizing their platform promises far more closely. The policies withered under the pressure. The Green Party will not attract more votes by offering pie-in-the-sky promises that Canadians know will never be seen through by a party with any real power.
Ms. May, meanwhile, has said she will never support a government that’s not serious about climate change – a fair message to send amongst your inner circle, but one that, said publicly, assumes electoral loss. A failure of imagination narrows optimism and voter base; Jack Layton proved how the opposite approach could work by telling voters in 2011 that he was running to be Prime Minister, and then leading the NDP to a historic number of seats. The Greens need to ask themselves if are they running to represent a single cause or to be a serious party truly ready for the big leagues nationwide.
Politics is often described as the art of the possible, and the serious parties who win and govern successfully recognize this. The Greens could find themselves in a position to answer the question of whether they are serious come Oct. 21. And to pass the test, they must understand the responsibility and take it seriously.
Will the Green Party get the cookies off the top shelf? Or will they send the jar crashing to the ground under their weight?
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