The B.C. Greens are at a crossroads. In a province in which the political dichotomy is between left and right, they are running candidates from across the spectrum.
Greens place their greatest emphasis on the climate crisis. So they’ll welcome members who look to the free market to solve this issue. And they attract others who are far more left wing, and maintain that much greater regulation on polluters is required.
This is how the party can end up running a progressive candidate, such as Daniel Tseghay in Vancouver–False Creek, who is an admirer of left-wing Guardian columnist and author George Monbiot. In the past, many of these types of B.C. Green candidates (Stuart Parker, Julian West, Karen Shillington, and Ben West, to name just four) have migrated back to the NDP.
Meanwhile, former Green school trustee Andrea Reimer, now a Vision Vancouver city councillor, has endorsed the NDP’s George Heyman in Vancouver-Fairview and Nathan Cullen in the last federal NDP leadership race. There once was a day when Reimer was doing media relations for former B.C. Green party leader Adriane Carr.
At the same time, Green Leader Jane Sterk comes across like some of those old Progressive Conservative politicians who were great admirers of the free-enterprise system, but who also wanted to conserve the environment. Former Vancouver South MP John Fraser is but one example.
The federal Green leader, Elizabeth May, used to work for another one of those Progressive Conservatives, former environment minister Tom MacMillan.
And the party’s “star” candidate in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, climate scientist Andrew Weaver, has, in the past, praised some of former premier Gordon Campbell’s climate policies. It demonstrates that he's willing to consort with a right winger who breaks bread with folks at the Fraser Institute. Weaver also stood side-by-side with the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair during last year’s NDP leadership race.
That’s because for Greens like Weaver, the political divide is really between those who are prepared to take action to address climate change and those who aren’t committed to the issue.
Climate change influences more voters
In each successive federal and provincial election, more voters see climate change as a defining issue of our times. But there still aren’t enough of them to provide a broad base of support for the Greens, in part because the party comes across as ideologically confused on many other issues.
And in each of the last two B.C. elections, one of the two larger parties has put enough baubles in their window to lure these types green-minded, higher-income voters.
In 2009, Gordon Campbell and the B.C. Liberals had a carbon tax and could talk about supporting run-of-river hydropower projects, which don’t contribute to climate change.
This gave Campbell sufficient political room to proceed with the Gateway Program, which helped accelerate the movement of goods and eliminate farmland. But the carbon tax mollified people like Weaver, environmentalist David Suzuki, and SFU resource economist Mark Jaccard, who all see climate change as a monumental threat.
In 2013, the NDP has raised grave concerns about the proposed Enbridge pipeline. Plus, NDP Leader Adrian Dix has declared that he doesn’t want Vancouver to become a major oil port. He's also called for a more democratic review of Port Metro Vancouver's plan to become North America's largest coal exporter.
If Kinder Morgan decides instead to build an oil pipeline to Washington state, presumably that won’t be a problem for Dix. And if he continues to support the fracking of natural gas, this will rile the climate purists who vote Green, as well as many aboriginal people in the B.C. Interior and the north. But he will still be able to claim that he's far greener than Christy Clark, which should doom her in Vancouver–Point Grey.
For voters who are alarmed about the reality of climate change, it often comes down to who is the least worst. And when the gap between the two leading parties is fairly substantial, the one with the most baubles tends to win the provincial election.
In 2009, the NDP’s Carole James opposed the carbon tax and run-of-river independent power. This positioned her party in some voters’ minds as being hostile to addressing climate change. This may not have been the truth—given the massive public giveaways to the power producers—but that was the perception created.
In 2013, the B.C. Liberals’ Christy Clark has made it pretty clear that the environment is a low priority for her. When a politician shows up every night on the news in a hardhat rather than a bicycle helmet and rips her opponent for undermining the natural-gas industry, it’s pretty clear where she stands. Especially when she won't eliminate corporate and union donations to political parties.
Dix, on the other hand, has made a point of being photographed and filmed in locations with gorgeous backdrops of B.C.’s coastline and forests. And with some very green new candidates—such as Heyman, David Eby in Vancouver–Point Grey, and Ana Santos in West Vancouver–Sea to Sky—Dix can credibly state that he’s far more environmentally sensitive than his chief competitor.
The NDP’s greener orientation this time around will likely guarantee a sizeable victory on Tuesday (May 14).
Dix can learn from the past
Dix’s friend Glen Clark forgot about green voters when he was premier in the 1990s. This is what fuelled the growth of the Green party, with young progressives like Parker and former NDP candidates like Stuart Herzog refusing to support the Clark government. It didn’t help matters when Clark declared Greenpeace to be an enemy of B.C. and then he was replaced by the least environmentally inclined member of cabinet, Dan Miller.
Dix has likely learned from that experience and will try to keep the progressive environmentalists inside the NDP tent. He’ll be pushed to do this by the NDP-supporting Burnaby council, which is heavily populated with green-minded politicians, along with a sizeable contingent of environmentally oriented MLAs (think Nicholas Simons and Lana Popham).
Driving Dix in the opposite direction will be the private-sector union leaders, whose members will want jobs on new megaprojects and pipelines.
Meanwhile, the B.C. Liberals will wake up on Wednesday (May 15) wondering what hit them. Gradually, it will dawn upon some of them that they lost this race, in part, because their leader ignored environmental issues.
And Sterk will have been annihilated in her second consecutive election as Green leader. If Weaver wins his seat, he’ll become the leader.
However, there’s no guarantee that Weaver will triumph in his constituency because vote-splitting could result in the reelection of Ida Chong or a victory for the New Democrat, Jessica Van der Veen.
Regardless, after the election, B.C. will have moved one step closer to the political divide becoming the future of the planet rather than the traditional business-labour dichotomy. And that bodes well for the Greens over the long term.
Left-right split does not define politics everywhere else
In Quebec provincial politics, the divide is not so much left-right as it is sovereignty versus federalism. That’s how politicians of different ideological stripes end up in the same party.
In India, it’s a similar situation. The broad political divide is between secularism, as represented by the Congress party, and religious communalism, as represented by the BJP coalition. It’s not a left-right dichotomy.
In Taiwanese politics, the divide is over relations with Mainland China.
As the right-left divide is gradually replaced by the environmental divide in B.C.—and this already occurred in the last Vancouver municipal election—it puts the Greens in an intriguing position.
Should they try to take over the NDP in the same way that the Greens have more or less taken over Vancouver City Hall?
Should they try to displace the B.C. Liberals as the free-enterprise alternative that’s not in bed with the unions?
Progressive greens, such as Tseghay, will probably find the latter choice abhorrent. But it will appeal to higher income, well-educated voters who understand the peril of climate change but who also have no use for ill-conceived capital projects supported by the unions and construction and road-building companies.
Some evangelical Christians are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change, whereas others are among the most vehement global-warming deniers. And the big-money backers of the Fraser Institute have no use for the climate-change movement, seeing that as a threat to the development of the Alberta tar sands.
But over time, history is on the side of the B.C. Greens as the public sees the havoc caused by catastrophic storms like Sandy, which extended from the Caribbean to Canada. Barack Obama won the last U.S. presidential election in part because of an extreme weather event—just as his opponent was denying the reality of climate change.
The denialists’ numbers will shrivel, no matter how much money and power some of them have now. They’ll be seen as increasingly irrelevant.
Gap opens for Greens in the future
Former NPA councillor Gordon Price likes to say that the NPA got wiped out in the last election because it forgot about the Peter Ladner wing of the party. Ladner is a fan of free enterprise who's also extremely concerned about the future of the planet.
With Christy Clark leading the B.C. Liberals, there's no room on the political spectrum for voters who share his views except with the B.C. Green party. Environmentally sensitive voters can easily spot a political leader who doesn't give much thought to climate change.
There once was a time when right-wing parties were adamantly opposed to extending equal rights to gays and lesbians. That eventually became politically untenable. The same thing is taking place with respect to the environment, particularly on the issue of climate change. Christy Clark is about to learn that lesson.
With Dix as premier, an NDP government will likely succumb to pressure from business and labour and proceed with some foolish projects that don't pass the climate test. If the B.C. Liberals are led by a politician who continues coming across as a modern-day Socred—completely out of touch with the realities of the times—there will be ample room on the political spectrum for the Greens to grow into a more potent political force.
They're helped by the growing urbanization of B.C., which is where some of their greatest support lies.
If the Greens choose a leader from the Lower Mainland, they'll have much more access to the media. Sterk has been mostly invisible between elections, which has had a devastating impact on the party's profile, ability to raise money, and capacity to attract good candidates.
On Tuesday (May 14) with a couple of exceptions, the Greens will be dead in the water. They might not win any seats. But there's nothing stopping them from becoming a serious competitor in time for the next campaign if they look upon the B.C. Liberals as 21st-century Socreds who are doomed to political extinction.
There are several B.C. Liberal candidates who understand the climate crisis, including Sam Sullivan, who's running in Vancouver–False Creek. Andrew Wilkinson in Vancouver–Quilchena is another. They may not feel very comfortable remaining in a party led by Clark or by the right-wing road-building Kevin Falcon, if he ends up as her successor.
The Green label has some appeal. That's only going to increase as climate change continues wreaking economic havoc around the world. So even if the party gets thumped in the upcoming provincial election, it can still look forward to a brighter future.