Matt Toner: First-past-the-post system requires federal Greens to rethink electoral strategy in Canada

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      Will we look back in 30 years, from a world where the adverse effects of climate change are palpable to all, and conclude that—in Canada, at least—the federal Green party was a long-term strategic mistake? 

      Note that I am saying the “federal Green party”, not “the Canadian green movement”. 

      The latter has worked tirelessly over the past three decades to raise awareness and solidify concerns about the very real risks posed by runaway climate change. 

      This was—for the most part—a thankless task, but combined with the efforts of the global Green movement it has finally resulted in a consensus that reaches into all but the darker corners of Andrew Scheer’s caucus.

      So why strike the gloomy note?  The answer: Canada’s first-the-post electoral system, where winner takes all and there are no prizes for second place or good intentions. 

      Unlike in Europe—where proportional representation systems virtually guarantee an increasingly loud and consistent Green voice—the bar is set considerably higher here in Canada. 

      In our electoral system, the popular vote does not directly translate into actual representation: what matters is vote concentration on a riding-by-riding basis.  You can get 10 percent or 12 percent or 14 percent of the popular vote and still wind up with zero seats in Parliament.

      This is why electoral reform in British Columbia was a crucial issue for both the Green movement and the provincial Green party: a successful referendum last year would have broken the first-past-the-post dynamic and ensured that Green perspectives were always at the forefront in these crucial years ahead.

      But now, the prospect of electoral reform is probably well and truly dead for at least a generation.

      So even though recent polls have shown the federal Greens catching up with the federal NDP in the minds of voters, let’s all take a steadying breath and remind ourselves that this will not necessarily translate into a commensurate number of seats.  

      And these electoral mathematics are devastating if you believe, as I do, that the International Panel on Climate Change's recent conclusion is accurate: we have no more than 12 years to effect meaningful climate change. 

      The importance of Green voices, not as a protest but as part of the decision-making calculus of government, will be crucial.

      Will the federal Greens make gains this year? Very likely. But even if they were to double their seat count from two to four this October, then four to eight in the next election, then eight to 16 in the election after that… these heroic strides would still yield less than five percent of the total number of seats in the House.

      That is nowhere near enough, even in the best of circumstances. If the Conservatives (as presently constituted) wind up holding court for any length of time, the circumstances will be decidedly sub-optimal.

      And let's not pretend that the possibility of a minority governments can be a realistic Plan A. A minority is possible, to be sure… but I wouldn’t want to bet our collective future on the votes landing exactly where a handful of Greens will be decisive. Again, that’s just the math. 

      Remember: the B.C. Green party got unreasonably lucky in 2017; if just a few hundred voters in Courtenay-Comox had swung the other way, we would now be living through yet another majority government led by the B.C. Liberals.

      It makes one start to wonder if perhaps federal Green Leader Elizabeth May was on to something when she made much of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott becoming “natural allies” of the federal Green party. 

      While it was—in the moment—literally jaw-dropping to hear May suggest that the best course of action would be for federal Green volunteers to abandon their local candidate to support these former federal Liberals, perhaps she has done some math of her own and reached an unsettlingly pragmatic conclusion. 

      Elizabeth May talks about the decision of two former Liberal cabinets to sit as independents.

      Is courting safe-if-soft allies a better strategy than continuing to pursue elected members? Does the Green endorsement have more impact and immediate value today than trying to elect Green candidates?

      I batted this idea around with Professor Eric Werker, formerly of the Harvard Business School and now with Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. Every spring for the past three years, he has asked me to give a talk on “red ocean / blue ocean” business theory as it pertains to the Green party. Every year, my analysis has gotten a little darker.

      To Werker’s way of thinking, the Greens should still run candidates in the right ridings, but be ready to endorse Green-minded candidates regardless of party affiliation everywhere else.

      And he might be on to something.  

      While the Greens have scored between four percent and six percent at the federal ballot box the last several cycles, their lack of vote concentration has meant only one seat had ever been won outright until Paul Manly’s recent by-election victory. But a Green seal of approval could be the difference in tight races and would have a two-fold impact. 

      Primarily, such a strategy makes the Green endorsement worth courting and, secondarily, it would create a de facto Green caucus that runs throughout government and opposition benches. Such a group could work across party lines to get a lot done. And it would be a useful mechanism to hold elected officials’ collective feet to the fire while in office, as a Green endorsement is something that can be readily revoked.

      But the biggest gain is that such a strategy might radically offset the disadvantage we face in a first-past-the-post system. Getting around that corner can be transformational: as we have seen here in British Columbia, having Green voices at those tables where decisions are being taken can make a big difference. 

      Not always, not perfectly, but it is infinitely more useful than being in the next room. Or down the hall. Or outside the building entirely. 

      So maybe the federal Green party should pivot towards something like Werker’s model, because we are running out of time. 

      In the startup space where I am most comfortable, pivoting is a concept that has a specific meaning. Your planned business model is no longer working, if it ever did, so you sharply change course to a radical new direction where the prospects may be murkier, but the upside is markedly higher. 

      Fellow British Columbian Stewart Butterfield has done this a couple of times, first with Flickr and even more famously with Slack: both started as computer games only to reject that earlier identity to become multimillion- and now multibillion-dollar enterprises. But it takes courage and the right circumstances.

      Maybe this year, there is the right measure of both. And maybe, through this filter, Montreal environmentalist Steven Guilbeault’s decision to run for the federal Liberals is understandable rather than shocking.  

      By all accounts, it is going to be a very strange and very strategic election this fall, one that could very well have serious repercussions for Canada’s climate strategy for years to come.

      We’re in the end game now and we need to start thinking in those terms.

      Matt Toner is the former Vancouver-based deputy leader of the B.C. Green party.  In 2013, he ran for the B.C. NDP against Sam Sullivan in the riding of Vancouver–False Creek.