Martyn Brown: Too much, the B.C. Greens' Magic Bus

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      B.C. Green party leader Andrew Weaver must have thought he died and went to heaven last week. A miracle happened.

      His press event announcing his party’s New Economy platform made the news in all of B.C.’s major media. And on the same day as the federal budget, no less. Interesting choice of timing. But hey, it still got lots of attention and that must have made the NDP green with envy.

      In addition to all of the major newspapers and radio stations, CTV covered it prominently and even followed its story up with a five-and-a-half minute interview with Weaver on its morning show.

      And miracle of miracles, Global found it worthy enough to run this video, this Keith Baldrey column, and this feature under the headline, “B.C. Green Party unveils economic plan” (which also mistakenly links readers to a video of Baldrey’s federal budget coverage).

      Still, for the Greens—and even more so for the B.C. Liberals—it was like winning the lottery. And if it is any indication of what we should expect in the run-up to the May 9 election, it is the NDP’s worst nightmare.

      Why? Because Global didn’t stop there.

      Click on those video links and you will be immediately confronted with one of three ads, far as I can tell. The first and easily most prolific is that ridiculous NDP attack ad from “Citizens for B.C.”—a B.C. Liberal surrogate mouthpiece that is funded by corporate “dark money”.

      It is spending untold sums to lie about John Horgan’s position on the Leap Manifesto and to reinforce the endless “Say Anything John” ads that are inundating the airwaves from that other dark-monied entity that calls itself Future Prosperity B.C.

      Dark money is trying to turn the Leap Manifesto into a provincial election issue.

      Throw in the millions more that Global is raking from the Clark government’s outrageous political ads and from the B.C. Liberals’ tandem campaign, and it’s hard to separate the “news” from those who pay for it.

      It is an unprecedented level of partisan carpet-bombing and a truly newsworthy story that you can bet the grateful moguls at Global will never want covered.

      But I digress. What about the Greens? It seems they are on a bit of a roll.

      With the help of the Clark government and the media, which both have an interest in driving the vote-splitting-wedge storyline pitting the Greens against the NDP, Weaver has leveraged his One Man Army into a serious political factor, if not a seriously viable force.

      Call it deluded, wishful thinking, or just dishonest hyperbole, but he claims that his Greens have their sights set on government.

      "We're running to govern. We are running to govern this province. You know, you don't enter a race to finish third place," he said.

      OK, Andrew. Though no one believes you really mean that. In fact, just saying that makes you sound like every other politician. It hurts your credibility as it undermines your party’s brand-claim to authenticity.

      As things stand, it would be a Herculean feat for the Greens to win the four seats needed to obtain official party status.

      The story about the Greens' economic plan also offered an ad thrashing the B.C. NDP.

      The Greens have some exceptional candidates

      In addition to Weaver’s seat, the party’s former interim leader, Adam Olsen, will be very competitive in my riding of Saanich North and the Islands. He came within 379 votes of winning in 2013. Then again, he finished third, behind the B.C. Liberals’ Stephen Roberts, who only lost to the NDP’s Gary Holman by 163 votes, and who is also running again.

      In Victoria-Beacon Hill, former B.C. Green party leader Jane Sterk did come second, with 34 percent, to former NDP leader Carole James, yet still lost by 3,901 votes. The Green’s 2017 candidate Kalen Harris is a solid contender, but James should be a safe bet.

      The Greens’ Sonia Fursteneau might have an outside chance in displacing the NDP in Cowichan Valley, given her profile and popularity. Yet even in that so-called “competitive riding,” the last Green candidate lost by almost 5,600 votes and only garnered 19 percent of the vote.

      Weaver has put together an impressive team of candidates. It includes many other stellar individuals, like Vancouver-Langara’s Janet Fraser, West Vancouver-Capilano’s Michael Marwick, Burnaby-Deer Lake’s Rick McGowan, and Burnaby North’s Peter Hallschmid.

      What other party can claim six candidates with PhDs that mark them as experts in climate science, cancer research, communications, chemistry, and electrical and computer engineering?

      The calibre of talent and diversity of experience that Weaver has assembled is a quantum leap beyond any slate previously offered by the B.C. Greens.

      Similarly, the depth of policy and strength of the party’s much more realistic and broadly appealing platform is light years ahead of anything it has previously offered B.C. voters.

      One of the Greens' best hopes is Sonia Furstenau in the Cowichan Valley.

      As last week’s New Economy plank showed, Weaver has developed a compelling support network of advisers, creative thinkers, and policy experts to help him put together a cogent vision for sustainable growth that does his party proud.

      Yet if history is any guide, so much of that will be for naught. Like Joe Keithley's candidacy in Burnaby-Lougheed, I expect it will be dead on arrival when the writ drops, leaving the Greens once again in the familiar role as NDP spoilers, perennial bridesmaids, and also-rans.

      Certainly no one in their right mind, whose primary goal is to defeat the B.C. Liberals and to replace the Clark government, will see the Greens as a viable alternative. Which doesn’t mean that Weaver’s Green team won’t win many more votes than its predecessors have previously managed in British Columbia. It should and probably will.

      The bus could be a downer

      Money matters. And Weaver has attracted lots more of it than either Sterk or former longtime B.C. Green leader Adrian Carr could have ever dreamt of raising.

      With nearly a million bucks in the kitty, so we are told, he has enough for at least a plausible provincial campaign, complete with 12 paid staffers and—wait for it—a bus!

      Where will that bus go, I wonder, and who will be on it?

      With no Green candidates as yet in the two Kootenay ridings, in the two South Okanagan ridings, or in seven of the nine northern ridings, the crowds might be hard to come by in those regions. Perhaps it will be a nature excursion, nothing to be heard but the buzzing of bees and all eyes aboard peeled for an occasional bear sighting.

      The party yet has to find candidates in four of the nine Surrey constituencies, or in any of two Langley and three Abbostford ridings.

      I think it is safe to assume its organizational strength and support is at best suspect in all of those areas.

      So again, why the bus?

      Based on my experience as former the B.C. Reform party’s top strategist in the 1996 provincial election, I am already vicariously feeling Weaver’s pain.

      Sure, he will be able to use his bus as an expensive advertising prop that gets seen from time to time on Vancouver Island and throughout much of Metro Vancouver. But where will it be going? What should people expect when it stops? And what expectations does a “bus tour” fuel—especially one powered by clean fuel?

      Believe me, the bubble can burst in a hurry for all those with stars in their eyes on a Magic Bus.

      For the leader, it can be a soul-crushing crash back to reality.

      For whatever media gets cajoled or conned into hopping aboard that Magic Bus, it can quickly put a campaign’s true breadth of support and organizational strength in pathetic perspective.

      Back in 1996, the B.C. Reform entered the campaign with official party status—four MLAs. It was sitting in the high teens or low 20s in the opinion polls. Its ostensible geographic support base was quite broad, from the Fraser Valley to most regions beyond Hope.

      What happened? The party’s leader, Jack Weisgerber, had a triumphant first day as the bus headed east from Metro Vancouver, with all the “throngs” of supporters the party could muster from Abbotsford to Oliver. Then it all went south.

      The crowds we thought were assured in the B.C. Reform’s strongest turf in the Okanagan simply didn’t show up. And from there, it went from bad to worse, as Weisgerber’s Magic Bus sadly trundled its way to the Kootenay and Columbia River region and back to the Thompson-Cariboo and eventually on up North.

      Yes, the bus met the odd worthy-enough sized crowd at a handful of communities along its tortured journey. Yet by Day Three, the media realized that the B.C. Reform phenomenon, with its full slate of candidates and its highly credible leader, was all so much hot air.

      The media jumped off-board as quickly as it first hopped on the non-Magic Bus. It largely ignored the party for the rest of the campaign, not the least of which was because the bus travelled without the media to places that were outside of the media coverage range.

      Weisgerber did fine in the leaders’ debate, but not remotely well enough to fundamentally alter the inevitable election results. His party wound up with just over nine percent of the vote and only two MLAs.

      Too much, that Magic Bus, which promised so much and delivered so little.

      B.C. NDP Leader is going to be most voters' go-to choice if the ballot question is whether to throw out the B.C. Liberal government.

      Does the public want a new government?

      Here’s the thing. People don’t typically vote for distant third parties, like the B.C. Green party or the B.C. Reform party, because they believe they might form the government, or ever put their policies into action.

      On the contrary, those who vote for such parties usually don’t care much at all who forms the government. So for them, the fears about vote-splitting and the appeals to strategic voting simply don’t apply. Which is why the NDP is so tormented by the Green candidates in its target ridings.

      Lots of voters say they intend to support the “principled parties” before the writ is dropped, and the polls often show that.

      But it is the rare “principled voter” who means what they said to the pollsters. Principles tend to go out the window when people enter the ballot box and have to fully come to grips with each election’s most basic question: do I really want a new government? If so, which candidate, party, and leader can best deliver that result in this riding?

      If Weaver wants to win more seats, instead of trying to position his party as a viable contender for government, which it demonstrably is not, he would be wise reposition his Magic Bus before its rubber meets the road.

      Those whom he hopes will vote Green won’t likely do so if they care about changing the government. He and his party are not that agent of change in the eyes of a potential winning plurality of voters in the vast majority of ridings that need to fall from the Liberals’ clutches if we are to elect a new government.

      People might vote for the Greens in large enough numbers to be truly competitive in maybe a handful of ridings, which at this point, are very tough to identify. Especially if Horgan and the NDP are successful in making this election the referendum on change it should be.

      Some people might vote for the Greens to elect a few more MLAs who could add to Weaver’s voice in pushing the NDP to embrace positions and policies it might otherwise not support. It’s not a bad reason, if you don’t care about re-electing the Liberals and you want to consolidate the Greens’ electoral status.

      There is no doubt that Weaver has already made a major impact on NDP policy.

      Does anyone honestly believe that Horgan would have gone as far as he has in opposing the Kinder Morgan project, the Pacific Northwest LNG project, the Site C dam, the Grizzly trophy hunt, or even Big Money in politics, if it were not for Weaver’s legislative presence and for the Greens’ threat to the NDP’s environmental support base? Give your head a shake.

      Other people might vote for the Greens because they can’t stomach voting yet again for the Clark’s Liberals, but they also just can’t bring themselves to vote for the NDP.

      Weaver should target that message a lot more than he has. It might not earn his party a whole lot more seats, but it could help to create some interesting races in traditionally safer B.C. Liberal seats. At this point, he seems almost more intent on attacking the NDP than on displacing the Clark government.

      If Weaver takes his Magic Bus on a truly provincial campaign, he will almost certainly spread his very limited resource too thin. He will also reveal his party to be a paper tiger that has lots of ideas, but almost no members, embarrassingly little support, and too little clout to carry media interest or coverage.

      The provincial bus campaign also serves to drive NDP swing voters’ legitimate fears about vote-splitting. The more that fear resonates, the more it will lead many of those swing voters to stampede back to their Orange Fold as the best bet to send Clark’s Blue Meanies packing.

      Again, voters could learn a thing or two from revisiting the 1996 campaign, when the tables were reversed and the B.C. Reform party’s provincewide presence likely cost the B.C. Liberals that election.

      It raises the question, why, really, would anyone vote Green?

      To gain a voice for change that another Liberal government would only deny? It defies logic.

      To gain a stronger voice for change in maybe a few ridings that might push the NDP to listen in ways it otherwise would not? Perhaps even holding the balance of power in an NDP minority government? Might make sense, but very risky, if you want a change in government.

      Or to register your protest to the B.C. Liberals on issues that matter, in ridings they hold, which they deserve to forfeit? In which case, Weaver would be wiser to make the Clark government the prime target of his attacks, rather than the NDP, as it now seems to be.

      After all, for most undecided voters, including many disaffected traditional B.C. Liberal supporters, the goal is not a Green government, per se. It is a new government with a decidedly green and more progressive bent.

      Pretending otherwise is a Magic Bus that’s too much. Like the song goes, “I want it, I want it, I want it, I want it ... (You can't have it!)”

      Kudos to Weaver and his entire Green team for the choices it is offering all voters and for the leadership it has shown in driving its agenda this far.

      Just don’t be surprised if the wheels fall off the bus once it hits the road. On the inside, I will bet it will look more like a bowling alley than the media circus the Greens are hoping to generate in their zeal to compete in the Big Time. 

      “ Note: an earlier version of this story contained references to content on Global BC’s website that was seen on the author’s computer at the time of writing and appears to be no longer offered or relevant. Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at