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The Failure of Green Electoralism

By Stuart Hertzog
December 30th, 2009

After 25 years of trying, Canada’s Green parties are going nowhere

VICTORIA, BC — I write these words regretfully, but after a quarter of a century of dogged snuffling along the trail of electoral aspiration, it should be obvious to all but the most fervid Green Party supporter that apart from pushing the mainstream political parties to slightly ‘green’ their political images, the collective Green political effort has resulted in almost complete electoral failure.

True, a tiny number of Greens sit as councillors in a smattering of Canada’s 3,700 municipalities, the ‘third level’ of government in this country. But mostly these are self-declared Greens with only a loose party affiliation and rudimentary electoral organisations. There’s not much connection between the various Green parties in the three levels of Canadian democracy, and municipal governments in Canada are limited by being the cash-strapped children of the provincial.

Although the current failure of Green electoralism has become obvious to any astute political observer, apparently this hasn’t dawned on the fervent core of Green supporters. This relatively tiny handful of active party members still believe that an historic breakthrough will elevate a first Green representative to Canada’s parliament or any of its thirteen provincial legislatures.

They might as well be longing for the Rapture. The fact that there’s not much chance of this happening doesn’t seem to dampen their boundless enthusiasm, nor their ability to denigrate anyone who disagrees with their hopelessly naïve and introverted vision. Under Canada’s first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all electoral system, there is little chance of Greens being elected either federally or provincially in the foreseeable future.

Greens and other Canadian electoral reformers have failed to get Canada’s electoral system changed to one of proportional representation, which can accommodate more than two political parties and grant a share of seats to minor parties such as the Greens. Without proportional representation, there’s not much hope of Greens ever sitting in the federal parliament or a provincial legislature.

Declining membership

Despite the “greening” or everything and the growing public awareness of the need for a sustainable society, as well as the recent high level of public concern about global warming and climate change, membership in all Canadian Green parties is falling. Their fundraising campaigns are producing ever-lower returns and only the federal grant money that goes to all political parties on the strength of their total vote is keeping the Green Party of Canada going at its present level of expenditure.

Fewer than 12,000 of a total population of 33.5 million Canadians are members of the Green Party of Canada, and on this country’s supposedly ‘green’ west coast, the Green Party of British Columbia can only claim a tenth of that number — 1,200 members in a province of 4.4 million, an even lower uptake.

Electoral support for Green parties varies from about 2.5% in the conservative Maritime provinces on Canada’s east coast, to a high of around 17% in the greenest urban areas of British Columbia. Recent national polls show the Green Party stalled at around 10-12% support, a number that drops to around 9% at election time, making the Green Party of Canada the minor and almost inconsequential fifth player in Canadian electoral politics. The Green Party hit the skids during a recent round of four federal by-elections, attracting an average of only 3.4% of the vote.

Canada’s Green parties are organisationally weak, with power concentrated into highly-centralised party councils and very few active electoral associations thriving at the grassroots level. Despite its avowed belief in participatory democracy, inward-looking and self-serving leadership cliques control all critical party decisions. The current domination of the central party apparatus by the clique surrounding leader Elizabeth May, currently its Great White Hope for becoming Canada’s first Green MP, has only made this progression so much worse.

A recent Nanos poll placed May way at the bottom of voters’ approval ratings. Only 4.6% of respondents rated her as the most trustworthy national party leader; 2.3% saw her as the most competent; and a dismal 2.8% believed that she has the best vision for Canada’s future. For a party that promotes itself as being able to envision a sustainable future, this is as close to a complete wipeout as polling can get.

Hoping for a miracle

You may argue that the Green electoral movement has been successful just by existing and running candidates, and that it will grow as future generations of voters come of age. This may happen — miracles are always unexpected — but it is not today’s reality. Although polling shows support for the Greens strongest among 18-25 year-olds, not all of these young voters are going to vote Green, if they vote at all. There is support for all the political parties amongst this age group, and as they mature and acquire familial responsibilities they are likely to acquire more conventional voting habits as the idealism of youth fades.

Has support for Green parties peaked in this country? The numbers would suggest that it has. If so, the perennial question arises as to whether the existence of Green parties only serves to split the environmental vote and prevent green-leaning and socially progressive governments from ever being elected. Has the time come to abandon the Green electoral experiment? Looked at dispassionately, the party’s actual performance is not encouraging for anyone who believes in Green political principles. (There must be one or two others besides myself.)

I paint a dismal picture, but the sober light of reality does not support on the inflated claims of the leadership of a political party that clearly has lost its way. Without a fundamental change of structure and approach, Canada’s Green parties will continue their slide into a political oblivion brought about by their own hubris and lack of vision. “Where there is no vision, the people perish” — how true this rings for Canada’s Green parties. It is clear that Green electoralism has failed in Canada. To deny this is to cling to unreality. The Green Titanic is essentially sunk.

Lifeboats, anyone? Or should the band just play on?


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