Why Canada’s Green Party is (finally) a prime-time draw
Elizabeth May, the Green candidate, will make history by appearing in a nationally televised debate on Thursday night.
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While the Green Party has a long history of electoral success in Europe, with strong representation in countries like Germany, Italy, and Ireland, the party hasn’t made significant inroads in North America.Skip to next paragraph
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In the 2006 Canadian federal election, the Green Party garnered 660,000 votes, or 4.5 percent of those cast.
May has her sights set on a much bigger piece of the pie this time around. She said this week that she hopes to win at least 12 seats in the election. Canadians head to the polls October 14.
But many observers are sceptical. Wilfrid Laurier University political scientist David Doherty says that despite the uptick in support, it’s unlikely that the Green Party will achieve a major breakthrough.
“Our electoral system isn’t exactly democratic,” Professor Doherty says. “It tends to punish smaller parties, while rewarding a winner who may not even have a majority of the votes.”
The “first past the post” or plurality system means that while everyone gets a vote, some votes effectively count more than others. The winner is the one who places first, not necessarily the candidate who receives a majority of votes. The electoral system tends to reward parties that are able to bunch their votes geographically. In 26 federal elections held since 1921, there have been 16 majority governments elected but only two that actually commanded a majority of the vote.
The way Doherty sees it, the Green Party may have a shot at winning three or four seats. But he adds that even if the party manages to double its popular vote from 2006, it may not win a single seat in Parliament.
May’s shot at expanding the party’s power in Parliament may have been further diminished Tuesday when Canada’s two most powerful environmental groups issued a call to its members to “vote strategically.” In other words, they are urging Canadians to support any party that will defeat the Conservatives. “We are nonpartisan,” explains Bruce Cox, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. “Our goal is to send a very clear message to voters. If you want real action on climate change, you must vote for anyone other than the party that we believe has the worst environmental plan for Canada going forward.”
By all accounts, May is undaunted by these obstacles as she heads into the debate. Her first triumph in this campaign was, in effect, to win a spot at the podium. Last month, two of the major party leaders balked at including May in the debate. However, facing a heated backlash from the Canadian public, they retreated, allowing May to join in.
May comes by her political passions honestly. She was born in Hartford, Conn., where her mother was an early antinuclear activist who campaigned for the Democrats alongside Bill Clinton. The family moved to Cape Breton on Canada’s east coast to open a restaurant in a schooner where May worked as waitress while still a teenager.