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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Elizabeth May, Canada’s Green Party candidate, at a whistle-stop in Vancouver.
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One way or another, Canada’s Green Party leader Elizabeth May will make history this week.

The mother, lawyer, environmental activist, and native of Connecticut will be the first Green Party member to participate in national televised debates on equal footing with Canada’s mainstream party leaders.

The debates – in French on Wednesday and in English on Thursday night – are “make or break” events for a party long relegated to the fringes of Canadian politics. Despite Green Party success in Europe, Canadians have yet to elect a single Green member to Parliament.

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Voter concern over high oil prices and climate change have thrust the environment into the center of Canadian politics. But political analysts attribute the party’s rise in the polls to Ms. May’s scrappy, off-the-cuff campaign style. She has a giftfor rhetorical thunder that seems to resonate with voters.

“She’s got lots of natural charisma,” says Karen Bird, who teaches Canadian politics at Hamilton’s McMaster University. “She seems to be a person of integrity who is down to earth. She’s not obsequious. She tells you what she really thinks and where she stands and I think a lot of people respond to that.”

Earlier this week, May said she planned to employ that “spontaneous, from-the-heart” approach to disarm her political foes in two debates (Wednesday night in French, Thursday in English) in which five party leaders will compete.

The debates give May a shot at establishing herself as a serious contender in the eyes of the Canadian electorate. Recent polls put the ruling Conservative Party within striking distance of forming a majority government. The once mighty Liberal Party, currently the official opposition, is sinking like a stone. The Liberal Party is polling last, for example, in British Columbia, behind the Tories, the left-leaning New Democratic Party, and the Greens. The most recent Press Harris-Decima poll has the Green Party polling at 10 percent.

At the heart of the May’s Green Party policy platform is a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taxing polluters while doling out tax breaks to companies and individuals that reduce their carbon output. She campaigned this past week in a cross-Canada tour by train instead of by plane, a lower carbon-footprint form of transportation. She has not driven a car, according to media reports, in 20 years.

But May is also keen to stamp out the perception that the Green Party is a left-wing party full of treehuggers. Instead, she emphasizes a platform that is socially progressive with fiscally conservative ideas.

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.

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.

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