More fundamental than the climate

The thing that Greens care about more fundamentally than anything — perhaps for some Greens it matters more than climate — is that we fix the voting system.

So said Elizabeth May, the leader of the Canadian Green Party. She was commenting on a “non-compete” agreement that she recently struck with Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, in which the latter has agreed to explore reforms to Canada’s electoral system.

I can’t argue with the green priority: Addressing the fundamental environmental issues of our time, including climate change, would be advanced significantly by addressing the fundamental democratic deficit of countries still mired in first-past-the-post politics, such as Canada, the U.K., and the USA. Greens have rarely won seats under FPTP in national, state, or provincial-level legislative races.1 However, when they have been in parliament under proportional-representation systems, they have sometimes been able to be in government (as in Germany, 1998-2005, and the Czech Republic currently) or to influence policy even in the absence of executive positions (as in New Zealand currently).

The importance of PR to a party like the Greens is evident from a nationwide Canadian poll from early March. It showed the Green Party polling at 13%, compared to the 4.5% it won in the 2006 election. When asked on CBC whether that support would translate into electing a member of parliament, Greens leader May correctly noted, “We are not a regionally-based party, and as such, the first-past-the-post system does tend to work against us.” Indeed, the Quebec Bloc won only 10.5% of the national vote in 2006, yet won 16.6% of the seats. The FPTP system is biased towards smaller parties with regional support and against those of about the same size with more dispersed support.

As beneficial as stand-down (no-compete) deals and an eventual move to proportional representation would be for the Greens, there is less to this deal than meets the eye. The deal calls for the Liberals to stand down in May’s riding (electoral district), where the Liberal has no chance of winning.2 In exchange, the Greens will not compete in Dion’s riding, which is entirely safe for the Liberal party, anyway. The agreement thus has no promise of actually helping Greens get into parliament, from where they would be able to hold Dion and his party to the promise to begin serious discussion of electoral reform and to action on climate change should the Liberals form a minority government after the next election.

The deal is much more about Liberal-NDP and Green-NDP competition than it is about representation for the Greens or a process of electoral reform. The NDP and the Greens, to a significant extent, share overlapping voter bases, while the NDP and the Liberals are also in competition with one another in many ridings across Canada. For example, the NDP won about 17% of the vote in 2006, but in the poll that put the Greens on 13%, the NDP was also at 13%, while the Liberals were at 27% (compared to just over 30% in the 2006 election). The Conservative vote, on the other hand, appears relatively unaffected by the votes of the Green-NDP-Liberal segments of the electorate.3 In the 2006 election and the referenced poll (as well as many other polls in the past year), the Liberal-NDP-Green combo represents a majority of the votes. And, while the parties disagree on many things amongst themselves, a PR system would translate these parties’ recent levels of support into a majority in parliament.

However, under FPTP, these parties are in competition with one another in a way that could benefit the Conservatives, unless the Liberal party can persuade more potential NDP or Green voters to vote for it than for one of the smaller parties. More votes for the Greens will hurt the NDP the most; moreover, a Liberal party seen as out-greening the NDP may be able to retain some environmentally conscious votes that would otherwise go NDP, if not Green. Finally, in several ridings, drawing votes away from the NDP, whether they go to the Greens or the Liberals, could boost Liberals against Conservative competition.

As Stephen Maer, in The Chronicle Herald notes:

Ms. May’s endorsement should help Mr. Dion, but the advantages to Ms. May are not as clear, except that she seems to think it’s the right thing to do. […]

Ms. May is a bigger threat to the electoral prospects of NDP Leader Jack Layton than to Stephen Harper…

Jack Layton, NDP leader, suggested he sees the threat to his party when he posed the rhetorical question, “If Ms. May thinks Mr. Dion would make the best prime minister, why isn’t she running as a Liberal?” Of course, she is doing this to raise the profile of a party that will always struggle to survive under FPTP. And that takes us full circle, back to the fundamental importance of electoral reform in order to elect blocs of legislators committed to climate-change policy. Thanks to the deal, Canadian papers for several days have given quite a lot of coverage to electoral reform and the Green Party. A short-term success, at least!

___
1. I know of two FPTP races won by Green candidates, both in mixed-member proportional electoral systems. The NZ Greens co-leader, Jeanette Fitzsimmons, won the single-seat district for Coromandel in 1999. (In that election, it was not clear the party would pass the party-list threshold and if it had not, the party’s presence in parliament would have depended on the district win. The party has not held the seat since, but has remained above the threshold nationally.) Hans Christian Stroebele won the constituency of Kreuzberg in Berlin for the Green Party in the 2005 German federal election. A Green came close to winning a riding in BC’s last provincial election, but there is no value to being “close” under FPTP! (Some Greens have been elected in single-seat districts in France, where a two-round system is used and the party has benefited from cross-district cooperative arrangements with left allies.)

2. The riding is Central Nova, in Nova Scotia. It is currently held by Peter MacKay, a minister in the current Conservative federal cabinet who won 40.7% of the vote in 2006. Then NDP came in second, with 32.9% and the Liberal third, with 24.6%. A different Green candidate in 2006 won 1.6%, or 671 votes. In a wonderful twist, the Liberal candidate who now won’t be running is named Susan Green! (Thanks to Idealistic Pragmatist for that tip.)

3. Other polls around the same time show the Greens with less support. Most of those other polls also show the NDP very marginally higher and the Liberals also somewhat higher. The Conservative vote appears a bit more stable, though it has reached 40% in the occasional poll. The site linked in this note shows a graph of polling trends.

0 thoughts on “More fundamental than the climate

  1. One fun thing to note about Elizabeth May, is that she was an adviser to Brian Mulroney’s environment minister. A few mounts ago, she was a judge on an environmental panel that declared Brian Mulroney to be the “greenest” prime minister of all Canadian prime ministers.

    It does suggest that she’s more pragmatic than the average “romantic with a cause”. It also shows a level of sophistication and strategy that’s usually absent from marginal parties. If she is able to get her party to walk that line, she might be able to move things around a little bit in Ottawa. Of course the Green party’s base might not fully appreciate the potential benefits of that strategy.

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