Green New Deal News

The Green Party seemed to be surging. So what happened?

OTTAWA — It looked like the moment the Green Party had been waiting for. At the start of the federal election campaign, the party was polling at record highs, just behind the NDP. It seemed the two parties might be in a race for third place, for the first time in Green Party history.

It didn’t pan out. On election night, leader Elizabeth May and Paul Manly, the party’s only other MP, kept hold of their Vancouver Island seats. Across the country in Fredericton, 32-year-old Jenica Atwin won the party’s third seat in a surprise victory against a Liberal incumbent.

But the hoped-for wave that would see the Green Party win new ridings on Vancouver Island and maybe even claim the 12 seats required for official party status — never came. The Green Party doubled its vote share from 2015, but is left with too few seats to have any real leverage in a minority Parliament where the Liberals and NDP together have a majority of votes.

The explanation for this depends on who you ask. The NDP and leader Jagmeet Singh benefitted from a late-stage bump in the polls. But the New Democrats also ran a tough campaign attacking the Green candidates on Vancouver Island — a “smear campaign,” May claims — that the Greens weren’t able to counter.

May also made errors during the campaign, on questions about abortion and Quebec sovereignty. Party insiders and observers said the Greens, unused to the type of criticism major political parties face during campaigns, weren’t equipped to deal with the fallout.

“When you’re under less scrutiny, a lot of people can sort of insert their own ideas about what you’re about,” said Glen Sanford, the NDP’s B.C. campaign director. “And then as you come under more scrutiny, often that exposes some deep problems, and I think that that happened with the Green Party in this election.”

Ultimately, in an election that focused more on climate change than any that preceded it, the Green Party still emerged as a marginal political force. The question the party now faces is where to go from here.


Last Thursday, May revealed her conditions for supporting a Liberal minority government in an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Key among them was a demand that the government increase its existing 2030 target for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The Greens also want to work with the Liberals and NDP to bring in national pharmacare, reduce cell phone charges and pursue electoral reform.

But May acknowledged the Liberals won’t need the Greens’ cooperation to win votes. “They’ll be able to pick their dancing partners,” she said.

The Green Party’s primary targets in this campaign were two additional ridings on Vancouver Island, Victoria and Esquimalt—Saanich—Sooke, but the NDP managed to hold them off. Jonathan Dickie, the Green Party’s national campaign manager, attributed much of the disappointing result to a national surge in support for Singh and the NDP late in the campaign. “We went into the campaign quite well-positioned against them,” he told the National Post. “They gained some momentum at a critical part of the campaign, and we weren’t able to match it.”

But May also distracted from her own campaign early on. In an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics in September, she said she couldn’t prevent Green MPs from trying to reopen the debate on abortion, because she can’t whip votes. She later clarified the party would screen out candidates who don’t support abortion rights, but the issue dogged her through the campaign.

“I think some missteps in the campaign set them off on the wrong foot,” said Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

May also got into trouble after Pierre Nantel, her highest-profile candidate in Quebec, said in a radio interview that Quebec should separate from Canada “as soon as possible.” May initially denied that Nantel was a sovereigntist, but later softened her position, claiming she was comfortable with his candidacy because he had never worked to break up the country during his years as an NDP MP.

The Green Party suffered another blow when the former parliamentary budget officer gave their costed platform a failing grade for responsible fiscal management and transparency. May’s opponents used this against her, though a re-released version of the platform later received a passing grade.

The NDP used May’s comments on abortion to attack the Greens in a leaflet mailed to voters on Vancouver Island late in the campaign, drawing links between the Green Party and the Conservatives. May said that the party didn’t respond strongly enough. “We didn’t think that smears and attacks would be sufficient to erode the leads we had,” she told reporters.

Dickie said the Greens didn’t expect those issues to take up so much oxygen. “We certainly realize that we’ve got to be prepared when we’re attacked,” he said. “We noticed… that we were under far more attack than we were under previous campaigns.”


Questions are swirling now about whether it might be time for May to pass the torch. On Thursday, she told reporters she’s unlikely to stay on as leader for four more years, though she intends to run again as an MP and could lead the party through another election if it comes sooner rather than later.

May, who is now 65 years old, has led the party since 2006 and was its lone MP from 2011 until Manly won a by-election last May. “I think parties can sometimes go as far as they’re going to go with one leader, and if Elizabeth May’s ready to hand over the reins, there’s lots of potential to shake up the party with a new leader,” said Harrison.

But there’s another explanation for the Greens’ failure to launch that has little to do with May: possibly the wave was never coming. “I think that the media’s often looked for a story about Green gains,” said one NDP source, who spoke to the Post on background. “We’ve heard about Green breakthroughs that just don’t materialize.”

Harrison said one of the challenges of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system is that candidates have to convince voters they can win to gain their votes — a tipping point the Greens mostly haven’t reached. “Parties aren’t competitive until voters believe they’re competitive,” she said.

While the Greens have made gains, the NDP source said, they’re often overrepresented in polls relative to how they perform on Election Day.

“A lot of people don’t realize how weak the Green ground game is,” the source said. “I think that that’s mostly what happens, is that people get into the hype without paying attention to the reality.”

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