Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Green Party: Seat or Status? Analysis of a Constitutional Dilemma

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If the Green Party elects Elizabeth May to its leadership, Greens could find themselves sitting in government while simultaneously losing their status as an official party. The Green Party leader would sit in government as an independant.

At least, that's a conclusion that could be drawn after reading the provocative news/analysis/commentary piece written by Murray Dobbin at Rabble News. The odd position the Green Party might find itself in can be explained by the goings-on in the Green Party and by Canada's constitution, which defines the functioning of the Canadian political system.

1. Current Green Party leader Jim Harris has announced he is stepping down because of the Green Party's lack of improvement in its results over the previous election. (Personally, I was surprised, by their negligeable improvement from 4.3% to 4.5%, given that they were polling over 8% at certain points in the race, but I digress...) The result is that the Green Party is having a leadership race that will culminate in an August leadership convention. May is considered by Dobbin to be the front-runner in the race (the only other candidate to date is Ottawa Centre Green candidate David Chernushenko.

Still with me? (So far, Murray Dobbin has written an editorial/news item that says Elizabeth May will succeed Jim Harris as leader of the Greens.)

That's good, because here's where it gets strange. And I don't mean strange like the story of my friend who walked his neighbour's two male dogs for years before finding out they were gay when one mounted the other on a downtown sidewalk. No, this is stranger than that, this is strange in the sense of constitutional peculiarities on the order of a constitutional law professor's wet dream.

2. A party needs to win at least 4% of the national vote to earn the status of 'official party' and the funding associated with that status, according to the Canadian constitution. For that reason, Jim Harris ran candidates in every riding in the country; Harris was giving voters in every electoral district ('riding') the option of voting Green. This optimized the Green Party's chances at attaining the 4% bar for official party status, since the 4% is counted as a percentage of the total national vote. Harris succeeded in this endeavour, and in fact earned 4.3% of the vote in 2004, as mentioned above. Editorialist Dobbins says this garnered the party 1.1 million dollars.

3. A riding is represented in Parliament by the candidate in an election who wins the most votes, still according to the Canadian constitution. Candidates who don't win the riding's seat in Parliament still see the votes they earned go towards their party's count for official party status. This is why the Green Party could be an official party without having seats in Parliament: many people voted for it, but they weren't concentrated enough in any particular riding to win the party a seat.

- So where am I going with this you ask? Dobbin writes that May might change Harris' electoral strategy, and the result is that the Greens might lose official party status and yet win a seat in Parliament.

4. Let me quote Dobbin here:
"While May would probably not replicate Harris's approach of running in every seat — in the process helping elect Conservatives and defeat NDPers — she will minimally want a seat in the House of Commons for herself. Would the NDP, in return for the Greens avoiding ridings where the NDP has a chance, facilitate her election by not running against her?"

The Greens would likely see their national vote count drop, if the Green Party runs less candidates in order to accomodate the NDP. This drop would be significant enough to reduce the Green Party's total percentage of the nation-wide vote below 4%, causing the Green party to lose its status as an official party. By extension, this would cause the Greens to lose their 1.1 million dollar funding that they get for being an official party.

On the other hand, due to the NDP's "reciprocal" accomodation (I put it in "quotation marks" because I feel the Greens would be giving much more to the NDP than the NDP would be giving in return), the Greens might finally get a seat in Parliament... provided May can beat the Conservative, Liberal, and other candidates in her riding.

I'm as conflicted on this as I was on the ethical issue I posted about yesterday concerning what I perceive as the sneaky online advertising techniques promoted by Google Adsense experts.

  • On the one hand, I think the Green Party does a good job raising issues and getting politicos to at least pay lip service to the environment (which they weren't before the Green movement). So I want Greens in Parliament.
  • Yet if there's only one Green in Parliament, who isn't even recognized as a Green but rather considered an independant, and the cost of getting that Green there is to lose official party status... well, I don't think having a Green in Parliament is such a great idea. One step forward and two steps back, as it were.

I should note also that May is founder of the well-known environmentalist Sierrra Club. More importantly, she wants the Green Party to grow beyond being about the environment only. This in turn might keep the Greens above official party status by getting votes from people who wouldn't vote Green since they were a one-issue party.

It comes down to crunching the statistics and seeing which approach is more beneficial electorally and financially to the Green Party.

May is definitely going to increase my interest in the Green Party, at any rate.
I'll hopefully have a comment on this development (in the near future) from Quebec NDPer Nicolas Thibodeau .

Related articles in the categories of: , the , , , the , , and last, but not least, the :

  1. Murray Dobbin's article on the Green Party
  2. Canada's Political System The Queen, the House, the Senate, the PM, the MPs etc.
  3. Stereotypes of the Official Parties's tax policies
  4. Platforms of the parties with official status


At 9:44 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger Kerry said:

I'm not particularly enthused about the ideas put forward about winning a seat but losing official party status. What impact could she possibly have as an independent? She would be able to sit on various committees, but that's about it. I prefer the Harris/Chernushenko approach.

(P.S. I'd posted about helping out with promotion and such when I still had my other blog, but two blogs of my own became too much to handle and I closed the political one. I still want to help out -- kerawall at gmail dot com.)

At 11:06 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger lecentre said:

Hi Kerry,
I tried to contact you but couldn't find your email on your site, so I left a bunch of comments.
I'm not crazy about the Greens jeapordizing their official party status, but if May gets more people interested by growing the platform, that might potentially compensate. Like I said, you'd have to compare the numbers lost by running fewer candidates and the numbers won by expanding the platform. My hypothesis is that it would lose more votes with May's approach than it would gain, and May might not even win her seat...
Especially if people react negatively to the anti-democratic collaboration that is the nature of the proposed deal.
I don't know if Chernuschenko would follow the same approach, though.

Another factor is the following May has in environmental circles. Dobbin says these people traditionally don't work in the frame of electoral politics. If May can get them voting though, that's probably a huge potential, not to mention donations they might make...

At 6:44 p.m., Canadian Politico Blogger Mark Greenan said:

There are some important factual inaccuracies I feel the need to correct in your analysis before continued with some observations on Green electoral strategy.

First, you appear to be misunderstand the meaning of the term "official party" in the Canadian context - and it most certainly is NOT mentioned anywhere in the constitution, which never mentions political parties (or the position of Prime Minister). I must admit I've never heard this precise term and there are some mistakes in how you're defining it. Perhaps you are thinking of the concept of "official party status" which is extra funding and parliamentary priviliges that accrue to each party that wins 12 seats in the House of Commons.

Second, the bar to achieve public funding for a political party is NOT 4% as you say, rather it is 2%. This is significant because it affects one of the main premises of your argument - that the Greens can't afford to run any less than 308 candidates. Indeed, the Greens could very well run candidates in around 200-250 ridings and not be too worried about losing the $1.75 per vote they get every year as a public subsidy.

Third, none of the distinctions you discuss are constitutional in nature. As I mentioned, there are no references to political parties in the Canadian constitution. All of the things you discuss - such as public funding for political parties and our first-past-the-post electoral system (the real factor keeping Greens out of the House) - are merely established by electoral law. This means that unlike the constitution, they can be changed by a mere majority vote in the House of Commons.

Finally, thanks to a decision of the Supreme Court (Crown v. Figueroa, I believe was the exact name) most of the distinctions between "major" and "minor" political parties in Canadian electoral law have been abolished. The only remaining distinction is the aforementioned 2% threshold to receive a public subsidy which the Greens, under Jim Harris' leadership, have begun to challenge in the courts.

So now knowing that the Greens could lose over half their votes from the 2006 election and still receive SOME public funding, how does that affect your opinion of Dobbin's article?

I'm not a Green myself, but I would certainly like to see them represented in the House of Commons. However, I think it is extremely naive to think that will happen under our current electoral system. In the entire history of the Green movement, there have only been two Green parliamentarians elected in single member ridings - as we use here for Canadian elections. One of those was a very popular German parliamentarian who had been previously elected as a list candidate under their mixed member proportional system and the other was a New Zealand Green elected when their her main local opponent on the left (a Labour party canadidate) was cut off from support from the central party, so as to aid the Green's chances of winning (the very sort of compromise Dobbin is proposing).

While May is a strong environmentalist, committed activist and has and will contribute greatly to Canadian public life, it is unlikely she will ever be elected as a Green MP unless the NDP stands down in her riding or until we move to a form of proportional representation (PR). And I would (and have to Jim Harris and most likely will to Elizabeth May) argue that the Greens' 308 candidate strategy is holding back progress on PR.

The federal NDP is the only party currently in parliament that proposes the use of a PR system for our federal elections. The issue of electoral reform was ignored and then cynically delayed by the Liberals over the past decade. Stephen Harper talks openly of his desire for a majority goverment, which reflects his disdain for PR - as it would make majority governments a near impossibility.

Principled electoral co-operation between the NDP and Greens, like Dobbin suggests, would ensure that our next parliament is much more receptive to electoral reform (and the environment, I woudl argue). It could help Ms. May take a seat in parliament and increase the NDPs seat count - thereby ensuring that PR doesn't again slip off the parliamentary agenda. Because let's not kid ourselves, Harper is more than happy to have three parties running to his left in every riding in the country, it's a big part of his majority government strategy.

I respect May's contention that the decision to stand down candidates is not solely hers to make, but I hope she sees that it is crucial for the Green Party's long term interests for her to call for her party to endorse a more pragmatic electoral strategy and find a way to cooperate in some ridings with their natural allies - the NDP.


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