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Green Spoilers?

The Greens will be lucky to win a seat in B.C. but may determine who wins several tight races. Call it the 'Nader scenario'.

By Tom Barrett 21 Jun 2004 |
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The Green party could play the role of spoiler in Monday's federal election - but who they end up hurting is anybody's guess.Despite optimistic talk from the Greens - and some wild talk early in the campaign from the Globe and Mail - the Green party is unlikely to win any seats election night. But the party is poised to break the two-per cent threshold in the national popular vote, which would win it a minimum of almost $500,000 a year in federal funding.Polls suggest that the Greens will reap between five and seven per cent of the national vote. A national result approaching five per cent would mean more than $1 million a year.The Greens also appear likely to take between seven and 10 per cent of the vote here in B.C. With plenty of two- and three-way races  across the southwest part of the province, the Green party could determine the outcome in several ridings.That raises what might be called the Nader scenario. Just as Ralph Nader drew votes away from the Democrats in the last U.S. election, B.C. Greens could help elect Conservatives in close races by taking votes from the New Democrats. With the race between the Liberals and Conservatives looking tighter than spandex, the result could be the difference between a Liberal and a Conservative government.Prime Minister Paul Martin tapped into this idea this week when he flew to B.C. with the message that a vote for anyone but the Liberals was a vote for the Conservatives.Greens' appeal is complexSilvaine Zimmermann, the Green party campaign co-chair for B.C., said that the party discussed at the beginning of the campaign whether such a scenario would hurt their chances.The party was worried that voters might resist the Greens for fear of helping the Conservatives and their leader, Stephen Harper, she said. "There are a lot of progressive people - concerned people, aware, astute people - who are really worried about that guy and what is really in his closet."However, Zimmermann said, voters haven't raised the issue during the campaign.In fact, the reality of the Greens' appeal is more complex than the Nader scenario would suggest. Much of the Green support in this election is coming from people who otherwise wouldn't vote, said Zimmermann.That sentiment is backed up by Vancouver School Board trustee Andrea Reimer, the only Green currently holding elected office in Canada. Reimer said Green party internal polls indicate that 40 per cent of Green supporters would not vote at all if they couldn't vote Green. Another 30 per cent name the NDP as their second choice; a further 30 per cent split roughly equally between the Liberals and Conservatives.Where the Greens have oomphReimer said she thinks the Greens have a shot at winning the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, based on party polls that indicate party candidate Andrew Lewis trails Conservative MP Gary Lunn by about 10 percentage points."They're pouring all of their resources into that riding," said Reimer. (Reimer currently belongs to the provincial but not the federal Green party. However, she said she will probably join the federal party the next time "I get around to going on their Web site.")The party will "for sure" be a factor in the outcome of Vancouver Kingsway, where New Democrat Ian Waddell is battling Liberal David Emerson, Reimer said. In this case, the Greens' effect depends on whether Kingsway is a two-way race or a three-way race. If the race is between Emerson and Waddell, the Greens could tip the outcome in favour of the Liberals; if Conservative Jesse Johl is close enough to have a chance, the Greenscould put him over the top by draining votes from the Liberals and NDP.Reimer predicted the Greens will also have a "strong impact" in Victoria, where Liberal cabinet minister David Anderson is trying to hang on to his seat.University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff said the Greens could take votes from all three of the larger parties and added that he's reluctant to use the term "spoiler." "I think that, paradoxically, it's a sort of vanity on the part of the NDP to think they're taking votes primarily from them," he said.Protest vote patternsRuff said it's easy to assume that the Greens will mostly take votes from the NDP because New Democrat voters tend to be more environmentally conscious than Liberal and Conservative supporters. But the strong streak of fiscal conservatism in the Green platform  could easily attract Liberals and Conservatives, he said. "They're far more centrist than their popular image except on ecological issues," said Ruff.He said he thinks it's plausible that, as claimed by Reimer, 40 per cent of Green supporters wouldn't otherwise vote. Ruff said, however, that the figure is probably closer to one third, with another one-third having the NDP as their second choice and the remaining one-third split between Liberals and Conservatives. The history of fringe parties in Canada suggests that much of the Greens' strength may turn out to be in areas where the races are far from close, which would reduce their chances of playing the spoiler.Ruff said research shows that fringe parties tend to do well where "the fix seems to be in for the incumbent." Those who oppose popular incumbents will turn to fringe parties because the other alternatives have been ineffective in the past, he said. "So they may do well in areas where you wouldn't think they would be strong, like, well, Kelowna."The Greens have an advantage in this election because, never having governed, they don't have "soiled hands," Ruff said.Ruff said he doesn't believe the Greens will win a seat in this election, but added they could come second or third in Saanich-Gulf Islands.'Credible political force'Strategists for the established parties in B.C. tend to downplay the effect the Greens will have on election day.Bob Ransford, B.C. campaign co-chair for the Conservatives, called them "a credible political force" but couldn't imagine them winning any seats. He said he doubts whether the Greens will be a big enough factor to decide any races.Tex Enemark, senior adviser to the B.C. Liberal campaign, said "somebody's been smoking something" if they think the Greens will win a seat. "Could they take five per cent of the vote or something in British Columbia? Yeah, probably."Gerry Scott, B.C. campaign manager for the NDP, said the Greens are "just not in the game.""They're a factor in the sense that . in B.C., they just may get eight per cent of the vote." Scott said it's mathematically possible for the Greens to decide one or two close ridings, "but that's really hypothetical."And he agreed that the Green support doesn't just come from potential New Democratic voters. "Some of them are Liberals that are unhappy, some of them are Tories that are unhappy, some of them are libertarian types."Vancouver-based journalist Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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