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The Squeakers and the Greens

BC's closest races and that 'spoiler' question.

Tom Barrett 20 Jan
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You may remember the Green Party. They were one of the big stories of the 2004 election, especially here in B.C. Heck, at one point in the campaign, the Globe and Mail's pollsters claimed the Greens were going to win a seat.

That didn't happen, but the Greens did triple their share of the popular vote, taking just over six percent across the province.

In this election, however, it seems like nobody wants to talk about the Greens.

"I don't sense that they're on the radar screen in the way that they were in 2004," said retired University of Victoria political scientist Norman Ruff. "It's my impression that there was a novelty to the Greens in 2004, running candidates in every riding. For the first time they had a national profile, whereas now, there isn't the same kind of cachet to them."

But with close races in a dozen or more ridings across the province, people might be talking about the Greens on election night.

Who's a spoiler?

The Greens are seen by many New Democrats, both provincially and federally, as a spoiler: a party that has no hope of winning, but can bleed enough votes from the NDP to cause losses in tight races.

Ruff suggested that such talk is based on a mistaken assumption that Green voters would otherwise vote NDP.

Many Green supporters - perhaps as many as a third - wouldn't vote at all if the Greens were not on the ballot, Ruff said. As well, he said, while the largest proportion of Green voters comes from the NDP, some switch from the Liberals and Conservatives.

"I think the Greens go every which way," he said.

The federal Greens' market-oriented policies can make them attractive to voters who would otherwise support the centre-right, Ruff said.

"I call them the aquamarines - there's a bit of blue in with the green."

In the end, said Ruff, "A Green vote is a Green vote and it's wrong, I think, for anyone to regard it as an errant vote from their party."

The suggestion by some New Democrats that Green votes are somehow "their" votes is a matter of "vanity," said Ruff.

Rough talk

Gerry Scott, the NDP's campaign manager for B.C., sounds like he's being careful to avoid giving that impression when he discusses the Greens.

He estimates that six or seven seats went to the Conservatives rather than the NDP in 2004 because of the presence of Green candidates.

However, he cautions, "It's not like those are our voters. They voted Green. We're appealing to people to vote for the NDP whether they voted Conservative, Liberal, or Green last time."

Silvaine Zimmermann, the Green candidate in West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, says she's heard less talk in this campaign about the Greens being spoilers. What talk she has heard, however, has come from both the NDP and Liberals.

Zimmermann said there's been a great deal of anti-Green sniping from the left, including an "insidious" e-mail campaign that has described the Greens as far-right ideologues.

And she's not happy about a column on The Tyee by Murray Dobbin slamming the Greens and their leader, Jim Harris.

The column, Zimmermann said, is a collection of "twisted untruths."

In the 2005 provincial election, the B.C. Greens received about 27 percent of the vote in West Vancouver-Garibaldi, a riding that covers some of the same territory as West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

Zimmermann said she hopes to beat that mark. (The Green candidate in the riding took about 10 percent in the 2004 federal election.)

However, Zimmermann said, "between the NDP rumour-mongering and the Liberals' fear-mongering, I don't know what's going to happen on election day."

Eight 'Green factor' ridings

Although it's difficult to determine exactly what impact the Greens had on the 2004 campaign, it's true that there were eight ridings where the Green vote was greater than the margin by which the NDP lost. Those ridings were: New Westminster-Coquitlam, Vancouver Island North, Southern Interior, Vancouver Kingsway, Newton-North Delta, Victoria, Nanaimo-Alberni, and Saanich-Gulf Islands.

If you assume that every vote that was cast for the Greens in those ridings would otherwise have gone to the NDP, then you could argue that the Greens cost the NDP eight seats in the 2004 election.

But it's more likely, as Ruff points out, that a large number of Green voters wouldn't have bothered to vote if a Green were not on the ballot. As well, it's probable that a significant number of Green votes would otherwise have gone to the Liberals and Conservatives. If you look at the numbers according to those assumptions, the number of ridings where the Greens acted as a spoiler drops to two, maybe three.

That's still significant. If you want to pursue this argument, you'll notice that, with three additional NDP seats, the NDP and Liberals would have had enough for a bare majority in the Commons.

Mostly, however, this kind of hypothetical exercise underlines how close so many races were in 2004.

Likely squeakers

NEW WESTMINSTER-COQUITLAM, for example, was won by Conservative Paul Forseth by less than one-quarter of one percent of the total vote, with the NDP coming in second. If Forseth doesn't get a boost from the Conservatives' national gains, then the NDP might be able to take this one.

There's a similar situation in VANCOUVER ISLAND NORTH, where the NDP's Catherine Bell is challenging incumbent Conservative John Duncan. Duncan won by less than one percent of the vote in 2004.

Two ridings that could switch from the Liberals to the NDP are VANCOUVER KINGSWAY, where Industry Minister David Emerson is fighting former NDP MP and provincial cabinet minister Ian Waddell, and ESQUIMALT-JUAN DE FUCA where Reformer-turned-Liberal Keith Martin has been running as what Ruff describes as an Independent Liberal.

Martin, who favours increased private health care contrary to official Liberal policy, got the cold shoulder from Paul Martin when the prime minister visited the Victoria area during the campaign. In turn, Keith Martin distanced himself from the party when the infamous "soldiers with guns. In our cities" ad was released, saying the ad was released by "an idiot."

Given the large military presence in this riding, the Conservatives pick up enough support to make this a three-way race.

There are also three NDP ridings that could easily fall to the Conservatives if a blue wave hits the province Monday. The NDP won BURNABY-NEW WESTMINSTER and BURNABY-DOUGLAS by tiny margins - less than one percent, in the case of Burnaby-New West's Peter Julian. Although the Liberals came in second in both races, the Conservatives were also close.

If the Liberal vote drops in line with national trends, the direction in which it shifts will determine both these ridings.

In SKEENA-BULKLEY VALLEY, the NDP's Nathan Cullen is trying to hold off former Reformer Mike Scott, who represents the old populist segment of the Conservative party. Cullen won by less than four percent last time.

The Conservatives could also knock off Liberal backbencher Don Bell in NORTH VANCOUVER, where lawyer Cindy Silver has been downplaying her social conservative background.

The Liberals are also vulnerable to a social conservative in RICHMOND, where Multiculturalism Minister Raymond Chan is being challenged by former Focus on the Family Canada head Darrel Reid. Chan won this one fairly comfortably last time, but he's unlikely to have an easy time of it on Monday.

Liberal David Anderson, now retired, won VICTORIA by about four percent in 2004. This time, the NDP's Denise Savoie stands a good chance.

And finally, Chuck Cadman's old riding of SURREY NORTH is up for grabs, with former provincial NDP cabinet minister Penny Priddy running with the support of the late Independent MP's family. David Matta, an instructor at the Stenberg College in Surrey, hopes to take it for the Conservatives.

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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