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BC Greens: Rifts or Renewal?

Party looks for a new leader, and compass.

By Richard Warnica 15 Aug 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Ben West, leadership candidate.

When the brain trust of the B.C. Green Party gathered last month to kick off their search for a new leader, the event, held in a small windowless room in downtown Vancouver, drew a smattering of supporters and journalists.

For a party that 28 months ago was considered the third force in B.C. politics, it was not an auspicious launch to their first leadership contest in almost seven years. After the 2005 vote, the Green presence faded, even as green issues boomed. Today the party remains mired where it has been for most of the last decade.

Their core support -- about one in ten British Columbians -- is concentrated among those least likely to vote. Their slate of would-be leaders, meanwhile, is absent anything approaching a household name and the upper echelons of the party are split over where to go next.

Now, with the next provincial vote less than two years away it's worth asking: Do the Greens still matter in B.C. politics?

The five candidates for the leadership announced that early July morning are Ben West, Damian Kettlewell, Jane Sterk, Silvaine Zimmermann and Jack Etkin. Whoever wins will face a daunting task. To snag seats in the next election the party has to move far beyond its base and convince wary voters they are more than a one-issue bunch. And the party will need to heal internal rifts, such as the controversy over its interim leader's support of a BC Liberal-backed free-trade initiative that many environmentalists say would undercut green regulations.

Conservation cred?

Matt Price, coordinator of the influential Conservation Voters of B.C., told The Tyee he had a hard time imagining any Greens getting their endorsement in 2009.

"We'd be open to listening to evidence," Price said. "There are ways they can break through." But after the last election, it doesn't seem likely. "You had Adrianne Carr in the Global TV debate, we endorsed her and she still came in third," he said. "It would be tough to justify that again."

Municipally, it's a different story. In the last Victoria campaign, Price and company did endorse a Green candidate, who won. But "politics provincially and federally, it's a different story," he said. "We're not against Greens. But under the current system, it's a bit daunting."

Best chance behind, or ahead?

Dennis Pilon a professor of political science at the University of Victoria agrees. "My gut answer would be no," they can't make a breakthrough, Pilon told The Tyee. The party's best chance was in the last campaign. If Carr had played her cards right, had used the media coverage she got and maybe picked her riding better, they might have won a seat, Pilon added.

In September 2006, Carr stepped down and took up a new job with the federal party. It took the B.C. party seven months to name an interim replacement. A new elected leader will not be in place until October 2007, more than a year after Carr quit.

Still, Pilon said, a Green MLA in 2009 is, if unlikely, not impossible. If the party found a star candidate with broad appeal outside their current base (David Suzuki for example) and put that candidate in the right riding, they might squeak in, but only if the other two parties split the rest of the vote almost evenly between them. "They'd need a whole bunch of stars to align," Pilon said, "and I don't think that's going to happen."

Warming to the issue

Not everyone is so bearish on the Greens' prospects. Angus McAllister is the president of McAllister Opinion Research, a Vancouver based polling company. In an interview with The Tyee this week, McAllister said there are plenty of B.C. voters who would consider voting Green if the party puts out the right message.

The Greens in this province have two big problems, McAllister said.

The first is timing. Carr left the Greens leaderless at a crucial time. Climate change, the party's bread and butter issue, hit a tipping point in the public consciousness last fall. And with the Greens basically absent on the file, the other two parties -- especially the Liberals -- were able to claim some of their turf.

The second issue, though, is the same one they've always faced.

As a party, the Greens have always had trouble converting theoretical support into actual votes. "They say they're going to vote, but they never do," McAllister said. It's a problem for Green parties everywhere, he added, but is especially acute in B.C. where the core Green support is a concentrated mix of the young -- who generally don't vote -- and the politically disillusioned, who have given up on the present political system.

Young opportunities

Still, McAllister said, the Greens could move beyond that core by tapping into what he called Boomer legacy issues. A lot of younger voters in their late 20s and early 30s are moving themselves into the political market for the first time, McAllister said. And what's driving them there is a sense that the legacy of the Baby Boomer generation has left them with a raw deal.

To win over those voters, the Greens would have to demonstrate how their one abstract issue -- the environment -- translates into concrete day-to-day concerns. If the Greens can tap into the younger voters' discontent over housing prices, urban sprawl and a deteriorating health care system and convince enough of those traditionally reticent youngsters to go to the polls in 2009, they might have some success.

Those voters, however, have to come from somewhere. And in B.C., McAllister said, it is the NDP who have the most tenuous grip on their supporters. So any kind of a Green uprising will come at least to some extent at the New Democrat's expense.

Campbell's Green flank

The BC Liberals, however, are also vulnerable. A full third of their supporters would consider voting Green, McAllister said. And while Gordon Campbell's climate change PR blitz has probably done a lot to shore up that flank, it is not impervious.

The key to targeting both parties, McAllister said, is the same. You have to "translate green issues into day-to-day life."

That is a challenge for any would be Green leader because environmental issues have broad if shallow appeal across the ideological spectrum. Christopher Ian Bennett, the party's interim leader, endorsed a host of policies not usually associated with green politics, including lifting the party's ban on corporate donations and supporting B.C.'s controversial TILMA agreement with Alberta. Free trade creates wealth, and wealth can buy green fixes, he told The Tyee.

Pro-business wing

But Bennett's views have not gone down well with some in the party.

In an interview with The Tyee, leadership hopeful and current Esquimalt councillor Jane Sterk blasted Bennett on the TILMA issue. "Free trade agreements have terrible legacies in terms of environmental and social policy," she said. "He either doesn't understand the agreement or supports the idea that more industrial development is what [this province] needs."

Political scientist Dennis Pilon meanwhile thinks his stand is just plain politically stupid. "I've seen some things this new leader is saying and I've been appalled," he said. "There's not really enough voters to make a soup out of [what he's trying.]"

Damian Kettlewell, another candidate, has also been dismissed by some as too pro-business. Kettlewell "was persuaded to enter the race only by certain provincial councillors who want a more 'business-friendly' Green party," wrote environmental activist Stuart Hertzog on his greenpolitics.ca blog, later adding that "the corporatists on provincial council may pull out the stops to make sure Damian Kettlewell is on the second ballot" in October. This about a candidate who is chair of the B.C. Rivershed Society and drives a vegetable powered Mercedes.

Facebook winner

At the leadership launch in Vancouver, the candidate with the largest entourage was Ben West.

With his beard freshly shorn and clad in an ill-fitting blazer, slacks combination, West looked more like a high school debater than a provincial party leader. But insiders say he is no joke.

The off-the-record insider-whisper campaign has West as the current frontrunner. He is also dominating the equally scientific Facebook endorsement campaign. His nearly 400 supporters as of Aug. 14 is not an insignificant chunk in a party with a membership in the low thousands.

West might be a good candidate to exploit the weaknesses McAllister identified in the NDP's flank. But what about those waffling Liberals? Would the so-called pro-business green community really support a guy twice ran for office under a platform calling for a 32-hour work week?

Electoral reform redux

Other candidates too could have a tough time expanding the party's boundaries. Bowen Island's Silvaine Zimmermann helped get the Green Party off the ground in Canada in the 1980s. But could she appeal to the young lifestyle voters McAllister brought up? And while Esquimalt councilor Jane Sterk told The Tyee she is a "fiscal conservative" who could appeal to all as a "middle class professional" her position against free trade might hurt her appeal to the centre-right.

Perhaps the best hope for the Greens still lies in a new electoral system with more proportional representation, allowing small parties to get seats in the legislature. So it's no big surprise that a major issue for all three of the B.C. Green Party leadership contenders was the second electoral reform vote scheduled for May 2009.

Dennis Pilon, however wonders if, by not supporting the vote last time, the Greens have already blown their one big chance. "I was deeply disappointed with Carr's stance on STV," he said. "It was politically stupid. For her to not make that her key issue -- And to have TV time! TV Time is gold ... I wonder now if they blew it."

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