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Tory Resources Minister Battles Three Shades of Green

Trio of opponents may split vote against Conservative Gary Lunn.

Andrew MacLeod 15 Sep 2008TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Gary Lunn.

During the election campaign, Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn will face targeted protests from environmental groups and heavy criticism from three opponents who are strong advocates for the environment in a riding where that matters, but some fear vote splitting may well let him win his seat again.

There's little question people who care about the environment would dearly like to see the Natural Resources minister lose his Saanich-Gulf Islands riding. Victoria's Dogwood Initiative is planning a Sept. 20 rally outside Lunn's office to highlight his support of oil tanker traffic, and all three of his main opponents will be doing their best to show the minister's record is a very dark brown.

Lunn, by the way, did not return calls. An assistant said he was "out campaigning."

The Green Party's Andrew Lewis called Lunn's record "appalling" with his support for the asbestos industry, nuclear power and oil tanker traffic. The top issues in the riding are agriculture, health care and greening the economy, he said. "Gary is not helping on any of those fronts."

In the 2006 election, Lewis won nearly 10 per cent of the vote, making him competitive in a riding where Lunn got in with just 37 per cent support. In that election, the Liberals, then led by Paul Martin, ran Sheila Orr, who had sat as an MLA in Gordon Campbell's right-wing first term. The NDP ran Jennifer Burgis, who in this election is running in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. Orr and Burgis each got about 26 per cent of the vote.

This time around, the NDP is running Julian West, who was once a B.C. Green Party member and activist. And the Liberal candidate is Briony Penn, an environmental activist, former reporter for a local environmental television show and writer.

Similar views, different parties

The problem for environment-minded voters, and Lunn's big hope, is people may see little to choose between Lunn's three challengers.

Even the NDP candidate, West, said he sees it that way. "What separates me from Briony on the issues? We're going to vote the same way on everything," he said. "If there was free voting, Briony and I would vote the same way on everything, I suspect."

They even have campaign offices next door to each other, in a busy area near a popular bicycle trail.

If there's a difference, however, it is with the party and how they'd behave once elected. "She's going to be a whipped member of the Liberal party and I'd be a whipped member of the NDP," he said. "She'd vote the wrong way on Afghanistan. She'd hate it."

Penn said the Liberal party has been welcoming and that she so far feels free to speak her mind. When she decided to run, she said, the NDP and Greens also wanted her on their slate. "The Liberals are capable of forming government and getting onto the task immediately," she said. "[Stéphane] Dion has demonstrated his leadership 9,000 per cent, and he's formed an alliance with the Greens."

Dion is supporting Green leader Elizabeth May's bid to win a seat, and he's publicly expressed support for electoral reform to bring in a system of proportional representation. "What more can I ask? I've got a guy in a mainstream party to follow and to support and collaborate with whose actually interested in moving the agenda of climate change forward in a non-partisan form."

At a Sept. 12 event at the University of Victoria with Dion, climate scientist Andrew Weaver pledged support for Dion's plan. So did local environmental writers and activists Guy Dauncey and David Boyd.

Claiming to be the 'real' green

The hope, Penn said, is she can hold onto previous Liberal support in the Saanich-Gulf Island riding and consolidate enough environmental and progressive votes to beat Lunn. "The math is very straightforward," she said. "I need another eight per cent, which is 32 people per poll. It's about 5,000 people... All three parties were asking me because they felt I would be able to bring the vote together."

The idea of voting strategically for Penn sits badly with at least one of her opponents. The Green Party is strong in the riding and strategic voting is a mistake, Lewis said. "If you're going to vote green, you may as well vote for the real thing," he said. "She's green window dressing for the Liberals."

Penn might see running with the Liberals as pragmatic, he added, but it's worse than that. "I think it's really political expediency," he said. "This is the reason we have the mess in Ottawa. It's putting power first... I think people in Saanich-Gulf Islands deserve better than that."

There are clear differences between the Liberals and the Greens, he said, and they should be explored and debated during the campaign. "What we need in this riding is a strong four-way race based on the issues," he said. "If the election in Saanich-Gulf Islands polarizes between Gary Lunn and some other candidate, Gary Lunn will win."

If people get the sense strategic votes are going to the Liberals, he said, many will vote to keep them out. "I think more people will vote strategically for the Conservatives rather than the Liberals," he said. "If we want to elect someone other than Gary Lunn, we have to put aside strategic voting. It's a wasted vote. It's a zero-sum game."

'A lot of strategic voters'

Whether the candidates like it or not, however, many voters are going to be thinking strategically, said the NDP's West. "I hate to say this, because it's awful for a candidate to say this, but there are a lot of strategic voters. There are a lot of strategic voters in this riding. It is particularly strong in this riding."

As West put it, "There are a lot of people out there who'd just like to defeat Gary Lunn. They don't really mind if it's Briony, or me, or even Andrew."

People felt that way in the last election, too, West said, but there was no clear indication of who was in second place, which would have told people where to put their strategic votes. "The hope is one or the other of us can demonstrate we're the best challenger to Lunn. Then the strategic vote comes to us."

How that might happen, however, is unclear, he said. "Maybe there'll be some polling done in the riding," he said. "We may get more clear signals later."

Endorsements coming

As it happens, a particularly strong signal is on its way and all but delivered.

The Conservation Voters of B.C. are planning to announce their endorsements within the next week, said Christianne Wilhelmson, chair of the organization's board. The non-partisan CVBC will endorse candidates in two or three ridings, and one will likely be Saanich-Gulf Islands.

Asked who the best person to beat Lunn would be, she said, "That's a good question. There are two strong people."

Lewis has done well in past elections, she said, but Penn's views and commitment are well known. "I suspect Briony has a bit more on the record." Asked about West, Wilhelmson said she hadn't heard of him.

When the question was put to Penn of who the CVBC would endorse, her eyes lit up and she gave a wide smile. "I don't know, but I have a pretty good suspicion."

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