Elizabeth May's Political Progress in BC

The Green leader moved to Sidney for the friendly voters polling identified. But winning them over is taking finesse and hard work.

By Andrew MacLeod 6 Jul 2010 |

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here. A version of this story ran on the website

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Federal Green leader May: 'I like first.'

A year ago an internal Green Party poll suggested leader Elizabeth May would have a good shot at winning a seat in Saanich-Gulf Islands in the next federal election. It would be a major breakthrough for the party, which is yet to elect a member of parliament in Canada.

But 12 months later there are questions about whether she's doing everything she can to make it to Ottawa.

"I think I'm going to be either first or second, in terms of polling," May said in a recent interview. "I like first."

She decided to run in Saanich-Gulf Islands, across the country from the Central Nova riding where she took on cabinet minister Peter MacKay in the last election, after a party poll put her even with Conservative Minister of State Gary Lunn.

"Part of it was polling and part of it was listening to people, and there was no question far and away it was voters of Saanich-Gulf Islands that said their values were most in tune with Green values, they were most interested in making a change," she said.

The poll upon which the Green's have staked May's future was taken in the spring of 2009 by the firm Harris/Decima, said John Fryer, who recently resigned as May's campaign manager. "The result of that poll was both she and Gary Lunn polled exactly the same at 33 per cent."

May's air campaign strong

Encouraged, May moved to the riding, won the nomination contest and has made herself a local presence. Her letters and editorials have run in Victoria's daily newspaper and she has appeared at a wide range of community events. She's opened two campaign offices.

She also has some prominent support. Nobel Prize winner and University of Victoria climate professor Andrew Weaver appeared with her at a Green Party press event in May. "In Saanich-Gulf Islands I clearly support Elizabeth May," he said. "I always look for the candidate and I agree we need to have a change in Ottawa, we need a different voice."

Weaver, by the way, said he supports the Liberal and NDP incumbents in neighbouring ridings.

Ken Wu, frequently quoted in the press as a former campaigner for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and in his new role leading the recently formed Ancient Forest Alliance, is working with volunteers to go door to door for May.

The riding is full of environmentalists and even many of the conservatives have a conservation bent, Wu said. "It is possible to get a portion of the Gary Lunn vote to go to Elizabeth."

The riding includes areas like the Gulf Islands and Central Saanich farms that should be fertile for the Greens. It also includes the retirement town of Sidney, many Alberta transplants and million dollar waterfront homes.

The Greens have not done any polling in the riding for over a year, Fryer said, so it is difficult to know how well May's campaign efforts are working.

Ground campaign needed

On election day voters will have three choices who are all clear alternatives to Lunn. The Liberals have nominated Renée Heatherington, a woman with a climate science background who they stress is the third generation in her family to live on the Saanich Peninsula. The NDP has Edith Loring-Kuhanga, a First Nations educator and conference organizer, to carry their banner.

In the last election Lunn beat the Liberals' Briony Penn in a hard-fought contest that had the NDP candidate drop out before the vote.

Will Horter, who as a co-ordinator of the Conservation Voters of B.C. has been an active observer of the riding, said May's success will depend on running a professional, disciplined campaign with a focus on identifying likely Green voters and getting them to the polling stations on election day.

"When I looked at the polling numbers I was impressed. It said she's in the game," he said.

But he pointed out that the Liberal's Penn, who came within 1,700 votes of Lunn in 2008, might well have won a poll on election day too. Lunn ran a below-the-radar campaign that relied on developing a list of likely Conservative voters, then making sure they got out to vote.

To win, May's campaign will have to use a similar tactic, said Horter. "It's all down to the numbers," he said. "If her list isn't to 15 or 17,000 people by now, they have no hope."

He also recommends that May focus entirely on the riding, allowing someone else to speak for the party nationally. May should talk about "toxics" and "pollution" rather than Kyoto or Copenhagen if she wants to pick up past Conservative voters, he said. "If you talk about 'global warming', you lose them." Running focus groups would also help, especially to figure out how to talk to conservative women who may be looking for an alternative to Lunn.

Most importantly, the Green Party has to be prepared to spend what it takes to win, he said. There are no spending limits until the campaign period, and the party should focus a significant amount of its $4 million budget in the riding, he said.

Four-way fight

Former May campaign manager Fryer said the plan he developed included canvassing each of the 56,000 homes in the riding at least twice. The first call was to be a gentle, get-acquainted type visit, while the second was to be an attempt to identify how residents are likely to vote.

"That could be the campaign secret weapon if they can do that," he said.

He said he doesn't know how many voters had been identified, but it had an "upward trajectory." Many people, with the election yet to be called, are of course undecided. "It never goes as well as you like," he said.

But is the campaign doing everything it can? "That's a hard question. Especially a hard question on the record. I would say you can always do more."

The party doesn't have as much money available as some would think, he said. It borrowed $3.5 million for the last election and is still paying it back. But Fryer said when he went to the party's executive council seeking money for May's campaign, they gave him more than he requested.

"I think the party's serious about this goal," he said. "There's not very much moaning about the allocation of the necessary funds to try to achieve that."

May is staying in the riding for three weeks out of four, on average, he said. And once the election is called she will be in the riding for all but 10 days of the five week campaign period. She'll leave for an eight-day leader's tour and for two days for the televised debates.

"I guess they're doing what they can," he said. "Everything's a bit of a compromise."

Meanwhile, he said, it's clear Lunn's campaign is keeping in touch with voters, using a Windsor, Ontario firm to canvass the entire riding by telephone three or four times.

"I think it would be foolhardy to suggest this is any kind of easy task," Fryer said. "It's going to be a tough four-way fight."  [Tyee]

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