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'It's Close': In Victoria, Greens Gunning Hard for NDP Seat

Jo-Ann Roberts on challenging Murray Rankin: 'Are we in this to try and win it? Of course we are.'

By Andrew MacLeod 21 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, April 2015). Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

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Judging from election signs in the Victoria riding, the Conservative and Liberal candidates are doing worse than "We Vote CBC."

Unlike most other parts of Canada, with a month to go until the Oct. 19 vote, the race in Victoria appears to be tight between NDP incumbent Murray Rankin and Green Party challenger Jo-Ann Roberts.

That makes it ground zero for discussions about strategic voting and which party is most likely to spur the changes a majority of voters want.

To Rankin, the vote in Victoria is about turfing Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper out of office. "I want to be a strong NDP member in an NDP government," he said. "People are genuinely excited about a change in government -- a very different government than the Harper government."

The NDP has held Victoria for nine years, having won it after the retirement of Liberal environment minister David Anderson. "To form that government, people understand we have to hold onto those seats we've had before," Rankin said.

For Roberts, the ballot question is about what kind of representation Victorians want: an MP beholden to their party's line whose vote in the House of Commons will be whipped, or someone like her who will be more free to speak her mind and represent the views of constituents.

"This should be an issue about getting democracy back," she said. "That's the underlying issue."

Roberts in it to win it

The Greens have good reason to think they can win in Victoria. Their leader Elizabeth May is the incumbent in neighbouring Saanich-Gulf Islands, and provincial Green MLA Andrew Weaver's constituency overlaps part of the federal riding.

Lisa Helps, who won the mayoral election in October, is not officially Green, but her values are similar and her campaign manager for that victory, Sonia Theroux, is now central to the Roberts effort.

In the 2012 federal byelection after NDP MP Denise Savoie resigned due to illness, Rankin beat Green university professor Donald Galloway by fewer than 1,100 votes. The Conservative and Liberal candidates trailed far behind, each receiving under 15 per cent support. Neither is running again and John Rizzuti and Cheryl Thomas, respectively, have stepped up for those parties.

The Greens outspent the NDP in the byelection race, and clearly the party is putting resources into the Roberts campaign. On a recent weekday morning, there were a dozen or so people working in the downtown campaign office. Said Roberts, "Are we in this to try and win it? Of course we are."

Byelections are clearly very different from general elections. Turnout was low with just 44 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot, Rankin said. This time around, he said, voters can elect a government, not just send a message.

"I'm running against Mr. Harper," said Rankin. "The only way we form government is to get more seats than they do."

Rankin: 'I think I've made a difference'

The NDP, the official opposition headed into the election, have strong reason to think they can win nationally with leader Tom Mulcair and form the government for the first time in the country's history. Twelve polls in a row have suggested the NDP has a good shot, Rankin said.

An NDP government would bring some dramatic changes from what the Conservatives have done, he said. It would, for example, send a representative to the next round of climate talks in Paris and work constructively with other countries to find a solution. If people care about climate change, he said, they need to get rid of the Harper government.

The NDP would also expand the Canada Pension Plan, repeal the controversial anti-terrorism law passed as Bill C-51, and maintain healthcare funding, Rankin said. "There's an optimism that we can form government," he said, adding that an NDP government would be able to do things that people in Victoria want. "There are positive reasons to vote for me."

Rankin also has a lengthy record working on environmental and social issues. A lawyer who taught at the University of Victoria, he also co-chaired the Environmental Law Centre.* He was a chair of the West Coast Environmental Law Association and helped start the non-profit law office BC Public Interest Advocacy Centre that takes on social issues.

He led the provincial NDP's legal team in its opposition to the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal and worked in government on treaties with First Nations, building the provincial park system and creating a freedom of information and protection of privacy law.

"I can tell you I think I've made a difference," Rankin said.

'It's close'

Roberts worked as a journalist for 37 years. Her most recent job was hosting the afternoon talk show All Points West out of the CBC's Victoria station.

Asked about her environmental background, Roberts said that as a reporter she had an awareness of the issues and tried to shine a light on them. She added, "I was not in a position because of my career to be an activist."

At home she and her husband Ken Kelly raised four children with strong environmental values, three of whom as adults don't own cars, she said. Despite her and Kelly's busy careers and the number of kids they had, they were a one-car family and Kelly was famous in the house for insisting unused lights are turned off, she said. "We used to call Ken 'Captain Kilowatt.'"

Talking to voters, Roberts said, she has repeatedly encountered people worried that voting Green will result in Harper remaining prime minister. "It's difficult sometimes that the only thing people are talking about is 'Stop Harper,'" she said.

Everyone wants to stop Harper, including her, she said, adding that she quit her CBC job to do that. "Why aren't we saying 'Stop Harper, and then what?'"

The Greens have a stronger climate change platform than any of the other parties and have been more definitive in their opposition to the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project, Roberts said. They support free dental care for children in low-income families and a consultative process to find a form of proportional representation to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system.

The Victoria race, therefore, is not about the Greens unseating an NDP MP, Roberts said. "This is a campaign about offering something positive to Victorians. It's a city that wants a Green MP."

And a Green MP can work with either an NDP or a Liberal minority to push their numbers ahead of the Conservatives, she said. "We are running to have influence in the Parliament of Canada, and influence is the important thing if we're trying to move forward."

Roberts predicts people will have to stay up late on election night for the final results from Victoria. "It's close. And people have really good choices."

*Story corrected Sept. 24 at 12:15 p.m.  [Tyee]

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