Over the last few weeks the three BC Green Party MLAs have been repeatedly outvoted on legislation related to liquefied natural gas development.
But the defeats in the legislature have given the Greens a chance to demonstrate how they differ from the province’s two main political parties, starting with their opposition to the $40-billion LNG Canada project in Kitimat.
“In the face of what to us looks like staggering... evidence about this being the worst possible direction to be taking, it was really important that we voice that opposition,” said Sonia Furstenau, the MLA for Cowichan Valley. “All of the evidence right now is telling us the last thing the world needs is a massive new point-source emitter of greenhouse gases.”
The LNG debate was the latest chapter in the ongoing story of the Green MLAs’ attempts to navigate their relationship with the NDP, which since 2017 has relied on their support on key votes to stay in power.
It comes following a poor showing in a January byelection in Nanaimo, where the party’s share of the vote fell by more than 50 per cent from the 2017 election.
The results left some inside and outside the party wondering whether the Greens were being overshadowed by their partners in power-sharing and in danger of losing relevancy. There were questions about whether the party could keep building momentum, or if it had peaked with three MLAs.
Green leader Andrew Weaver has emphasized the party’s different vision for the future of the province, but the opposition to LNG development has made that vision most visible.
Besides the greenhouse gas emissions, Furstenau said, supplying gas for the LNG Canada site will mean more fracking in the northeast of the province. A recent government report found there’s not enough data to understand fracking’s environmental impacts, though it is conclusively linked to an increase in seismic activity.
“I’m quite shocked,” Furstenau said. “Fundamentally the vast majority of British Columbians want to see governments making decisions that will move us away from increasing our emissions and will move us towards climate action.”
Nor would most British Columbians support providing what amounts to a $6-billion subsidy to the fossil fuel industry, she said.
Yet in the legislature, only the three Green MLAs made the case against the government’s direction.
Premier John Horgan has argued that the LNG Canada proposal fits with the CleanBC plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that the provincial government stands to gain $23 billion from the project over its lifetime.
It will see thousands of jobs created in a part of the province that badly needs them, he’s argued.
In doing so, he’s contributed to the conclusion among many environmentalists that despite the Green role in the government, it values jobs over anything else.
An April 6 Globe and Mail article found there was little difference between the NDP minority government and the former BC Liberal government in policies on forestry, mining, LNG and Site C.
Longtime activist and Order of Canada recipient Vicky Husband offered a blunt assessment in an interview: “They haven’t changed a damn thing ... there doesn’t appear to be an environmental bone in their body.”
The message from Horgan’s office to his ministers is clear, she said. “If it’s a choice between jobs and the environment, jobs just win.”
That means it’s extremely important that the Greens keep building on their success, she added. “We have two major parties in B.C. who don’t care about the environment, no matter what they’re saying.”
Warren Bell, a Salmon Arm doctor and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment board member, said the Greens are taking the right position given the threat of climate change.
“It’s not surprising this rift has developed,” he said. “What is surprising is the BC Liberals and the NDP are finding common cause around this particular matter... It’s turning the NDP and the Liberals into Tweedledee and Tweedledum on this particular policy area.”
The Greens have long argued that the BC Liberals and NDP have many policies in common.
“We were clear about this in the 2017 election campaign, that the other two parties were offering a pretty similar vision, and I think the Greens, what really sets us apart, is we have a very different vision for the future of B.C. than either of the other two parties,” Furstenau said.
“Both of them have a very, as far as we’re concerned, backward-looking approach to the economy and to the future of B.C.”
Evan Pivnick, the chief of staff for the BC Green caucus, said the debate of the past few weeks was about climate change, the biggest challenge facing the world, and choosing how to build the provincial economy.
“I think it’s safe to say the LNG debate is absolutely the starkest difference that has come before the legislative assembly,” Pivnick said. “Our folks used every single tool they had at their disposal.”
While the LNG debate has been a defining moment for the Greens, it comes within a couple months of a Nanimo byelection where the party’s candidate finished a distant third.
Final results showed the NDP’s Sheila Malcolmson received almost 50 per cent of the vote and wasn’t far off the total number of votes Leonard Krog got in the 2017 general election. Krog stepped down as MLA to run successfully for Nanaimo mayor. Tony Harris, the BC Liberal candidate, increased his party’s vote count by almost 800 votes over 2017.
But the Green vote dropped to 1,783 for Michelle Ney, down from the 5,454 the previous Green candidate got in the general election.
In a mid-February interview, Weaver said the Green vote had collapsed in the byelection.
“Michelle’s vote was Michelle’s friends and family. We lost our Green vote. The Green vote did not exist. The Green vote went to the NDP.”
He attributed that collapse to voters’ fear that if the BC Liberals captured the seat, the NDP government would fall and the Liberals would return to power.
Weaver said the party knew from its own polling that the main question on voters’ minds in Nanaimo was whether they wanted to send the province into another general election.
Green donors and members were voting NDP because they liked the direction of the NDP government, with Green support, over the past two years, he said.
“The number of times I got hugged on the doorstep by people saying, ‘We like what we’re seeing, but we’re voting for Sheila.’ Very frustrating for me,” he said.
Weaver’s interpretation of the byelection is backed up by pollster Barb Justason with Justason Market Intelligence. “Much of the collapse in Nanaimo’s Green support can be explained by 2017 Green supporters’ strategic voting, largely to the benefit of the BC NDP,” she wrote at the time.
“But BC Liberals can thank right-leaning 2017 BC Green supporters for some of their support bump. As our poll illustrates, party support is mobile — increasingly so when strategic voting factors in a race empowered to take down the government.”
For every 10 people who voted Green in 2017, she said, four stayed with the party in the byelection, four voted NDP and two voted Liberal.
‘Work to do’: Weaver
One of the things Weaver took from the byelection was that many people don’t understand how the political system works or the role that an opposition party like the Greens play in a minority government. “Clearly we have some work to do to articulate what our role is,” he said.
“On top of that a lot of people didn’t know our contributions,” he said. The Greens had been influential in shaping of the CleanBC plan to reduce carbon emissions while growing the economy, as well as in reviews of the environmental assessment process and the professional reliance model for assessing resource projects, but failed to get credit, he said.
“We have not been good at telling our story, and I can tell you we’re going to be a lot better at that going forward.”
The Nanaimo result should have been sobering for Greens, said Matt Toner. A former NDP candidate, the Vancouver tech entrepreneur joined the Green Party in 2015 and served as deputy leader until the end of 2017. He was part of the backroom negotiating team when the Greens reached an agreement with the NDP that allowed the latter to form government.
The Nanaimo byelection was likely a preview of the dynamic that will shape the next general election, Toner said. “People were backed into a strategic voting corner, and we got clobbered,” he said.
“If I’m the Green Party, I’m looking at the byelection and I’m freaking out. It says something in a riding that seemed friendly to us exactly how people do the math internally when it comes to these decisions. It’s not in our favour.”
Success in the electoral reform referendum would have changed everything for the Greens, and it was a mistake not to be more closely involved in the process all the way through, Toner said.
“Now we’re forced back into playing the old game, and not one we’ve not been historically especially good at,” he said. It will make it harder to attract candidates and find support than it would have been. “It’s a pretty strong headwind in my opinion.”
Old dynamic remains
Pivnick said if there was a message in the Nanaimo byelection it was one that party has heard before.
“I don’t view it as anything particularly new,” he said. “The dynamic in the next election is going to be the NDP saying, ‘Vote for us, we’ll continue this agenda and we’re the only ones that can actually earn a place to do this, and we can do more of this with a majority.’”
“And the Liberals say, ‘If you don’t like that direction, we’re the only ones who can earn a majority and go the other direction.’ That’s nothing new. That’s what both parties have relied on for a long time.”
The NDP has always been strong in Nanaimo, and it was unsurprising that voters there agreed to keep the party in government, he said. “It was always going to be a fairly persuasive argument.”
The dynamic can benefit the Greens, Pivnick said. “Our view is that’s also kind of what people are sick of in this province. This dichotomy between two large parties that define so much of their identities based on being against what the other person is for and vice versa.”
For example, he said, the Liberals are now criticizing the NDP on the carbon tax, a tax that the Liberals introduced a decade ago and that the NDP then opposed.
It’s the Greens’ job to bring grey into what’s often been a black-and-white debate in the province, he said. “I think there is a real space there, and I think that’s what is different in a general election.”
“We’ve taken stock of this moment, and we’re very hyper-aware of the fact there’s two years left in this minority government,” he said.
‘Love ‘em to death’
Toner recalled a Georgia Straight article from 2017 that suggested the NDP might deal with the Greens the same way Vision Vancouver dealt with COPE on city council. The article quoted a senior official in the then-mayor’s office saying, “We’re going to love ’em to death.”
He worried that’s exactly what’s happening to the Greens provincially. “You can be a constructive partner,” he said. “You can also be a partner that should make the NDP kind of sweat through these decisions. I honestly think right now they kind of figure they’ve got things where they need to be and the Greens won’t risk overturning the apple cart.”
It’s great to be vocal on topics like LNG, and it was a good step to leave the legislative chamber on the final LNG vote last week, but the party’s MLAs should have been more adversarial from day one and need to do more to press Horgan and the NDP, he said. “The challenge for the Green Party is they haven’t really effectively exercised their veto in Victoria.”
The Greens need to ratchet up pressure on the NDP so that if they do bring the government down, the public will understand why, Toner said.
He referred to a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that found there are as few as 12 years to act to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. “If you really think we have 12 years to turn this around, then every minute counts,” he said.
“Maybe now is the time for the Green Party to say, ‘If this government goes down on this issue, that’s OK. We’ll risk a new election because we think the situation is serious enough to warrant it.’ People value authenticity in politics. They value courage.”
Adam Olsen, who represents Saanich North and the Islands for the Greens, said the party needs to keep highlighting areas the other parties would rather not touch, such as launching a public inquiry into money laundering.
“Our job over the next number of months is to continue to tell our story about our role in this parliamentary session,” he said. “We need to continue to define ourselves as being in large respect an alternative to the establishment.”
At the same time, the Greens need to take their role seriously and demonstrate that minority governments can be stable, Olsen said.
“People don’t need to inherently fear minority governments,” he said, adding he hears calls from advocacy groups wanting the Greens to bring down the government. “There is a balance we need to strike to be responsible in this place.”
It’s possible to achieve things without bringing the government down, Olsen said, pointing to success he had raising concerns about the survival of wild salmon that led to the appointment of an advisory committee on the issue.
“We have taken great steps forward,” he said. “There is no question the Greens have been influential... We have to continue to talk about the things that concern British Columbians and need to be relevant. We have a responsibility for our own fate.”
Different voices needed
In a general election, strategic voting will be a factor, but not to the same degree that it was in Nanaimo, said Sonia Theroux, a former political strategist who worked on election campaigns for Green candidates, including Furstenau and Jo-Ann Roberts.
“It was such a high stakes byelection,” she said. “There’s more complexity in a general election, and it’s not so pointy.” That leaves more room for people to make a “hopeful” vote, she said.
She said the Greens did well during the LNG debate. “It was the right move for them from a values perspective,” she said. “Why have Greens at all if they’re going to cave to things like an LNG tax break?”
On any given issue the Green MLAs have to decide where they stand, and also whether to support the government, she said. They need to be vocal in their opposition to LNG and to building the Site C dam, but on a pragmatic level they need to be looking ahead to what happens if the government falls.
In the wake of the Site C decision, for example, Weaver argued that bringing the government down over the issue would have led to an election that almost certainly would have been won by one of the two parties that support building the dam.
Theroux said that when the Greens appear to prop up the government, people don’t see the many hard conversations that are happening behind closed doors.
Fursteneau said there are a number of issues where Greens have brought a voice that would otherwise have been lacking in the legislature. She cited her work to address the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in government foster care, reforms to rules around lobbying and calls for a public inquiry into money laundering, plus all the constituency work MLAs do.
“We’ve been the only three on a number of files that have moved forward in the last two years, and without us there I would say that a lot of those files wouldn’t be moving forward, much less be on the radar,” she said.
“We are demonstrating the value of having a third party, of having different voices and the value of having MLAs that are going to work quite relentlessly on a number of files,” she said. “It’s not like there’s one thing and that’s the only thing that matters. There are dozens of things that we are collectively working on and making a difference on, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Furstenau said it’s positive for British Columbians to see that politicians don’t always have to be in a state of conflict.
“If you put first and foremost public service as your guiding principle, then evidence as your guiding decision-making principle, you can achieve a lot more,” she said. “Even if you don’t win every battle.”