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What's the Big Deal?

Greens made a poor ally in Dion's Grits.

Murray Dobbin 18 Apr

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee. You can find previous ones here.

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Green leader Elizabeth May.

What are we to make of Elizabeth May's political deal with Stephane Dion?

Who wins, who loses? It's difficult to predict simply because the question will be determined in large part in how the next election actually plays out. But we have a pretty good idea of the shape of that election and it suggests that the Greens, and maybe the Liberals, will be worse off, for different reasons.

Ironically, given the over-the-top reaction of Jack Layton, it might just be the NDP who gains the most.

First, the notion that May has been a huge boost for the Green party is not really born out in the polls. If you drop their lowest and the highest polling numbers over the past few months -- 6 per cent and 13 percent -- the average the Greens poll is about 8.5 percent. What is not well known is that Jim Harris, the inept leader who preceded May, polled 7 percent going into the last two elections. And in both cases, when people got into the voting booths, that promising number fell by over a third to 4.5 percent of the popular vote.

History is made by those who show up. And as attractive as it is to protest, voting for a party that will not win any seats may not be that satisfying after all.

What has May endorsed?

The fact is that despite May's genuine political skills and likeability, the biggest thing the Greens have going for them is still the franchise effect. People vote Green because of what they think the party stands for. It is this franchise effect, and the votes it attracts, that is at the root of May's flip flop on running in every riding in the country. The money it brings in ($1.80 a vote) is just too tempting to give up.

During the last election May made her principled stand clear, opposing Harris's decision to run in every riding because it would help elect Conservatives. During her campaign for leader and after she won she stated she fully intended on running candidates in every riding.

Now she has flipped again. But what is most peculiar about the deal with Dion is how much the Greens gave away to get the Liberals to drop out of the race in her riding. First, by agreeing not to run a candidate against Dion, she created the "deal" that makes her vulnerable to the charge of back room politics. Maybe Dion insisted, but I doubt it. After the deal May said, "I see in Mr. Dion a true leader for this country."

That is a blanket endorsement by any standard and will sew enormous confusion amongst the disgruntled Liberals who are part of her base. She just told them they don't have to be disgruntled after all. For the leader of what is still primarily a protest party, that was an extraordinary gift.

The deal reinforces what many have claimed about May -- that she is a small 'l' liberal ideologically and therefore quite content with the prospect of a Liberal majority. Virtually the entire activist community on the left and centre-left in Canada, maintains that the best outcome in any election is a minority government. That's because they know that both the major parties would implement very conservative policies if they won a majority.

What she could have done

While May has claimed that she is only supporting Dion as leader because of the climate change crisis, her declaration does not make that distinction. That is a big problem given the record of the Liberal party on a whole range of issues including deep integration, the Bay Street scheme that will see Canada gradually assimilated into the U.S. May, to her credit, gave a very good speech at a recent teach-in on the topic, promising to make opposition to deep integration the virtual core of her election campaign. I hope she does.

But this does not jibe with where the Liberals stand on this issue. It was Paul Martin who took deep integration and made it a formal agreement -- the Security and Prosperity Partnership -- with the U.S. and Mexico. And while Mr. Dion sounds pretty good on the environment, his economic perspective is neo-liberal. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Dion spent a formative year at the Brookings Institution in the U.S., a strictly free-market research and policy institute. His choice for his chief of staff was Marcel Massé, the architect of Paul Martin's savage assault on the role of the federal government, a key precursor of any deep integration plan.

Any progressive instinct in Dion will face a right-wing Ontario caucus, an intransigent bureaucracy and a media hostile to any "left-wing" agenda.

In the last election, May mused on the CBC about what Petra Kelly, the famous leader of the German Greens, would do facing the possibility of a Harper government. My guess is that Kelly, a socialist, would have unilaterally decided not to run candidates in ridings where the NDP was in close races with the Conservatives. Just as the U.S. Greens decided in 2004: no negotiations with the Democrats. No quid pro quo. Just a unilateral, principled stand that they would do nothing that would help elect George Bush again.

I think the NDP should have talked to the Greens and even suggested it. But the fact that they refused doesn't alter the imperative for May to have done the right thing. Indeed, that is the definition of a principled decision: you make it in spite of what others are doing. Had May done this there would have been no talk of back room deals and she would have been seen as principled, genuinely non-partisan and cognizant of the public's desire for minority government.

Who gains?

Who wins because of the deal? Dion looks weak as a result, but the Liberals have the wherewithal to benefit from May's endorsement of Dion as PM. Dion can feature May in his TV ads: "Canada's foremost environmentalist says Stephane Dion would make a great prime minister. We agree."

The Greens on the other hand get no advantage out of the deal and, except in May's riding, a lot of dismayed members.

And it is still extremely unlikely that May can win her seat. Based on the last election results, she would have to get every Liberal vote and half the NDP vote (the NDP placed second) just to tie Peter MacKay. Angry Liberal voters will be looking for revenge, and could just as easily hand the riding to the NDP. Nationally, the NDP could take advantage by running as the only principled party with seats in the House whose vision reflects Canadians' values. All they need is the vision.

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