Just about the only thing that all parties and observers can agree upon about the upcoming Ontario election is that the high vote percentage gained by the Green Party of Ontario (GPO) in 2007 will not be maintained in 2011.
And it is expected to drop for a number of reasons, but not all of them credible. Voter fatigue, for example, has always been an excuse for low voter turnout that I refuse to accept. Granted, three elections in 12 months is more than normal. Yet in the grand scheme of things, voting is something citizens are called upon to do rather seldomly in order to keep our cruise-controlled democracy running.
Other factors may also account for the projected Green losses. Recall that the federal Green Party under Elizabeth May suffered a similar drop in numbers, despite electing its first MP -- so there is a precedent for this in 2011. But we can look to other reasons for the projected losses in order to debunk, debate, and begin to understand what can be done to stymie them.
Firstly, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty used his second term to implement some important green initiatives. He even got pre-eminent environmentalist David Suzuki to endorse him. Initiatives such as reducing coal fire plants, forming the Greenbelt, cementing the Samsung investment to generate green jobs, and creating a feed-in tariff for local power generators to sell green energy back to the grid can indicate to some that the incentive has been diluted for Ontarians to vote Green. Why bother if the Liberal Premier is already acting on green initiatives?
While making sure to give credit where credit is due, the McGuinty green initiatives are a great start, but there is always more to be done. And a premier who does not act with the environment as an overriding principle (acting with a questionable record on nuclear power, for example) will never be as focused on implementing green initiatives as a premier who keeps the environment central to their worldview, let alone their politics. Green voters should not forget this: McGuinty may dress in green clothing when it's in style, but that may not reflect who he is.
Secondly, the age-old twin problems of vote-splitting and strategic voting. Those voters fearful of what a Tim Hudak PC government would look like may vote Liberal as the best chance to ensure that 'Tea Party Tim' (as his detractors have been calling him) does not form the next government. But as I wrote back in April on the benefits of uniting the left at the federal level, "I think we would all be amazed at the change in our political makeup if people abandoned strategic voting or other permutations of voting in Canada and voted with their hearts, but more importantly their minds and consciences."
Fear should never be an overriding principle in how an individual votes. Any Green voter who is concerned about the Progressive Conservatives gaining power should think twice before voting strategically. There are better ways to work towards making your vote count, and helping to implement a more equitable voting system -- rather than holding your nose while you mark an X -- is far better than strategic voting.
And lastly, the Layton effect. The untimely passing of federal NDP leader Jack Layton has lent even more power to the Orange Crush movement he helped reignite in May, and his provincial counterparts are looking to capitalize on this momentum come election day. As well they should. If it means, as some have been arguing, that it is okay to vote NDP in Toronto again, then Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath is right to align her provincial brand with the late Toronto MP.
But some questionable environmental points in the NDP platform (such as those that support making gas cheaper, which many argue will not induce people to drive less and produce less CO2), in addition to the importance of the NDP moving past Jack Layton in their effort to connect with Ontarians, should mean that Green voters looking to vote orange this time should wonder who and what it is they are voting for. Are the provincial New Democrats in their current form the best embodiments of those environmental changes most desired?
The Green Party of Ontario's fortunes do not exist at the whim of circumstance. Nor should we put any blame for the projected lower turnout squarely at the doorstep of the other parties or the political gods, as it were. For the GPO to mean more to Ontario politics than it currently does, it needs to differentiate itself from the other parties on key issues; communicate effectively with voters why it is that a vote for the Greens can and will make a difference; it needs a leader that stands out from the crowd (and is allowed to participate in the debates); and ultimately, it needs to be seen as a credible threat to the established parties.
The GPO exists in a netherworld, a limbo between running with the big dogs and being relegated to fringe party status with bigots and single-issue 'parties.' Ask Ontarians and most will tell you there are four major political parties, so why is the GPO not treated as one?
The party has proven its appeal and worth to voters. Being Green between elections is commendable - but voting Green when it counts is what matters most. The GPO may be down, but its not out.
- - -
Special thanks to former GPO leader Frank de Jong for the enlightening conversation that inspired this post.