May Day came a month or so early this year. Or maybe that should be May Week. After last week’s inter-party tweet wars between Harper and Ignatieff simmered down with the release of the Liberal platform and a welcome return to focusing on policy, the question of Green Party leader Elizabeth May’s participation in the leaders’ debates remains open. As it stands, she will not be invited to the debates on April 12 and 14 after television networks told her to do one as her party has no representation in Parliament.
On Friday’s CBC news, Peter Mansbridge asked Chantal Hébert and Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne what they think of all this (the issue is raised 8 minutes into that clip). With a degree of trepidation in her voice, Hébert said she agreed that May should not be invited, mainly because of her performances in 2008 which “did not highlight the Green Party and turned it into more of a gang of four against one,” but also because the party has “become a machine to elect Elizabeth May” and the criteria for invitation must include Parliamentary representation. Coyne was more sympathetic, noting that the Greens consistently poll somewhere in the 7-10% range and May should be present on that basis.
Perhaps he did not mean to do it, but for this non-Canadian observer Coyne and Hébert had just summoned a rather giant elephant about the size of Canada itself into the room. The House of Commons of Canada has 308 members and the Green Party attracts about one vote out of every 12 cast in recent federal elections, yet the party does not have a single seat. Hébert is probably right in saying that representation in the legislature should come before participation on the debate and Coyne was probably justified in floating the commonly-held belief among voters that the Greens are not just another fringe party. They were both right, yet they disagreed.
And so the elephant sat there in silence, present but never spoken of. Any electoral system in which a party with 7-10% of votes cannot get a single seat in a 308-seat legislature must be seen as deeply flawed. It is only natural that with support spread a mile wide and an inch deep — the exact opposite of the Bloc, as I discussed before — the Green Party is focusing on a small number of ridings where it feels it can achieve success. With May herself going up against Defence Minister and former PC leader Peter MacKay in Nova Scotia, however, it looks like the Greens will draw another blank in terms of electoral success. They will then point to their popular vote of around one million and see it as a moral victory, but there is a limit to how many times moral victories can be seen as an adequete substitute for real success.
But what is “success” for the Greens? The long-term goal must be for the party to draw up or influence policy. In the medium-term, it must be to have a number of MPs in Ottawa, beginning with at least one in this election if possible, so as they can hold government to account and use its weight of seats to influence budgets. In the short-term, the goal must be to push for a change in the electoral system away from First-past-the-post. Without a change in how elections are done, the medium- and long-term goals are just dreams.