Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Politics: The Real Threat To Conservatives

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The current flare-up over the Leadership Debates in Canada is revealing that the real threat to the Conservatives in this election is the Green Party, not the Liberals.

I have found the behavior of the party leaders after the decision yesterday by the consortium of networks to exclude Green Party leader Elizabeth May from the Leadership Debates quite revealing. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party, cited the deal between May and Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion to not run opposing candidates in their ridings, claiming May was actually the Liberal candidate in her riding of Central Nova. He went so far as to predict that May would endorse the Liberals before the election is held.

The concept of a party leader with 306 candidates running nationwide abandoning them to endorse another party is absurd, as May quickly pointed out. If the pool of voters that might vote for the Liberals and the Greens was really the same set of people, one would think that Harper would want to encourage the comparatively-small Greens to take votes away from the Liberals and make the task of creating a Conservative plurality easier. Since he isn't doing that, there must be some other motivation.

Could it be that Harper is actually worried about the Greens taking away votes from Conservatives? The only party leader that publicly called for May's participation in the debates, Liberal leader St├ęphane Dion, doesn't seem concerned. The Green Party's historic emphasis on the environment shouldn't appear especially attractive to a Liberal, as Dion has proposed the Green Shift carbon taxing scheme that moves in the same direction as desired by the Green Party, one of the reasons that Harper cited in claiming they were really the same party. Yet, why would a Liberal-leaning voter jump ship to the Greens on the basis of the environmental policies when the Liberals have a similar policy and would seem to be in a better position to actually be elected and implement the policy?

Similarly, a NDP-leaning voter would seem to have little reason to shift to the Greens. The NDP has a different perspective on the way to address climate change, calling for a cap-and-trade arrangement on carbon emissions instead of a carbon tax, but leader Jack Layton often speaks about prioritizing the environment and indeed spent most of Monday critizing the environmental condition of the province of Alberta. But, again, even if a NDP-leaning voter strongly preferred a carbon tax to cap-and-trade, why would that voter defect to the Greens and not the Liberals? Layton's opposition to having May in the debates seems to be much more likely rooted in keeping protest votes that are not environmentally motivated from going to the Greens, a position that is nearly indefensible for a party that itself often begs for attention.

Even the Bloc Quebecois speaks out enough on environmental issues, favoring the Kyoto Protocol and taxing non-renewable resources even if they favor the Hibernia project such that the idea of a voter abandoning the BQ over environmental issues seems absurd.

Yet, if one were a Conservative-leaning voter that had environmental concerns, there would be a reason to defect to the Greens. While Stephen Harper claims that the environment and the economy are at odds, Elizabeth May rejects that thesis and professes that sustainable economics and sustainable environmental policies go hand-in-hand. She has increasingly emphasized sustainable economics, including in a recent interview with CBC's "The Current". This provides a reason for Conservatives to consider the Greens--they can maintain their fiscal responsibility and not claim that it's impossible to do and keep the economy going. Furthermore, one look at the European economy seems to imply that May's vision might actually be achievable.

I have yet to personally meet a former Liberal or NDP supporter that has switched to the Greens. On the other hand, I know several former Conservatives, particularly former Progressive Conservatives, that are looking closely at the Greens or have started to look at them. I suspect that's the real reason Harper opposes and Dion supports Elizabeth May's inclusion in the Leadership debates.

The public reaction to the exclusion of Elizabeth May from the debates has been substantially negative. It should be. The real standard for inclusion in the debates should be electing a member of parliament from that party (by which indeed the Greens would not qualify on the basis of Blair Wilson's change of affiliation) OR by running candidates in at least (say) 90% of the ridings across the country (by which the party does qualify). If a party is organized enough to be running candidates across the entire nation, it has a voice that deserves to be heard at the Leadership debates. To my knowledge, this standard would only add the Greens to the present debates, not any of the other Federally-registered parties that at most have fielded a handful of candidates across the country, usually in regional or urban clusters.

If the policies of Conservatives, Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc are defensible, then they should be able to promote them in a debate, whether Elizabeth May is there promoting the Green Party or not. Harper, Layton, and the Bloc's Gilles Duceppe should be ashamed for causing her to be excluded from the national forum.

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