What to make of the federal by-elections?

Elizabeth May

On November 26, voters in three ridings went to the polls to replace MPs who resigned within the last few months. In June, Calgary Centre Conservative Lee Richardson resigned to accept a position as Premier Alison Redford’s chief of staff; in July, Bev Oda resigned, hounded by scandals of her own and the Prime Minister’s making; and in late August, popular Victoria MP Denise Savoie retired early for health reasons.

On the basis of the 2011 election results, none of the seats were in any doubt. In each case, the outgoing MP had won with more than 50% of the vote. Each was what pundits like to call ‘a safe seat.’

The Green Party looked at Calgary Centre right away. The Alberta provincial election had exposed a split among Conservative voters. Stephen Harper and his Alberta MPs had been pretty transparent in promoting the Wild Rose Party and its leader Danielle Smith. It might have been wise for Harper’s team to be less exuberant about the prospects of a majority Wild Rose government in Alberta based on polls—polls which turned out to be spectacularly wrong. Lee Richardson is an old school, decent, Progressive Conservative. (I have known him since the 1980s when he was in Mulroney’s PMO and lent a hand in creating Gwaii Haanas National Park). It was shocking when he announced his departure in the House and every party rose in turn to pay tribute to his long record of service—except the Conservatives. When I was at the Calgary Stampede, for the first time, people would say ‘I am an Alison Redford Conservative; not a Stephen Harper Conservative.’ Greens had always done relatively well in Calgary Centre, with a high of 17% of the vote in 2008. So we had something of a base and only needed a great candidate. When nationally renowned author Chris Turner agreed to seek the Green Party nomination (after a lot of soul-searching, as he had never imagined himself in politics), we decided we were all in to try to win a seat in Stephen Harper’s backyard.

It was a shock when Denise resigned. Unlike the Calgary Centre nomination, where no one in media wondered how the Green Party would do, within hours the local media was full of speculation. The usual media ‘conventional wisdom’ decided that Victoria was a test for the Green Party and for me. Unlike Calgary, where we hoped for a surprise upset, suddenly in Victoria we had no choice but to run a really serious campaign. We had never done so before because Denise was such a strong MP. Even Greens voted for her. But now, if we didn’t make a serious effort to at least significantly improve our vote, we would be judged harshly.

When one of my oldest friends, Donald Galloway, agreed to run (another wonderful person who had never imagined running for office), we began to get organized in Victoria as well. In Durham, Green candidate Virginia Ervin ran a great campaign, but we could not see any likelihood of the Conservative grip on that riding slipping at all. So we did not emphasize the Durham by-election.

Now that the dust has settled, it is clear we made good choices in deciding to run hard in both Calgary and Victoria. Where the previous winning candidates had won with over 50% of the vote, in the by-election, the races became very close. In both cases, they were squeakers. In Calgary, it turned into a three-way race, with only a ten-point spread between the winner Conservative Joan Crockatt and Green candidate Chris Turner.

Liberals, who came in second, have spoken bitterly of the Green vote ‘splitting’ their vote. As Chris Turner pointed out in a column in the Globe and Mail, the first poll gave the Liberal 30% of the vote and Chris Turner 8%. By election day, the Greens had over 25% of the vote and the Liberal candidate 32%. So it is hard to make a claim we took votes from the Liberal column. Chris believes he engaged people who otherwise would not have voted at all.

Victoria was a lot closer. In fact, the majority of the votes cast on November 26 were for Donald Galloway. It was the votes cast in Advance Polls that gave the win to a very strong candidate (and another old friend of mine) new NDP MP Murray Rankin.

Some pundits have said this shows that Thomas Mulcair is not as popular as the late Jack Layton, to explain the difference between NDP votes in 2011 and 2012. I doubt there is much in that. I think that a lot of the votes in 2011 were not NDP votes at all. They were Denise Savoie votes. With the chance to look at all the candidates, Donald Galloway really impressed. Especially for those who attended the all-candidates debates, Donald won people over by being the most impressive in a field of good candidates. Economist Paul Summerville had been an NDPcandidate in Ontario and ran a one-issue campaign (which I regret as it allowed media to ignore important issues like climate, and parliamentary democracy and fracking and so on). Dale Gann was as good a candidate as the Conservatives could ever hope to have. He runs the Vancouver Island Technology Centre, is progressive and articulate.

The real story here is the collapse of the Conservative vote. Having come in second in 2011 in Victoria with 23% of the vote, the Conservative vote dropped to third place and a poor one at that, with 14% of the vote. The Liberals were just behind in fourth place. My belief is that the Conservative vote was torpedoed way before Denise resigned. It evaporated in the wake of nasty partisan swipes at anyone in BC who opposes supertankers full of bitumen crude. Epithets of ‘radicals’ and ‘against Canada’ and ‘foreign-funded’ opponents of the national interest turned off Conservatives in droves. If I were a Conservative MP in BC, these results would make me very nervous.

And that is very good news indeed. I keep working to stop the ratification of the Canada-China Investment Treaty where our only hope lies now in Conservative MPs pressuring the Prime Minister. Conservative MPs know their voters want them to reject the treaty—or face their wrath at the polls.

Something seems to be getting through. Lately, Stephen Harper’s messaging around Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project has started to re-align to reality. I can see the ground shifting, such that even the Prime Minister may walk away from that one. (However, with Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline twinning coming onstream, I do not want to declare any premature victories for fear of losing the energy of the campaign to prevent supertankers on our coast.)

The by-elections have been a boost for the Green Party. It is wonderful to see such a large rise in the Green vote overall. And, yes, I do wish I had another Green MP to help me with the work I am doing in Parliament and to represent the people of Victoria, not just deliver partisan messages disseminated from the leader’s office. Donald Galloway was a superb candidate and, like Chris Turner, I hope they will take the Green banner forward again in the future.

My goal now is to work to get the Liberals and New Democrats to agree to cooperation in the next election. We need to develop a one-time pact to cooperate, and then after one election, get rid of first-past-the post elections for good.

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Canada.
Originally printed in the Island Tides.