2008 Election

Elizabeth May

To all who eagerly look to the site and wonder where my blogs have gone – apologies. If you imagined I was on holiday, then that was a lovely imaginary event. I have been swamped with post election analyses and catching up on other work neglected in the campaign.

My new book -- Global Warming for Dummies -- is finally on bookstore shelves. As well, every available second has been going to my new project. I am writing a book on some themes inspired by the experience of the 2008 campaign So, sadly, no excuses, I have been ignoring my blog.

One of things I was writing instead of blogs was my campaign report. I had intended to keep it confidential. I did share it with candidates, and, well, no real surprise, the media has it now. So with a few deletions, I thought, why not make up for lost time and post a really long campaign analysis as my first post election blog? Thanks for your patience!! And for your support!!

Leader's Report on the 2008 Election
Elizabeth May
November 5, 2008

1. A Watershed Election

The 2008 election marked a number of important watersheds for the Green Party of Canada. It was essentially our first federal election campaign to make any real impact in the national consciousness.

It was our first election campaign with fully funded campaigns in a number of ridings.

It was our first campaign with national television ads.

It was our first election campaign in which we had a full and well researched policy document (Vision Green) available well in advance, with a tight and well written platform (Looking Forward).

We were the first party to release our platform and we were the only party to release a full and costed program -- out over the next three years -- demonstrating fiscal responsibility.

It was our first election with a national leader's tour to which media signed on to join the leader on tour. We had CBC National TV, Global National, A Chinese TV network, Canadian Press, Macleans and the Toronto Star on board as we pulled out of Vancouver, with the National Post, Globe and Mail, TVA and others joining as we traveled to the East Coast.

It was our first election campaign in which the leader participated in the debates. Most pundits declared that I won the English debate and there was a very favourable impression in Quebec based on the French debate.

As I sketched it out in speeches across the country, the campaign period worked in four waves. We dominated the first week in the protest over my exclusion from the debates. The second wave was our national leaders "whistle-stop" tour. In all, I participated in events in 41 ridings. We had events (some in off-shoots from the main rail tour) in more than 80% of the ridings that broke 10%. The third wave was the focus on the debates
themselves. The fourth wave (as I anticipated it) did not work with the media. Our story was "Greens in close races." My own focus was the close race in Central Nova in the hope national media would come to the riding to cover the neck in neck race. Sadly the media was stuck in their old story line. Despite polls to the contrary, the media story was that Peter MacKay was unbeatable. This certainly hurt our last stretch messaging.

Given the reality that this was our first major national campaign, and my first as leader, we did a remarkable job. The impression of our campaign to the general public and media was of a positive and creative campaign. Nevertheless, there are many lessons to be learned based on what we all observed from the inside.

We accomplished a great deal. In late August, we made history when Blair Wilson became the first Green MP in Canadian history. The announcement of that coup was flawlessly executed and positioned us well for the campaign. The metrics of our election successes have been measured in reports from Jim Harris and others. We were the only party to increase the number of votes received. In relative terms, we did better than any other party.

This is hugely significant in the context of a major financial crisis dominating the campaign, combined with low voter turn out.

2. Regional analysis:

One aspect of our success that has been omitted from other reports has been the big gains in Atlantic Canada. I had always said that by running in Nova Scotia, the party would make gains in the region. In fact, we had two Atlantic ridings above 10% -- Central Nova and Fredericton. Mary Lou Babineau in Fredericton got over 10% of the vote with a modest campaign, spending approx $6,000. The popular vote in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia doubled, with increases in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. We grew in almost every region of Canada. Particularly stunning was John Streicker's great result in the Yukon.

Our only seriously worrying result was in Quebec. As a party, we need to put special attention into determining why our vote did not grow in Quebec. Our national results would have been much higher if not for our vote stalling in Quebec. We are less visible in Quebec, although we were beginning to get more "buzz" after the French debate. Clearly, there needs to be an overhaul of our Quebec strategy.

Regionally, we now have more and better data to determine the best strategy to increase growth.

3. Reflections:

The results were disappointing because our hopes were so high. I reflect on my own sense of imminent seat wins. I cannot say we were wrong to be optimistic. You can never win seats if you downplay expectations.

In 2008, given the steady work over the last two years to build the party's public profile, it was reasonable to anticipate wins. Our closest result was in my own riding. (Over 32% of the vote with over 12,600 Green votes.). The Central Nova team believed that victory was likely based on polls and the "word on the street." There was panic in the local Conservative ranks. They leaked an email calling for their members to get friends and neighbours to the polls -- tellingly including the claim that there was a major surge by the NDP. The email even said that the Greens were not a threat. This was deliberate disinformation, which, of course, the NDP played up in local media. In fact, we were very close and the NDP was running a distant third. An additional fairly large factor in Central Nova was the number of people turned away at the polls.

There are many lessons to learn, but top of my list was that our vision and aspirations were not matched by a machine on the ground to deliver the vote

a) Factors out of our control:

In reviewing election results, we should not ignore a number of large external factors.

First, as noted, the economic melt-down in the US took the campaign focus off areas of our traditional strength. Our release on immediate steps to stabilize and protect the Canadian economy did not receive any media coverage -- none. The fact that we held on to the vote at nearly 7% in those circumstances is truly remarkable.

Low voter turn out was in the Conservatives' interest and the election was orchestrated to deliver low voter participation. Several deliberate aspects of this election call were designed to reduce the vote:
As Angus Reid poll results demonstrate, the impact of the Conservative attack ads was to depress the vote, encouraging Liberals to stay home and others to be "turned off" politics;
The snap election, when the Canadian public did not want an election, reduced voter engagement;
The fact it was the shortest election campaign in Canadian history gave little time for issues to gain traction;
The short campaign meant there was only one leaders debate in each official language;
The fact the Canadian election campaign competed for attention with the politically aware section of the electorate with the US election campaign;
The new Elections Law had the effect of denying thousands of Canadians who actually showed up at polls and wished to vote, their right to vote.

In my opening campaign speech on September 7, I tried to inspire a movement to increase voter turn out. It was always clear that Greens would benefit from higher levels of public participation. I still believe this was the right message, but the media in Canada was not ready for a message for change. Our national media was working from an old script. Ironically, the media agenda and partisan bias was more fixed in Canada than in the U.S..

Media bias was clearly a major factor in this election. By this, I mean more than the usual media bias against the Green Party. There is no question that our policies were either ignored or misrepresented. Our policy announcements were often completely ignored. If not for a telegenic whistle stop tour, I do not think we would have had any major coverage once the "debate over the debates" was resolved. The times we did the more traditional major photo op media event with a big policy announcement attached, we received nearly zero coverage.

What did get coverage was repeated efforts to throw us off-stride, generally originating in the blogosphere, then in major papers and to scrums and media questions. For the most part, the communications team did a great job shutting these down. There were stories alleging I had called Canadians stupid (the strange tape with missing comments to the side from mis-hearing of the TVO show from last year), the accusation of Green Party anti-Semitism, the charge I had attended a pro-Hezbollah rally, charges that there were secret agreements, and then the charge around strategic voting.

Media bias went beyond deliberate distortion. I believe the Conservative Party let their favourite media mouthpieces know that they wanted the Greens marginalized by treating me as a "bizarre" or "off the wall" (both Mike Duffy and the Macleans piece last year have tried this spin). It is clear to me that CTV orchestrated the situation so that I would be informed on Mike Duffy Live that the consortium had decided to keep me out of the debates. It was a deliberate ploy to spring the news on me in hopes of having a television clip of me over-reacting, being angry or tearful. They could have used such a clip to confirm my unsuitability to participate in the debates - thus letting Harper and Layton off the hook. Thankfully, I stayed very calm and explained why the decision was anti-democratic and avoided larger questions in the public interest -such as who controls the public airwaves.

My comment about media bias is, however, than biased treatment of Greens. There was a concerted effort by many large outlets, not to report the story, but to drive the story. The media willingness to play clips of Stephane Dion asking for clarification of an unclear question (and it was unclear in either language) was the low point for media interference in the election. It was no accident that it was again CTV displaying an intrusive role in assisting Mr. Harper.

b) Factors in our control:

Although we waged a really strong campaign, there is a great deal of scope for improvement.

We were clearly unprepared. There were very good reasons for this as the call of four by-elections in mid-summer, particularly Guelph where we saw our best ever chance for winning a seat, distracted our attention. It was a mistake to suspend general election planning due to the by-elections.

There is no question that the exact scenario of Stephen Harper deciding to break his own fixed election date law was not in anyone's list of hypothetical scenarios. Still, we did know a fall election was likely. We should have had a campaign plan.

No campaign planning document was ever prepared that I saw. No campaign discussions and strategies calls took place during the campaign. My feeling throughout the campaign was that I was flying by the seat of my pants. Some of this was inevitable. As the story of the decision about the consortium being delivered live and on air demonstrated, there was no way that a better plan or team effort could have helped much of the time. My reaction to the news is what sparked the protest. We did a great job prompting the demand
for me to be in the debates, but the level of public outrage certainly exceeded anything we orchestrated.

On the Campaign as a whole:

Many of the failings of this campaign will be picked up by others as well. It is clear that we need to learn from these gaps and build for a far more effective campaign next time. Key to improved performance are the following:

We need a campaign plan well in advance;
We need much better communication between Leader, the Leader team, the Ottawa office, the Campaign Chair and FCC during the campaign;
We must have good day to day contact with candidates;
Candidates must receive embargoed releases and clear messages of what will be the main media focus of the day;
We must have good communications pieces (including templates for brochures and web sites, etc) ready to go within 24 hours of writ dropping..

The biggest problem area to sort out by the next campaign is how I can win in my riding (any riding) when I am out of the riding more than half the time. The push and pull is tough. Can we have any kind of decision that the Leader winning in her seat is a top priority? (*the* Top Priority?) If I had been in Central Nova the whole time (except for national debates), I would have won.

To compensate for the reality that the Green Party is the only federal party without a seat for the leader in a safe riding, we need to be more creative. We need to have Deputy Leaders do events outside of their own ridings. We should start work now to obtain commitments from Green celebrities (entertainers, writers, sports figures) to do events and media for us during the campaign. We should be using our former leaders in campaign events. We should not ignore this reality by allowing the pressure on the leader to be
outside their own riding interfere with actually winning the seat.

Lastly, I want to say a word on the issue of whether I let down the party somehow by comments in response to media questions about vote splitting/strategic voting.

First of all, I think the party internally is obsessing about this in a way that verges on dangerous self-destruction. I have been clear that I did not endorse strategic voting. I was under intense pressure -from people I respect (such as Nobel Prize Winning scientists) -- to do so. The media was relentless in exaggerating my comments about trusting in democracy and, in fact, stating the opposite of what I had said.

All of that said, experts who have accurately predicted the vote in the last two elections have been clear that strategic voting, if it had an effect, had an impact that was relatively small (less than one per cent variance from his projected result). Moreover, the Green Party denouncing strategic voting will not stop people from voting strategically. It is what a lot of intelligent people will do. Telling them they are wrong will just alienate them from the Green Party.

I am very pleased that the messaging has allowed us to escape a dangerous and devastating result. Other than a few voices, the Green Party is not being blamed for the electoral result of a Harper government. Some say I am unreasonably concerned about being labeled with the "Ralph Nader effect." The truth is that Ralph Nader ran as a Green. His vote in Florida resulted in Bush's victory. Blaming Nader was wrong in principle. If Gore had carried his home state of Tennessee, he would have been president. Gore made his own mistakes (campaigning as a wooden stick figure, distancing himself from Clinton and not allowing Clinton to campaign for him). Nader's mistake, and the reason the Green fortunes in the US fell so dramatically the day after the 2000 election, was that he said there was no difference between Bush and Gore. (It is certainly notable that as the candidate and members list serves light up with different views on the importance of an Obama win, I do not even see Canadian Greens asking how the US Green presidential candidate, former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, did in the campaign.)

My concern is that I think there are some in the party who would have wanted me to say just that (in the Canadian context – no difference between Dion and Harper). I cannot do that. I pledged constantly, from my opening press conference seeking GPC leadership, to never say something I believed to be untrue. I pledged to never fail to differentiate between other parties and to give credit where credit is due.

When I was elected a little more than two years ago, it was for a four year term. I intend to remain as leader of the Green Party. My personal popularity with the Canadian electorate is something, speaking as objectively as possible, that the Green Party needs. I did not become leader of this party to quit and, in so doing, watch it decline. Nevertheless, while I pledge to be clearer that people should vote Green and more wary of media manipulation, I need Council to know that I cannot be expected to deny the reality that Stephen Harper's approach to the single most important issue of our time, global warming and the gathering risk of a run-away greenhouse effect, is wrong and dangerous. If that is what is wanted of me, then we have a problem.

My primary allegiance is to the planet and to a livable world for my children and grandchildren and their grandchildren. Mr. Harper's unilateral power to direct our negotiators to block progress at the UN climate negotiations (without any review by the House, without a vote, and without even Cabinet consultations) is a direct threat to our future. The best international scientific advice suggests that we must ensure that the global growth in GHG is arrested by 2015, and begin to drop from there. We do not have much time. The negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 are basically our last chance for a workable global agreement. Sadly, in the UN system, even one country can block consensus. If emissions continue to rise after 2015, the best science tells us that we will hit points of no return. We will trip those "tipping points" in atmospheric chemistry through positive feedback loops that make arresting an acceleration of global temperatures impossible. As long as I am leader, I will ensure the Green Party of Canada is a beacon of truth in a sea of spin. I will not allow partisanship to betray our children's future.

All of that said, we are well-positioned for the next campaign. We need to capture what we have learned and maintain work in constant election preparedness. We have a great team of candidates, EDA executives and volunteers across Canada.

Many thanks to everyone who worked so hard for our most successful campaign in history.