The Influence of Green Parties
Oct 12, 2011

The Influence of Green Parties

Green parties so often exist on the fringes of the political spectrum, often without direct political power, and so it is important to periodically remind ourselves of why they are indeed important and have a role to play. The specific mechanism of this influence differs between the two cases I will consider here: Ontario, Canada and Australia.

In Australia, the mechanism of influence is of the more direct kind to which minority parties may aspire to. After winning a small number of seats in Parliament, they held the balance of power in a minority government led by Labor's Julia Gillard. Despite previously promising not to implement a Carbon Tax - and even explicitly canvassing against this for her predecessor - she has compromised by exchanging the implementation of a Carbon Tax for the Greens' political support. While the future of this tax is in question, and while there remains much more to be desired for advocates of global warming policies, the ability to build a Green movement until it gets to the point where it has enough official political power to directly change policy is a huge accomplishment to be desired by most Green movements.

The situation in Ontario is in some ways the exact opposite. They have never won a seat in Ontario and dropped from a record breaking 8% of the vote in 2007 to just over 3% in the 2011 Ontario election. While these direct measures of power have become inconsequential, they nonetheless had very important influence.

The man thrust of McGuinty's various green proposals (such as the Feed-In-Tariff program or the Samsung deal) all happened after the 2007 election. That eight percent green vote is very attractive to polititians, and they will surely covet it; adopting major Green policies as part of a platform is exactly doing this.

The Progressive Conservatives had no hope of attracting the green vote. As I have written previously, the NDP often has a balance to play between its various social sides (which abhor any increased cost to the bottom 50% from energy plans) and its tendencies to support sustainable and environmental issues. When Andrea Howarth was elected Ontario NDP leader in 2009 over the former Greenpeace director Peter Tabuns it was a clear shift by the NDP away from the Green movement and towards the social side of the NDP. It was thus the perfect tactical move for the Liberals to strongly embrace Green issues while the other parties were not in a position to capitalize on this, and so they did.

It should not necessarily be taken as a failure that the Green vote collapsed as it did in the 2011 Ontario election. Because in many ways this election was indeed a referendum on McGuinty's Green policies (indeed this was the only major policy difference to differentiate between the PCs), many potential green voters may have supported the Liberals precisey because of these policies. It is hard given the lack of appropriate polls to ascertain precisely the motivations of that 8% from the 2007 election, but to the extent that this shift was because of a policy shift by the Liberals, that can be considered a success for the movement and not a failure.

Indeed, a general rule of thumb for issue specific parties or advocacy groups might be that the more what they advocate is adopted by the political class, the less needed they are, and vice versa. A anti-slavery movement isn't needed when the whole culture adopts that position, for instance. I should be clear that I think this is just the beginning and much more policy work is needed and a strong, vibrant and influential Green movement is important towards driving that. However, it must also be seen that polititians appealing to this this issue will indeed get them votes (note that without even half of the 5% drop in Green support going to the Liberals, the outcome of the 2011 election may have been substantially different).

The primary way third parties like the Green party in Canada, that get between zero and an inconsequential number of seats, can actually influence politics is by shifting the political conversation in a way that prioritizes their issues over other in the public dialogue. By having people caring about this issue over others it forces the other parties to try and appeal to this sentiment that is now latent within a subgroup of the population. Resulting in direct electoral success is not necessary. Indeed, we can hope, and should expect, that problems like global warming will be addressed long before a Green party gets into power and forms a government, which might never happen. If they can push the other parties to the work for them, they have succeeded.

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