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What Green Parties Everywhere Can Learn From a Rare Victory in Canada

In conservative Prince Edward Island, governed by establishment parties for over a hundred years, the Green Party has suddenly become a major player. What changed?

Stringer/AFP/Getty Images

After a campaign marked by extremes, Scottish-born dentist-turned-politician Peter Bevan-Baker listened to the first returns of Prince Edward Island’s (PEI) provincial election at home. Polls suggested that the Greens might form a majority government, making him Premier of Canada’s smallest province, an island with about 153,000 residents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. One poll from MQO Research put them at 40 per cent of the vote earlier this month—an 11 percent lead over the second place Progressive Conservatives, an almost inconceivable notion to the man who had presided over this change of political fortunes.

Canada’s Green Party has been waiting for a breakthrough. The sudden rise in PEI has become a great curiosity not only for the pundit class, but for voters. PEI is a mostly centrist province that has had Liberal or Conservative leadership since the nineteenth century, and features a disproportionate number of middle-aged and elderly voters. But for a while this spring, it looked like PEI could become the first provincial or state government in North America to be led by a Green party. While in the end, the Progressive Conservatives took the lead in the election this past Tuesday, the Greens are nevertheless expected to wind up as the official opposition against a Progressive Conservative’ minority government, finishing with 8 out of 26 seats compared to the PC’s 12. They even earned more of the popular vote than the incumbent Liberal party. And the tiny provincial election has quickly become a symbol of possibilities in the current, transnational era of political dissatisfaction and hastening climate change.

By the time Bevan-Baker joined the victory celebration Tuesday night, the Greens were in second place to the Progressive Conservatives. The party was still mourning the tragic death last week of Green candidate Josh Underhay and his young son, from a canoeing accident just days before the election. But even without a slam-dunk electoral win, the party could celebrate an astonishing electoral outcome. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as overwhelmed with both joy and grief simultaneously,” Bevan-Baker said on-stage. “My heart is so full. But it’s also breaking.”

National surveys in Canada and the United States show that the voting public is increasingly concerned with climate change and the environment. It’s not just a fringe, third-party issue, but a growing concern for the political mainstream. With an October election in Canada and the 2020 election in the United States ahead, environmentally minded politicians can extract certain lessons from the changes seen in this small-c conservative region.

“I think it’s a message for other politicians and political parties, including the Green Party federally, that people are looking for something different than politics as usual,” said Jo-Ann Roberts, deputy leader of Canada’s federal Green Party and PEI native.

Matt Campbell, a public sector management consultant originally from PEI pointed out that, in an exception to the usual trends, it wasn’t the economy that caused the electoral shift. “All of the key indicators pointed in the right direction [for the incumbent party]—jobs, wage growth, GDP growth, immigration.” Nevertheless, “the tide had turned and the public wanted change.”

Roberts has seen incremental increases in Green electoral outcomes over the last several years. Though polls suggest voters like the idea of voting Green, they don’t actually vote Green at the rate those numbers would suggest. Roberts thinks that’s because voters are worried voting Green isn’t realistic. “Until they accept that sense of winnability, often even if they believed in the Green candidate and were tempted to vote Green, they were almost afraid to.” Voters don’t want to waste a vote—a phenomenon that holds in the U.S. as well, though exacerbated in the U.S. case by the two-party system.

Every positive electoral outcome has the potential to persuade voters that the Greens are a realistic option. But there are other factors too, like shifting from being a single-issue third party to demonstrating that Greens are a credible government-in-waiting. “If you followed the Green campaign in PEI, underlying all of it was a strong environmental platform, but it wasn’t the only issue,” Roberts said. “They really provided a lot of leadership on poverty and housing and healthcare and education.”

That’s a big change, and a quick one. Bevan-Baker said there were no illusions of presenting a platform the first time he ran. The first step was to get elected as the party’s leader, which he did in 2015. Another candidate, Hannah Bell, was elected in a 2017 by-election. But this election was different.

“Our success here was in large part because we did not present ourselves as an environmental party,” he says. The Green Party’s core principles and values were still present, he said. But a government has “to be able to talk to all of the other issues about which people are concerned.”

Specifically, Bevan-Baker said two of the core issues he heard on the campaign trail were healthcare and housing. Those were quickly incorporated as key campaign issues. The 2019 Green platform, therefore, included not just implementing carbon pricing, but also exploring a basic income guarantee for island residents and allocating $10 million to increase social assistance.

Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island, said the platform was a hybrid that included traditional left of center policies with what he would call “fiscal prudence.” It’s a useful approach when environmentally-focused initiatives, like the Green New Deal or carbon pricing frameworks, are derided by critics as expensive or financially burdensome. And it’s a change from the previous incarnation of the PEI Green Party, which was more focused on calling out the main contributors to the province’s environmental issues. In the agriculture-based economy of PEI, that was farmers and the pesticides and chemical fertilizers they used. “They [the farmers] did not respond well to that,” he says. Even in this most recent election, the success was primarily in the province’s more urban areas as opposed to rural ones. “But (Bevan-Baker) did make a substantial dent in the kind of resistance to the Green Party’s policies.”

In the current political era, the idea of upheaval gets thrown around a lot, even while the status quo also has a tendency to prevail. But it’s the Green Party’s long history of unimpressive outcomes that makes the sudden shift in political fortunes so striking.

No one’s more conscious of that than Bevan-Baker himself, who was elected on his tenth attempt. “I actually thought it might be 24 years, not four years, building the credibility of the party and the comfort level of islanders with this new party to the point where we could actually present ourselves as government in waiting,” he said. “So I was as shocked as anybody else, that within one election cycle, we were ahead in the polls and with the possibility of forming government.”

If voters elsewhere take note, deciding the Green Party may now be a realistic choice, Canadian politics could be in for quite the shakeup.