With the June 12, 2014 Ontario provincial election now in the rear-view mirror, two of Ontario’s four major political parties have been going through a fair amount of public soul searching after less than inspired electoral outcomes. Tim Hudak’s PC party ended up losing 9 seats, while Andrea Horwarth’s NDP ended up with the same number of seats the NDP held at dissolution (21), having lost three key City of Toronto ridings while picking up three smaller urban seats in compensation – the NDP bettered its 2011 election result by 4 seats, and held onto all of their by-election gains.
We’re pretty familiar with the fact that Tim Hudak announced on election night that he was stepping down as Progressive Conservative party leader, but even that wasn’t enough for PC supporters, who had the knives out to filet Hudak anyway, after he had suggested he’d stay on to chaperone the party until a leadership contest was held. A few days later, after a raucous caucus meeting with remaining MPP’s, Hudak stepped away completely from any leadership role with the PC’s. The rules for a leadership contest are now being put together by the PC’s Executive, and already a front-line contender, MPP Christine Elliot, has stepped forward to announce she’ll be running for leader. Other high profile provincial and federal Conservatives are expected to announce soon.
Andrea Horwarth, despite some internal dissent within her own party, has opted to stay on as NDP Leader. She’ll be facing a mandatory vote of confidence at the Ontario NDP’s next convention – a vote she’ll likely win, albeit with some expression of opposition to her staying on. Horwarth was roundly criticized by many in the labour movement for voicing opposition to Premier Kathleen Wynne’s budget, which precipitated the election when Wynne marched over to the L-G’s one day after delivering the budget. Insiders speculate that Howarth’s team was caught off-guard by the quick dissolution of parliament, and the NDP’s very slow start to the election (their platform didn’t roll out until the third week – and the 2011 election platform wasn’t taken down from their website for more than two weeks after parliament was dissolved) suggests that there’s some merit to that. Had the NDP been faster out of the gate, this election’s outcome might have been different for that party.
2014 Ontario Election – Mostly the Same
Generally speaking, though, not much actually changed at the ballot box in this past election. The biggest story at the ballot box was probably the increase in voter turnout (up from less than 50% to almost 54%). This slight shift in voter turnout may have contributed slightly to the change in actual seat counts for each party, despite the very modest changes to vote percentage. The Liberals saw their vote share go up just 1%, yet they picked up 5 new seats over 2011 results (and were up 10 seats from dissolution). The NDP did a little better, gaining just over 1% from 2011 totals, and rising by 4 seats (0 seats from time of dissolution). The PC’s were the biggest loser of the night, seeing their vote share drop by 4.2% from 2011, and their seat count fall by 9 (2011 and dissolution).
The biggest winner of the night, though, based on voter percentages, was clearly the Green Party of Ontario, which saw its vote share go up by almost 2% - almost double that experienced by the Liberals and the NDP. However, despite the increase in voter share, the Green Party failed to elect anybody at all.
Greens in the Wilderness
It’s a crying shame that the relatively minor shifts in vote percentages can (and do) lead to perverse electoral consequences in Ontario and throughout Canada. Now, in Ontario, we have a party with a so-called “majority” government, which less than 39% of votes cast, and about 22% of votes from all eligible voters (45% of whom decided not to cast any ballot at all). The electoral outcome is a clear travesty, and an affront to the concept of democracy. Yet, in the latest election, the issue of electoral reform was nowhere to be found amongst the three parties which elected representatives. Only the Green Party was talking about the need to change the way in which we democratically elect our representatives.
Yet, most Ontarians were probably unaware of that fact, just as most were probably unaware of almost everything that the Green Party was campaigning on. Once again, Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner was left out of all of the Leader’s debates (televised and otherwise), and the Ontario media did a pretty good job of ignoring the existence of the Greens (save for TV Ontario). The only Green issue which seemed to bubble up to the election surface was the call to merge publicly funded school boards. Besides that, most voters were probably quite unaware of where the Green Party stood on any issue.
The Green Party – Where Do We Go From Here?
Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner will be facing a mandatory leadership review of his own this coming September, when the GPO holds its annual general meeting in Toronto. Schreiner was elected Leader by Greens in November, 2009, after a gutsy, but ultimately unsuccessful by-election challenge earlier that year in Haliburton-Kawartha Lakes-Brock (where he received less than 7% of the vote, finishing third), a by-election notable for the defeat of PC Leader John Tory at the hands of the Liberals. Schreiner became just the second leader of the Green Party of Ontario, taking over from Frank De Jong, who was elected Leader of the Greens in 1993, five years after the founding of the Party. De Jong led the Green Party to its best electoral showing of all in 2007, when Greens picked up 8% of the popular vote (but still failed to elect anybody).
Since then, Mike has led the Greens to general election shut-outs in 2011 (where he finished fourth in Simcoe-Grey with less than 9% of the vote) and again recently in 2014 (where he finished third in Guelph, with just over 19% of the vote, behind the incumbent Liberal candidate and PC challenger).
Greens – Looking for “Success”
Now look – I understand that “success” is a loaded term, but I think that most readers would agree that the Green Party of Ontario has experienced “success” in a very narrow, limited context, and it’s likely more accurate to suggest that the GPO, a party which has been in existence since 1987, has so far failed to make the sort of inroads with the electorate that a political party needs in order to unequivocally state that it has experienced “success”.
Tim Hudak resigned on election night 2014 after dropping just over 4% of the vote. Hudak made gains for his Party in 2011, increasing its seat count by 11, and its vote count by over 3%. Contrast those numbers with the Green Party’s: In 2011, the Green Party of Ontario dropped over 5% (2007 – 8%; 2011 – 2.9%) and still failed to return to 2007 levels in 2014 (4.84%). Taken together, the Green Party under Schreiner has lost more ground than the PC’s have since 2007.
Greens may not be as eager as PC’s to bring out the long knives – who, after all, is waiting in the wings to replace Schreiner if he steps down (or if Greens vote for a leadership review in September)? Also, it is absolutely fair to say that Greens don’t believe that our lack of good showing was in any way reflective of our Leader’s efforts or campaign mistakes in the same way that many PC’s (and some New Democrats) view the decisions made by their party leaders. I’d strongly suspect most Greens believe that Schreiner gave it his best shot, and that circumstances have simply conspired to keep Greens out of Queens Park. Again.
I like Mike Schreiner. I don’t know that I’ve ever met any Green that’s met Mike and whom doesn’t like Mike. I don’t know that I’ve heard much in the way of negative feedback about Mike, except for general comments about his invisibility – something which I know Mike tries hard to overcome. But let’s face it: Mike has never enjoyed the same sort of profile that Elizabeth May brought with her when she became the Green Party of Canada’s Leader. And even then, it took two heart-breaking electoral losses for May to finally win one for the Greens in 2011.
Putting aside Mike’s likability, however, the question needs to be asked: what can the Green Party of Ontario do in the future to change the sorts of electoral outcomes which Greens have become used to? In hockey, it’s easy for a losing team to fire its coach and expect different results under different leadership. In politics, that’s not always the case (nor is it in hockey, as a matter of fact), yet too many political parties are quick to make those kinds of moves. Green parties, however, often don’t put a lot of credence into Party leadership (recall that Frank De Jong became the party’s first leader over 6 years after the founding of the Party – there’s a reason for that, and its rooted in the consensus culture of Green Parties throughout Canada and the world – a culture which is often at cross purposes with electoral politics in this nation and its provinces), preferring to downplay Leaders and keep their power in check through constitutional and by-law mechanisms. Green leaders enjoy significantly less latitude than the leaders of other parties when it comes to so many of the political tools which other parties leader can employ to change course.
In that context, it’s a lot easier for PC’s and New Democrats to blame their leaders for less-than stellar performances.
Meeting the “Enemy”
So if Greens can’t blame Schreiner for yet another lack of electoral “success”, who do we blame? Actually, the list is quite long – the media, the other parties, the electoral system, etc. Look, it’s easy to point fingers at any and all of these hurdles which the Party has to figure out a way to overcome if we’re going to elect anybody. But ultimately, I think we need to take a very close look at the real levers of power within the party and start pointing some fingers in that direction.
Those fingers, of course, should be pointed right back at us – the members of the Party who make the policy and constitutional decisions about how the Party works and what the Party campaigns on. We the members of the Party are also primarily those who provide are time and financial resources to the success of the Party. We are the ones who step up at election time to be local candidates (or find others to do it on our behalf).
We are the ones who have again failed to connect with voters, after all of our struggling, our financial outlays, our social media use and door knocking. We didn’t do it in 2014. We need to start asking ourselves some tough questions now about what we’re going to do differently in 2018. We can’t sit back and pin all of our hopes on Mike Schreiner to gain a beachhead for the Party in a single riding. We need to start taking some responsibility for dynamic campaigns in our own local ridings. As Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”.
The Key to Future Success
In short, we need to start getting better organized. Luckily, we’ve got a pretty good opportunity to do just that coming up in 2015 with the federal election. The trick is going to be holding on to some of the momentum from 2015 should a majority government be returned federally, because that will mean almost three years will go by before Ontarians head to the polls for a general election at the federal or provincial levels.
In this context, it really doesn’t matter who our provincial leader is (although I personally hope that Mike Schreiner decides to stay on for the 2018 election – but I would also understand if Mike decides it’s time to turn over the leadership to someone else, with the hopes that a leadership contest could generate some interest in the Party in advance of the 2018 vote). Our focus now has got to turn to organization – something which Green Parties throughout Canada have been challenged to do effectively. 2015 might help – but what we really need is for our engaged members to recruit a few more engaged members and start building healthy, dynamic and publicly accessible Constituency Associations with the goal of having a vibrant and recognized presence in our communities.
We know that organizing isn’t easy. But it can be a lot of fun. And it’s essential that we engage in this activity in our local communities.
The Green Party of Ontario just doesn’t have the luxury of placing our blame on the shoulders of our leader. We’ve got real work to do, and we’d better start doing it – else we ourselves risk experiencing the definition of insanity which so many of us are keen to share with voters as justification for supporting the Green Party: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
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