Green machine: Could May play a spoiler role in B.C.?

In B.C. the Green party is not be trifled with. In the debate, the rest of the country got a glimpse why.


(Dillan Cools/Maclean’s)

Much of last night’s debate drama came, surprisingly enough, during an early segment on energy and the environment. And Elizabeth May, the Green leader, was, to no one’s surprise, strongest during the segment, labelling Harper’s climate legacy “a litany of broken promises.”

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who initially appeared as though he’d been slipped a Xanax, finally dropped the awkward smiles and Stilted. Single. Word. Delivery. Quebec’s one-time environment minister, who’d been strangely absent from the earlier debate on the economy, roused himself for the energy debate, injecting a bit of zing into a mostly zen-like performance.

He was clearly trying to position himself as a moderate New Democrat who can be trusted with the keys to 24 Sussex Drive; he called Energy East, the proposed west-east pipeline, a potential “win-win-win,” which could produce a “better price for the producers, more royalties for the producing province” and could “also help create those jobs in Canada.”

But “here’s the rub,” Mulcair added: “Mr. Harper has gotten the balance all wrong. He has scrapped a series of important environmental laws—Navigable Waters Protection Act, Species at Risk, fisheries. Instead of dealing with First Nations on a respectful, nation-to-nation basis, he spends $100 million a year fighting them in court.” It was one of Mulcair’s strongest moments, and marked one of just two—very superficial—mentions of First Nations, both on the topic of resource extraction. (Only Elizabeth May mentioned the recent report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, noting that talk of a response to the report was absent from the debate.)

May, in turn, repeatedly hounded Mulcair over the proposed Kinder Morgan oil pipeline expansion in B.C.’s Burrard Inlet: “I’m still not sure where you stand on Kinder Morgan, because it’s pretty straightforward. They plan to put three times as many tankers moving out of Vancouver, loaded with diluted bitumen.” She was eventually rewarded with a conclusive statement from the NDP leader: “Opposing these pipelines systematically in advance is just as wrong as supporting them,” he said.

Clearly, the NDP had learned a painful lesson from the last B.C. election, which was run by the same trio now heading Mulcair’s campaign: Brian Topp, Anne McGrath and Brad Lavigne. The New Democrat heavyweights had been imported from Ontario to head a campaign that the B.C. NDP appeared certain to win. (It seemed like such a slam dunk that one local paper ran a front-page profile of the NDP leader with the headline: “If this man kicked a dog, he’d still win the election.”)

That is, until the NDP suddenly, and without provocation, reversed course on Kinder Morgan, declaring themselves opposed to B.C.’s “other” pipeline project. The NDP’s “Kinder surprise” is widely seen as one of the primary reasons the party was trounced by Christy Clark’s Liberals; Topp, McGrath and Lavigne were not going to let a second leader die on that mantle.

Navigating environment and energy issues is especially tricky for a leader like Mulcair, who is looking to make big gains in B.C. Both issues are top of mind in different parts of the province. Climate is a big concern in the Lower Mainland and southern coast, where the Greens hope to pick up a second B.C. seat; and the economies in the Interior and North are built around resource extraction. The Greens, meanwhile, have done remarkably well in B.C., where they poll at 21 per cent, just a few points behind the Liberals, at 26 per cent.

Stephen Harper also took a battering from May, who shut down the Prime Minister’s claim that his government had managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously growing the economy: The drop in emissions, which “only occurred in 2008 and ’09,” she noted, came as a result of the global financial crisis. “That’s the only thing that brought down our emissions.”

“The cold, cruel reality is that under your watch, greenhouse gases have been rising, carbon pollution has been rising—as soon as our economy began to recover in 2009—straight up,” she added.

Will May’s performance be enough to grow her seat count? If it’s going to happen it’ll likely be in B.C., where voters are most sympathetic to her message. May drew widespread praise for her performance in last night’s debate. She appeared lawyerly, at ease, able to call out leaders on key facts. She did more than quell criticism that she didn’t belong, and perhaps will have put the fear in the other parties that the Greens could well play a spoiler role in this province.

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