Seeing red over the Greens in B.C.

Colby Cosh on the Green party’s effect in B.C.’s election
B.C. NDP Leader Adrian Dix addresses supporters after the Liberal Party was projected to win a majority government in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 14, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The provincial election in British Columbia, with its surprise outcome and its cornucopia of subplots, was a pundit’s delight. There was an explosive failure of public pre-election polling, complete with “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”-level humiliations for local newspapers. (This was bad for pundits, you say? Like hell: Look how much material it gave them.) There was an awkward defeat of a standing premier in her own riding at a moment in which she bestrode the province like Lady Colossus. And there were the complex effects of smaller parties on what was otherwise a two-horse race. Specifically, there was what the B.C. Green party did to the New Democrats. Whatever that was, exactly.

The Greens, who won the Oak Bay-Gordon Head seat behind heavyweight climate scientist Andrew Weaver, deny playing spoiler. No party ever is a “spoiler” from its own selfish standpoint. But all things being equal, most environmentalists, or even just the environmental-ish, would surely have preferred an Adrian Dix-led NDP government to four more years of the Liberals. Did Green voters deliver B.C. into Christy Clark’s hands?

Probably not, but you’d have trouble proving it. As the Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton observed the day after the vote, the NDP suffered more from the Green vote than the Liberals did from the presence of a collapsing Conservative alternative, one mostly concentrated in ridings that weren’t close anyway. The Liberals won 12 ridings in which the combined NDP and Green vote was greater than their own; the New Democrats, by contrast, captured just one in which the combined Liberal-Conservative vote was greater.

Skelton went on to add some reassurance for the Greens, noting that, “In most of the 12 ridings where a vote split occurred, the NDP would have had to have taken a substantial majority of Green votes” in order to win. But there’s one obvious rejoinder to that: The NDP didn’t need to flip 12 Liberal seats to win the election. Since they lost in the seat count 50-33, nine would have been enough. Moreover, the figure of “12 Liberal seats” leaves out the Oak Bay seat Weaver denied to both the NDP and the Liberals; the Liberal incumbent there, Ida Chong, barely finished second.

It is hard to model the hypothetical behaviour of Green voters in an alternative universe with no Green party. It seems quite likely the NDP would have taken Coquitlam-Maillardville, where they were 105 behind the Liberals in the presence of 1,687 Green votes. The Greens probably cost them Surrey-Fleetwood (lost by 265; 1,032 Greens) and Delta North (lost by 302; 1,178 Greens). Throw in analogous totals for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows (681/1,953) and Port Moody-Coquitlam (543/1,527) and suddenly you’re talking about a pretty close election.

You can detect the existence of the Green effect in any number of ways; fancy-schmancy stat models confirm that the mere presence of a Green candidate (they ran in only 61 of 85 ridings) significantly hurt the NDP’s odds of local victory, but that having Conservatives around (they fielded 56) didn’t help them. The true magnitude of the effect is known only to God. But of the 47 ridings that featured both a Conservative and a Green, the NDP won only 10.

It may not be important to you whether the Greens threw the election outright to Clark—with her Satanic plans to frack B.C. into geological oblivion and blight the landscape with natural gas pipes—or merely added to her majority. What certainly matters, inside and outside British Columbia, is that the Greens are moving within range of tilting the ultimate outcomes of large-scale elections. Their days of being a cute mascot for futurist dorks and grumpy vegans would appear to be over.

If the B.C. Greens had won a hundred votes instead of (peeks at spreadsheet) 130,418, it would still be in the NDP’s interest to take back those votes from people who ought to be natural constituents. That means Andrew Weaver can expect years of “Ralph Nader” catcalls and being blamed for every last methane-rich cow fart from the Nicola to Bella Coola. The upshot on the federal scene is not quite so clear, since both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau seem to be consciously avoiding an earth-muffin image. But could either be blamed for putting out word, perhaps explicitly, that a vote for the Greens amounts to a vote for Stephen Harper?