Back on election night, it looked like Anjali Appadurai might be headed to Parliament.
It was cause for excitement for anyone hoping to see Canada take ambitious, justice-based action on climate change.
Ten years ago, Appadurai, then a youth delegate to the 2011 United Nations climate negotiations, gave a fiery speech that caught the world’s attention (and, arguably, paved the way for Greta Thunberg to do something similar later). In it, she castigated the world’s leaders for having persistently failed to deliver solutions to the worsening crisis that her generation and frontline communities around the world would be left with.
“You’ve been negotiating all my life,” she reminded them. “Get it done!”
In the time since, Appadurai has become a respected climate justice organizer, and she was envisioning becoming part of an emerging “climate caucus” in Parliament that would disrupt the dangerous incrementalist attitude our country’s two dominant parties show towards the crisis. The Canadian chapter of 350.org even endorsed her as a climate champion.
In the end, however, the riding of Vancouver Granville went to Appadurai’s Liberal opponent, who slipped through with a little over 400 more votes.
So, what went wrong for Appadurai? What might those disappointed with the results learn for next time with respect to electing climate leaders?
If that contest had been just a three-way race between substantively different parties — NDP vs. Liberal vs. Conservative — a postmortem might involve a straightforward analysis of differences in campaign strategies, financing, and local media coverage.
But it wasn’t that kind of race. There was another factor: a little over 1,400 votes went to that riding’s Green Party candidate. And that raises a different set of questions.
For instance, what was the point of running a Green candidate in Vancouver Granville? Did Green voters there feel that their candidate offered something significantly different from what Appadurai was offering? Did they believe that, in Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, theirs would be something other than wasted votes that could have otherwise gone towards a viable candidate?
Behind all this looms an even bigger question: Is there much value in continuing to have two parties with similar political beliefs and goals competing over the same segment of electors?
In other words, on what basis, if any, should Canada continue to have both a New Democratic and Green party?
Not big enough for the two of them
Typically, the primary purpose of a Green Party is to bring issues of ecological sustainability into the political mainstream. Alongside that mission are efforts to promote more participatory and local forms of democracy and commitments to nonviolence.
A social democratic party like the NDP, meanwhile, normally exists to bring about a more humane capitalism. Instead of the economy’s surplus being overwhelmingly appropriated by a class of owners and managers, social democrats would invest it in a generous welfare state, publicly providing the goods and services required to secure a broad array of human rights. Alongside that is a concern for promoting unions and laws that can protect workers from the vicissitudes of the global market and ruthless profit-chasing bosses.
There are occasions where those different Green and social democratic programs can conflict and a division into separate parties has clear value. At the provincial level, Rachel Notley’s pro-oil Alberta NDP was one such example, offering a brand of fossil-fuelled social democracy that, in the midst of the climate crisis, cannot be squared with the strong sustainability that a Green Party ideally demands. John Horgan’s B.C. NDP government, with its support for the Coastal GasLink pipeline, might be another example.
But in the case of the federal NDP and Greens, any clear distinction in programs — or even purpose — has become blurred.
For the last couple of elections, the two parties have put forward similarly social democratic platforms supplemented by large roles for government investments in a just, post-carbon transition. While that’s been enough for them to stand apart from the neoliberal parties to their right — the Liberals and Conservatives — it hasn’t sufficed to make them stand out from each other.
In the midst of multiple environmental crises, it’s hard to see much value in this, measured either in terms of strategy or introducing important new ideas about sustainability into the mainstream.
A lesson from the right
At least until the formation of the People’s Party, Canada’s political right had long appreciated the consequences of splitting the voting base in the pursuit of power.
Today's Conservative party is the result of a merger between the populist Reform Party (later the Canadian Alliance) and the Progressive Conservatives, who together came to understand that as long as they were divided they could not pose a viable alternative to the Liberals.
Rather than have two separate parties representing different segments of the same ideology, the finer points of disagreement are hashed out internally within the same party. The Harper years could not have occurred without this conjunction.
That merger model is one possible path forward for the Greens and New Democrats. What a joint “Green Democratic” party could be is a united front asserting a clear, consistent, and viable progressive alternative to the neoliberal politics of our ruling parties. Its ideal form for these times would be one that strongly embraces the ideas of the Green New Deal.
The other model is to leave them as separate parties, but have them represent politics that are actually different — not simply in degrees of ambition but in ideological values.
The advantage here would be to expand the Canadian political spectrum and introduce into our politics important ideas that are absent from it.
Of the two parties, it would make more sense for the NDP to continue holding down the social democratic fort. But the Greens, needing to rebuild after the disastrous results of the last election, would grow into something with a different identity. That would stem from the realization that, in the 21st century, the ecological wisdom and participatory democracy that the party traditionally stands for must entail a different approach to economics than a compromise with capitalism.
There are a couple forms that could take.
A first one would be as a party that challenges the dominant economic orthodoxy of our time: that every economy must be based on endless compound growth. A new Green Party would mainstream the concepts of a just and participatory circular economy, taking cues from the degrowth movement and the “safe and just” framework for eliminating poverty while also living in an environmentally sustainable way, probably most accessible in the pages of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics.
Ecosocialism is the second form a new Green party could take. Some of the groundwork for that was done during the last leadership race, which saw a number of ecosocialist candidates running, including Dmitri Lascaris, who came in second.
Again, the main purpose, particularly so long as Canada remains a first-past-the-post system, would not be electoral success (which the last couple iterations of the Green Party failed to achieve much of anyways). Instead, it would be to play a long game by introducing a current of unrepresented political ideas into the Canadian collective conscience. And it’s a mission that could prevent that new Green Party from running candidates against NDP rivals who embrace strong climate policies in this time of crisis.
No time for needless splits
Anjali Appadurai was not alone that night.
Alejandra Bravo, NDP candidate in the Toronto riding of Davenport, had been endorsed by 350.org Canada as a climate champion. And like Appadurai, Bravo also lost to a Liberal opponent — by just 76 votes, in this case. Meanwhile, that riding’s Green candidate received more than 1,000 votes.
And there is good reason to believe that, without change, this will keep occurring. (There were four other ridings where, if Green voters had instead voted for the NDP candidate endorsed by 350.org, it would have brought that candidate within striking distance of the Liberal winner: Halifax, Laurier—Sainte-Marie, Parkdale—High Park, and West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country.)
The 2021 election needs to be the last where this sort of thing can happen. We do not have the luxury of time for climate leaders to be kept out of Parliament unnecessarily.