NDP and Greens battle to be the alternative for voters looking for a change


OTTAWA — When 14 former NDP candidates and officials in New Brunswick defected to the Greens on Tuesday, they acted out a switch the Green party hopes more left-leaning voters will make in the upcoming election campaign.

At stake, according to some observers, is the mantle of the left-of-centre, environmentalist alternative to the Liberals, and potentially the balance of power after the October vote.

The competition has been exacerbated by a slide for the NDP in the polls from a peak near the high teens for much of 2017 and 2018, to around 13 per cent today, recent polls suggest. Green support, meanwhile, surged from around 6 per cent at the beginning of the year to about 11 per cent in recent weeks — with strong regional support in Atlantic Canada, B.C. and Quebec.

The NDP had fewer than 200 candidates nominated across the country as of Tuesday. In New Brunswick on the day all those former loyalists walked, the number was zero. The Greens are nearing the 300-mark for candidates nationwide.

On this foundation a narrative has grown that the traditional party of progressivism has already lost a battle with the Liberals and Conservatives to be considered a “main party,” according to Karl Belanger, a former national director of the NDP.

“The problem going into this election is that nobody thinks the NDP is actually contending for power,” Belanger said.

“They are thrown in the same league as the Green party.”

Perhaps the biggest sign of the strength of that idea was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s recent announcement he would not support a Conservative minority government because of leader Andrew Scheer’s position on same-sex marriage. Singh’s promise was also a sign he might be willing to throw his support behind a Liberal minority instead.

Green Leader Elizabeth May, by contrast, has left the door ajar for co-operation with the Conservatives — though on Monday she said she would not support any party, based on their current climate-change plans.

Belanger’s advice on the Greens: ignore them.

“You have to focus on the main prize,” which is presenting a viable alternative to the Liberals, he said. Better to hit the party defending 177 seats than the small party trying to add to its two-member caucus. Plus, the Greens have an aura of non-partisanship, Belanger said.

“It’s pretty hard to go on the offensive against apple pie.”

In an interview, NDP house leader Peter Julian focused his critiques on the “lobbyist parties” — the Liberals and Conservatives — and said of the Greens: “It’s really good another party is also talking about how to address the climate crisis.”

Julian did say he thinks the Greens were hurt by May’s seeming openness to working with a Conservative minority. But he repeatedly brought the message back to the NDP’s own platform, which he said is the only one that responds to what he described as the twin crises of our time: the environment and economic inequality.

The Greens raised a bit more money than the NDP in the most recent quarter, according to filings with Elections Canada, bringing in nearly $1.44 million compared to the NDP’s haul of just over $1.43 million.

But according to an analysis of currently available Elections Canada financial returns conducted by The Canadian Press, there are just a handful of donors (representing about $20,000) who contributed to the NDP in 2017 but who have not done so in 2019 so far, and have instead given to the Greens.

(That analysis only included donors who have contributed $200 or more, with the data for this year drawn from quarterly reports.)

Also, “there is no simple, direct correlation between the NDP vote and the Green vote,” according to Belanger.

One study from June suggested the Greens were drawing support in equal proportion from people who voted for the NDP or Liberals in 2015, and a slightly higher percentage of people who didn’t vote that year said they were now supporting the Greens.

Still, any votes coming from the NDP could have profound effects. Particularly on Vancouver Island, where six of seven seats are held by the NDP, but recent polls have suggested the Greens could make gains in October.

Another high-profile competition between the NDP and Greens has been for candidates.

Several former NDP politicians have run or are already sitting for the Greens: Pierre Nantel, Jean Rousseau and Dennis Drainville in Quebec, and Paul Manly in B.C. And then there’s the mass defection in New Brunswick.

Julian downplayed the importance of these indicators as signals of how his party will fare in the coming election. He argued those factors looked similar before its 2011 breakthrough.

Why the Greens have suddenly captured the interest of Canadians is another question.

“I’m reminded a little bit in this moment when looking at the ‘Green Surge,’ a little bit of Jack Layton’s moment, when the same gregarious fellow who had been saying the same things for many years was suddenly on a tear in the polls,” said Avi Lewis, a journalist and activist who has championed the environmental cause in Canada.

Like Belanger, Lewis framed the issue as more straightforward growth in support for a Green party that has an “ambitious climate plan with significant flaws.”

“I think the dynamic that is most important right now is that we’re seeing three parties make bolder noises on climate than we’ve ever seen before,” he added.

The electoral consequences still matter.

The seats the NDP wins, particularly in Quebec, will be important in determining what climate policy will eventually win out, because “Nobody expects the Green party to suddenly win 100 seats,” Lewis said.

“I think there are many people out there where, if there’s a box on the ballot for ‘Minority government, please’ with Liberals in government and Greens and NDPers holding the balance of power, that might be the most popular option,” Lewis said.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press